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Gubernatorial candidate Thissen talks about policies

< days after Minnesotans went to the polls on Nov. 3 to elect a new slate of local officials, one politician, DFL Rep. Paul Thissen, was still hard on the campaign trail.

Speaking to an intimate gathering of Carleton College students and faculty members last Thursday, Thissen (pronounced “T-sun”) discussed his candidacy for governor and fielded questions on policy issues.

Students stopped in on the meet-and-greet session on their way to afternoon classes, settling into armchairs arranged in a circle in Carleton’s Sayles-Hill Lounge as the legislator spoke frankly about the 2010 Minnesota governor’s race.

“Our strategy is very much about being a grassroots effort,” Thissen said.

A self-described “fresh face” in Minnesota politics, Thissen lacks the name recognition of some others in a crowded field of DFL hopefuls. But he is making waves as one of the race’s up-and-coming dark horses.

A Bloomington native, Thissen spent a decade working as a lawyer before being elected in 2002 to represent District 63A (including south Minneapolis and Richfield) in the state House of Representatives. He has chaired the House Health and Human Services Committee since 2007.

With three months remaining before DFL voters will select their party’s candidate in state-wide caucuses, Thissen has already traveled to 73 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. He will soon set off again on a whirlwind 47-hour tour which will take him to nine more counties, said Nathan Coulter, a Thissen campaign staffer and St. Olaf College alum.

Why does Thissen think the governorship is worth such a grueling campaign schedule?

Because the 2010 contest is a “generational election,” he said.

Citing Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, all giants in the history of Minnesota politics, Thissen explained that it’s time for the DFL to break its pattern and look to the future, not only the past, for inspiration.

For Thissen, the future will be one in which “economic security for the middle class” tops the agenda and social policy is given the attention he feels it deserves. Healthcare, education and environmental issues were all widely discussed at the event.

As chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, Thissen is particularly well-versed in the intricacies of health care reform. In a lengthy back-and-forth with students, the candidate explained his plan for making medical care in Minnesota fair and affordable, which includes streamlining the system and providing outcome-based financial incentives to doctors.

“We pay for things we shouldn’t be, and we don’t pay for things we should be,” Thissen said.

It is important that a federal health care proposal is passed in 2009, Thissen said, so that state Democrats are in a good position to move on health care reform next year.

Thissen also voiced his support for increased investment in Minnesota education and for the “next generation” of green technology including geothermal energy and cellulosic ethanol, which is made from plant waste rather than corn.

The Carleton students seated around the candidate did not let him talk about his plans for improved government programs without asking about the state’s shaky finances.

The answer to the state’s budget woes, said Thissen, is “more taxes at the state level and less at the local level.” He called the rash of local tax increases around the state, including Northfield’s recently-proposed property tax hike and proposed utility fee for streetlights, “pretty outrageous.”

Re-evaluating the way the state pays for health care will also be central to ensuring a sound fiscal policy for Minnesota. Health care currently accounts for about a third of the state budget, which makes curbing rising costs “a make-or-break issue,” Thissen said.

Thissen has many more campaign stops to make before he can hope to secure the DFL nomination for governor at the Feb. 2 caucuses. Though he is praised by many as one of the brightest and most effective legislators in St. Paul, most Minnesotans probably haven’t heard of him.

His Northfield visit last week, though, made an impression on many of the Carleton students he met.

David Heifetz, a junior International Relations major, said that he was impressed by any politician who “has the guts” to pursue “politically perilous” issues like education reform.

“He’s up-front about the realities,” said Yoni Blumberg, a Carleton freshman from Maine who knew little about Minnesota politics before attending the Thissen event.

“It’s unrealistic to say that he’ll be able to accomplish all these things without making hard decisions, like raising taxes,” Blumberg said. “His honesty will go a long way.”

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