Is there a doctor in the (state) House?

Legislators debate a bill on the house floor.
Legislators debate a bill on the house floor inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Tuesday, May 15, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News File

Is there a doctor in the House?

In Minnesota, there's isn't, at least not yet.

A medical doctor hasn't served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for more than 15 years, but this fall, two physicians are running to represent competitive suburban swing districts. If they're successful, they'll join two physicians serving in the Senate and become part of a rare group of legislator-doctors who've served in the state Legislature.

Since the 1970s, there have only been seven medical doctors who have served in either the House or Senate.

"You think really hard during the day, you have to make really tough decisions, if you make one mistake you could cost someone their life," said Alice Mann, a doctor who was on call from the clinic and taking a break from knocking on doors in her run for office. "That's an enormous amount of stress, and for a lot of people, that is enough."

Mann, a Democrat, is running for a House seat that covers part of Burnsville and Lakeville that is currently held by Republican Rep. Roz Peterson. She's also a family practice physician at Northfield Hospital Lakeville Family Health Clinic.

She's wanted to be a doctor all her life, attending medical school in Nashville, Tenn., before completing a family practice residency at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wis. She's also traveled the world volunteering at rural clinics in places like Zimbabwe, Brazil and Mali.

But she never thought about getting involved in politics until two recent trips working at a Syrian refugee camp in Greece and helping with recovery efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. "I'd never seen so much human suffering in my life," she said. Those experiences, coupled with Donald Trump's election in 2016, pushed her to run for a seat in the state House.

Kelly Morrison has been a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist in Minneapolis for the last 16 years, but now she's running as a Democrat for a House seat in the western suburbs, currently held by Republican Rep. Cindy Pugh. Morrison said she's always been interested in politics, but she was also "galvanized" by the last election.

"I think by training as a physician, I'm a listener, I primarily listen to people's stories and concerns, and we could use more of that in politics, a lot less talking over each other and more talking to each other," she said. She also thinks the Legislature needs to approach things with a more scientific method, like a physician, instead of starting with an opinion-based approach.

"We need to find the best available information so that we can make evidence-based, fact-driven policy," she said.

But for so many doctors, there are the emotional as well as financial constraints that keep them from pursuing a career in politics. A student who graduated from medical school in 2017 had a median debt of $195,000, according to a survey by the Association of Medical Colleges.

Minnesota legislators make $45,000 per year. Mann knows that if she wins this fall, she will have to figure out how to serve in St. Paul and maintain her medical career. "I can't pay back my student loans on a legislator's salary," she said.

The biggest single challenge could be finding the time. Technically serving as a legislator is a part-time job — they're only in session half of the year — but doctors often work late shifts, and they are always one phone call or page away from an emergency at the hospital.

Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, was one of two doctors elected to the state Legislature in the 2016 election, the first physicians to serve in the chamber in 25 years. During session, Klein works the Thursday 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift at Hennepin Healthcare. That's more flexible than most doctor's schedules, he admits, but even that was challenging to maintain as a legislator, which can also have unpredictable, late-night hours.

"A lot of these shenanigans that happen at the Capitol, these 24- hour marathons, they are able to happen because a lot of these other legislators, particularly in leadership, don't have other jobs," Klein said. "There have been times when it's been stressful, there were votes scheduled and votes coming up where I had to figure out, what am I going to do here?"

But the Capitol was designed to have a citizen Legislature with "a foothold in the real world," Klein said, and there were times when he prioritized his hospital work over votes. He also thinks doctors bring a valuable real-world experience to the Capitol.

Republican Sen. Scott Jenson, R-Chaska, is a family practice doctor who runs his own clinic and recently opened a second. He was also elected in 2016 and admits he's found the political experience "underwhelming so far," particularly the "game playing" that happens in politics.

He said his experience in the clinic has made him more willing to work across the aisle on health care issues. It even came up in the gun debate this year: He joined DFL colleagues in supporting a proposal that would require background checks for all gun sales and transfers not between family members, as well as another bill to require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.

"The last thing I want to talk to a patient about is that they are going to die from the disease I diagnosed them with, but I have to, I have no choice," Jensen said. "If we have people dying in restaurants, and movie theaters and in churches and at concerts, we don't get to say no because it might be filled with potential political pitfalls, and because some lobbying group might be mad at us."

He's also found being both a doctor and a legislator challenging. On many occasions, he's had to rush to the Senate for votes, only to have floor sessions delayed for several hours.

He's had to field calls from a patient dying from cancer in the Senate retiring room while debates go on outside. "I'm sure that at times it causes ... me to be a little intolerant of the silliness."

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