Today is a big day in Dick’s life. I’d like to think it’s because he is the focus of today’s Humans posting. Or maybe because he’ll be watching intently the Republican debate this evening. But more likely, as with many of us, he will be watching, regrettably, the final episode of The Daily Show. According to Dick, “my news sources are primarily the New York Times, and The Daily Show.” Starting tomorrow, he’ll be left with only the New York Times.
Dick has been involved in Minnesota law and politics his entire professional life, first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives at the age of 25, and currently serving in the State Senate as Chair of the Finance Committee. He continues to represent the neighborhood where he grew up – Highland Park.
Together with his parents, and younger sister Cindy and brother Bob, Dick grew up at Mount Zion, attending Highland Park High School, followed by college at Northwestern, and finally law school at William Mitchell. All the while balancing his career in politics with his practice of law, beginning as a public defender for six years, and in more recent years practicing in his small firm in St. Paul.
Let’s start with your career in government, how did that come to be?
I knew I was going to be in law and politics, that was my goal from about the 4th grade on. I wasn’t in Student Council. That felt like play time. My interest was to get involved in the real thing. And I did, beginning freshman year in college.
I went to college at Northwestern, and thought I would end up on the east coast, but I came back here for law school and stayed ever since. I’ve been involved in significant statewide political issues since I was in college. I never thought I’d run for office, but I fell into it early on, by happenstance. That year we didn’t have a House candidate, but a Republican state senator suddenly announced he was going to quit. Then the first term Republican state representative in that district indicated that he was going to run for the Senate, and so I became a candidate for the House. I had just started working as a lawyer on January 1st of that year, and by March I was running.
Have you been reelected ever since?
No, I spent four years in exile. I lost my first reelection campaign, it was a terrible year for Democrats in Minnesota – the ‘78 Republican sweep. But then I came back four years later and defeated the fellow that had defeated me, in an extremely close race. We were separated by 14 votes.
What can you tell me about your father’s family?
My father was raised in Winnipeg, and my grandfather was a civil engineer and worked on the construction of the Panama Canal. So my father and uncle were born in Panama. And when my father was one year old they decided to come back to North America, and settled on Winnipeg.
Years later, my father was in business school on the east coast when the war broke out, and he joined the American Navy, because he had dual citizenship. During the war, my father was second in command of a minesweeper, and they were coming from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater, passing through the Panama Canal. And my father instructed the officer of the day to wake him up in the middle of the night, when they passed by, so he could see the hospital where he was born.
How about your mother’s family?
My mother Bobbie lived her whole life in the Mac Groveland neighborhood, and she was a member of Mount Zion from the day she was born. My mother put together a book about her family history. Her side of the family came to Saint Paul around 1860, they were the Rosenholz family. At Mount Zion, my grandparents were presidents of the Sisterhood and Men’s Club in the 1930s. My grandmother was chairman of the Neighborhood House program. Back when it was the Jewish resettlement house on the west side.
Early on, my father and a family of in-laws from Madison decided to begin a business in small town department stores. So for two years they lived in Boscobel, Wisconsin, until two months after I was born, when they moved back here. But while they were there, they were the only two Jewish families in Boscobel, and until the end of her life my mother kept up with many of her friends from Boscobel, some of whom had moved here.
Did anybody famous come out of your years at Highland Park, other than you in politics?
No, Saint Louis Park got the All-Stars – the Coen Brothers, Tom Friedman, Al Franken. In Saint Paul, we got the baseball players, though none of them were Jewish. Jack Morris was in my brother’s class, and I knew Dave Winfield from high school. I’m still friends with his brother Steve.
What do you remember about your first campaign?
When I started campaigning, the district went from Ford Parkway to Edgcumbe to Snelling to Holly – that’s when I started door knocking. I wanted to feel comfortable, and that precinct was probably 90% Jewish. So I figured everybody was going to either know me, know my family, know my brother and sister, or when I mention my name, will hook on that.
Did you look for a mezuzah when you walked up to the door?
I used to.
And one of the things that was very, very helpful to me, when I started in politics, was that I had a lot of support from the older Jewish generation. There was a fellow named Jake Locke. I don’t know how I got connected with Jake, but he raised a lot of money from his contemporaries, who were all significant Jewish business people. You had mentioned Carl Birnberg and Hank Kristal (Embers founders), they were among them. That was kind of the basis –the Democratic Party obviously was my political base, but my fundraising base was the Jewish community. I’ve gone far beyond that these days. But that was of great help for those first House races, and when I came back after being defeated.
