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Legislative veterans retire as new generation seeks power

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Sen. Dick Cohen
In this 2015 file photo, Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, speaks during a Senate floor hearing at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

In recent weeks, three stalwart DFL state legislators have announced they’ll call it quits after 2020. They all insist they’re leaving on their own terms.

But they were among a number of veteran Minnesota lawmakers who attracted challengers from within their party seeking a change to the old guard.

As far as seats in the Minnesota Legislature go, the ones held by Sen. Dick Cohen and Reps. Tim Mahoney and Jean Wagenius are as reliably Democratic as they come. Mahoney didn’t even have a general election opponent last year.

Collectively, the trio has held office for more than 33,800 days, a solid 92 years.

Cohen said family and business concerns are why he’ll vacate the seat covering the St. Paul neighborhood seat where he grew up. He dismissed the idea it had to do with his electoral prospects.

“The contest didn’t affect my decision,” Cohen said. “In fact, to the contrary, I was enthused about the election. In the canvassing we had done, I think we had reached upwards of 2,000 doors so far of caucus attendees from the past.”

But Cohen was in for a hard campaign. Former DFL House Majority Leader Erin Murphy is running for the Senate seat after stepping away in 2018 to run for governor.

The dynamic is different on the east end of St. Paul, where Mahoney announced he would retire from the House after 11 terms to “enjoy the next chapter in my life.”

Another Murphy — Hoang Murphy — is after that seat.

“For too long our communities have let other people carry the banner of our self-interest and they carry it poorly,” Murphy said. “It’s time for us to pick up that banner for ourselves and do the best that we can and in the ways that we know how.”

Murphy was born in Vietnam, spent time in a refugee camp and said his path to success began with his foster placement at eight years old. He went on to earn a master’s degree and then worked as a teacher and for the federal education department. He came home to form a nonprofit in a community where ethnic minorities now make up most of the population.

“I think it’s a damn shame that we can see the Capitol dome from the east side but not all of us feel like that we can walk through those doors,” Murphy said. “If elected, I’m taking everybody with me.”

Two candidates have launched bids to replace Minneapolis Rep. Jean Wagenius, who said last week she would step away when her 17th term is done. One wasn’t born and the other was just starting school when Wagenius was first elected in 1986.

In many of the districts, the new crop of candidates is concentrating on issues including climate change, criminal justice and social equity.

First-term DFL Gov. Tim Walz said he won’t be surprised to see further shakeups in other places.

“Certainly on the Democratic side, there is huge engagement and huge desire to get in, so that will probably continue to come and I think legislators understand that is just part of it,” Walz said.

Walz said that renewal is welcomed.

“When I see new folks starting to come in and folks who have wonderful, distinguished careers start thinking about where their next phase is, that’s healthy for the democracy.”

How many fresh faces are sworn in come January 2021 remains to be seen. All 201 legislative seats are up, but the endorsement and primary challenges will go a long way to determining the fate of some incumbents.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is a veteran lawmaker who has two announced challengers. She said she plans to stick it out and compete for a 17th term.

Hausman’s supporters are already getting her reelection campaign off the ground, but she said she’s concentrating on preparing for the upcoming legislative session, particularly a construction projects bill she’ll have a hand in crafting.

“Politics is on one level and then the real work is on another,” Hausman said.

Nonprofit director Cari Ness is one of the DFLers looking to replace Hausman. She’s already snagged an endorsement from an active trades union and has strong ties to the local DFL Party.

Ness, who once worked with MPR’s parent company but no longer has a formal connection, said she respects Hausman and the work she’s done over the years. But Ness said she and her neighbors are “hungry for change.”

“I do think that there is opportunity for someone who is more engaged with the community to step up and really take some new, fresh, enthusiastic energy to the Capitol to tackle the problems we’re facing,” Ness said.