Wrestling Matt

It’s a bitterly cold Tuesday evening in mid-January, the kind of subzero, dangerously low windchill night when Minnesotans are apt to crank up the boiler and hunker down in front of “American Idol” and “Law & Order,” so it’s a little surprising to find more than fifty constituents gathered in the living room of a foursquare house in St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood for a pre-legislative session chat with state Sen. Dick Cohen and House Minority Leader Matt Entenza.

For the first hour or so, Entenza, who, at six-foot-five, towers over his fellow DFLer, defers to Cohen in the give-and-take. There are questions about property taxes—the state’s formula for limiting increases is going to expire in a couple of years and in some older cities, property taxes could rise by as much as twenty to twenty-five percent—health insurance, the budget, education, conceal-and-carry, and gay marriage. But when a young constituent, a former Paul Wellstone student at Carleton College, launches into a Howard Dean-like critique of Democrats for talking too much about what can’t be accomplished rather than what can be achieved, Entenza steps to the fore.

Speaking with the pinched vowels of his hometown of Worthington, Entenza (the name is Catalonian) is relaxed, collected, and articulate: what you’d expect from an old high school debater. He’s no Wellstone—too low-key for that—but in this season of growing liberal discontent and swelling fury at George W. Bush, his message this evening is a hit with the crowd.

In media appearances, Entenza tends to come across with a lawyerly air (he is an attorney by training): a man who thinks the truth is so obvious that anyone who disagrees with him is either disingenuous or dim. But in a one-on-one setting like this, he seems more reflective than righteous, picking and choosing his words methodically. In fact, “methodical” is probably the best way to describe him, an approach he honed as a white-collar prosecutor combing through the dry barrens of financial documentation and tax filings to nab scam artists. It’s a praxis he has also applied as a legislative watchdog in unsexy but nevertheless critical areas like charter school accountability. Entenza is one of those rare figures who combines a high level of idealism with the tenacity to master the details of issues that are superficially boring yet have a huge bearing on the commonweal. He is capable of speaking in sound bites, and can put a sarcastic edge to his comments when he’s talking about things he doesn’t like—Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota Taxpayers League—but for the most part, he refrains from rhetorical flourishes.

Unlike the Republicans and Governor Pawlenty who, Entenza declares, retail nothing but fear and the message that “all that Minnesotans can do is buy a gun and hole up inside a moat,” the DFL stands for the “Minnesota way” of doing things, helping build community and making sure the most vulnerable of the state’s residents “don’t get shortchanged just so the members of the Minnesota Taxpayers League can save money on their taxes.”

“One of the things that distinguished Minnesota was that there used to be consensus that there would be an opportunity for everyone to climb up,” Entenza says. “Now that consensus has been challenged and they are pulling out the rungs on the ladder. We plan to change that.”

In the House, the DFL is down by fourteen seats. But Minnesota is known for sudden seismic shifts in the political landscape. Twice in the past fifteen years there have been double-digit swings in House membership following an election. Riding a wave of anti-Bush sentiment, it is conceivable that the DFL could retake the House. If so, Entenza would most likely end up speaker of the House, making him the second most powerful person in state government after Tim Pawlenty, a man with whom he has clashed with growing frequency since Pawlenty was elected governor.

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