Was your family political?
There was discussion of issues at home, but my parents were not active in politics. For whatever reason I started reading American history as a young kid and it’s still what I love to read. I have memories as a little kid of watching the national conventions. And I remember Harry Truman was in town before an election, and I went with my mother to chase after him. I can’t say it was the issues, though I was really fascinated by the southern civil rights and then a few years later, Vietnam.
A lot my contemporaries became involved in politics because of Vietnam. But I would have been involved in politics – Vietnam or no Vietnam.
Did you take part in protests, were you ever tear gassed?
Actually the only time I’ve ever been tear gassed was once when several of us drove to DC for a big moratorium march, and I was driving someone else’s car, at nighttime, trying to find a friend someplace in DC. Why I’d ever do that, I don’t know. And I got sideswiped, by accident, by a DC police officer, with a sidecar, and so he said ‘follow me to the police station, and we’ll take care of it’. But I got lost, and finally I made it to the police station, and I was directed downstairs, where there were about 20 officers, and all of a sudden I started tearing up. Somebody had dropped a canister in the police station, by accident. Even the police officers were all tear gassed. So that’s the only time.
I’ve actually wondered, how does Judaism impact your life in politics?
It’s kind of interesting, I’ve only wanted to do two things in elected office – be Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which is what I am, or represent the 4th district in Congress. And those chances don’t come up very often. So when (US Representative) Bruce Vento became ill years ago, and he actually passed away before the election, one of the thoughts that went through my mind was that I could work in a more heavily Jewish environment in DC. The House in DC has 35 or 40 Jewish members, and huge numbers of Jewish staffers, but we don’t have a lot in the state capital. We have a handful in each. In the State Senate we have five Jewish members, including Sandy Pappas, Ron Latz, Terri Bonoff, and Jeremy Miller, who is the youngest member of the senate, and a Republican. He’s from a lineage of Jewish scrap merchants and peddlers who went through the upper Midwestern towns. So the business that is owned by his father, and Jeremy works in, is the scrap metal business. But actually Terri and Ron now have larger Jewish constituencies than I have.
Do you get together on issues? Is there a Jewish caucus of sorts?
Not really. There are issues that come up. I’ve authored the Kosher food differential for Sholom a couple of times, in terms of the state reimbursement. So we will talk about issues that might impact the Jewish community. And Sandy always brings hamantaschen to the Senate ‘retirement room’ for Purim.
But we don’t have a Jewish caucus. Interestingly, there is a new member of the House, Jon Applebaum, and his father is Jay Applebaum, who was a couple years behind me in high school and at Mount Zion. So the family migrated over to Minneapolis, and Jon was elected last year.
And the House has a comparable number of Jewish legislators. Michael Paymar, who just left last year, is Jewish. So this is the first time in many years that we don’t have a Jewish member representing that district in the House seat. He succeeded Howard Orenstein, who succeeded me.
And certainly, in a lot that we’ve done over the years, you can see a continuation of what we grew up around. One of the things I still remember is when Rabbi (Bernard) Martin was the Rabbi, when I was bar mitzvahed and confirmed. And for a period of three or four years there as an assistant rabbi at Mount Zion named Jerrold Goldstein. He was among a group of rabbis who organized nationally and went to Saint Augustine, Florida, and was arrested. I still remember when there was a big banner headline in the St. Paul paper – “Saint Paul Rabbi Arrested.” I was very impressed by that, that a Saint Paul rabbi would be arrested in a civil rights demonstration, in the south. So I think a lot of what I grew up around, was infused with what was happening at the synagogue. Things like Rabbi Goldstein.
What do you see as your game plan over the next 5, 10 years – or more?
I don’t know what will happen post the legislature. I would intend to practice law for a few more years.
I had a chance during the first Obama term to be considered for the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. There were about eight names being circulated, and I had significant support nationally, because of what I’ve done here. So I was in the mix. If that had happened, I would have done that. But my consolation prize was that the President appointed me to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. It’s been interesting, and a lot of fun.
Does that passion stem from any talent you have in the arts?
No, I’m fond of saying that I have no discernable talent other than to see how many zeros I can help add to the funding checks. But I grew up in a musical family. My brother Bob plays drums, and my sister Cindy plays jazz piano. My mother played piano, and my father played in dance bands through college. My mother did get me interested as a kid, my extra job was at the Guthrie as an usher and a stagehand, and now I’m on their Board of Directors. I like to say that I’m the first former employee to become a Board member.
So I’m knowledgeable about the arts, and I’d like to think I have a national reputation for some of this stuff.
And the Committee has been a real kick. It’s very heavily New York and LA, with only about eight of us from elsewhere, and we function as a board of advisors to the White House. It runs some great programs, the best I’ve seen anywhere, including the national arts education initiative. In fact, Minnesota is now a Phase 2 participant.
And the membership of the Committee is interesting. We meet about three or four times a year, in Washington, and our next meeting is in September. The President and First Lady wanted to appoint artists, for the first time, so they’ve included people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Forrest Whitaker, Alfre Woodard, Ed Norton. Chuck Close, the artist, is on the committee. Have you seen the Harold and Kumar movies? Well Kumar is now on the committee. He’s a very interesting guy.
And every time we meet, we do something at the White House. I can almost give tours of the East Wing of the White House. One of the things this committee does is to select medalists for the arts and the humanities. We have a dinner the night before, then the ceremony at the White House. So one day we had the meeting and we were walking into the White House, and I was talking to some of the committee members, Ricky Arriola from Miami, and Sarah Jessica. And I said ‘have you been to the library?’, which is basically an amazing history library with a presidential emphasis. So we walk into the library and waiting there by himself was Al Pacino, so we talked to him for a while.
Between those events and invitations to the annual White House Hanukah party, it’s been very exciting. It was prestigious to be asked, and it has worked out great.
Do you have a book in the works, a story about state government?
No. Though many people have suggested that I should write about a couple of the unusual things I’ve done, which are not related to the legislature at all. One was a trip I took to explore the history of the civil rights movement in the South. And the other is from my college days, so it’s kind of old. But I brought Groucho Marx out of retirement.
Back in college I was once reading the The Groucho Letters, and realized that one of the people he talked about was a professor at Northwestern. So I went to his office, and he connected with me with Groucho. And he agreed to come talk at our school.
We hosted Groucho in Chicago for a week. I picked him up at O’Hare, did all sorts of things with him during the week before his talk at the field house on Friday. That talk was the biggest night of my life. I was on stage and got to be his George Fenneman for the night.
And he liked me. As it turned out, his house was a mess, papers all over the place. And he asked if I wanted to come out to help him with his affairs. But I was still finishing school, so I said no. To this day I wonder what would have happened if I had said “sure Groucho”.
People tell me ‘there’s an article there, you gotta write it’.
Would I write a book about the legislature? No. But what I would like to do about the legislature is – there’s a movie there.
Really, what would that be like? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?
No, no. It’s MASH. It’s definitely MASH.
That’s what the legislature is. And I would argue that it’s a better story than the national stuff, like the West Wing, that I found boring. Because in Washington the House and Senate are, in essence, a couple city blocks apart, and they have nothing to do with each other. And the Chief Executive is a mile and a half down the road, whereas in the Minnesota legislature, in the Capital, we are all together in one building. And there is all this interconnection. It would be a great movie.
Wrapping up, do you have a favorite picture in your office?
I guess I would have two. I have a picture of myself with the President in Chicago. It’s an official picture and has the Presidential seal on it. And actually, I also have a certificate appointing me to the Committee, and it’s huge, much bigger than my Supreme Court certificate. Apparently there is a Federal statute that was passed during Washington’s term that says that any Presidential appointment has to be counter signed by the Secretary of State, so both the President and Hillary Clinton have signed mine.
But my other favorite is a picture of me and Groucho outside of Wrigley Field, the time he came up. At one point during that week, he wanted to see the Cubs play. He had been friends with Leo Durocher, who was the manager at the time. So I called the ball park, it was Memorial Day weekend, a double header, and they were playing San Diego. And I said, ‘I wonder if I can get some tickets’. And they said, ‘I’m sorry we’re sold out’. And I said ‘I’m calling on behalf of Groucho Marx, who is in town’. And they said ‘Oh, well of course!’ So they give us a private box between the first and second decks. And during the game, in walks Duke Snider (Hall of Fame LA Dodger), and he introduces himself to Groucho. So I also have the only picture in existence of Groucho Marx and Duke Snider.
So those are my favorite pictures. Even moreso than my picture with Hubert Humphrey.