by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
On this particular day, Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, was scurrying through the halls of the State Capitol thinking about education issues.
Nienow, who represents most of Chisago and Isanti counties, had his first look at a $15.6 billion Senate education bill, which was presented to the E-12 Division of the Finance Committee. Nienow, a third-term lawmaker, is the ranking Republican on the committee. A committee vote was scheduled this same day.
A supporter of putting more education money on the base rather than on all-day kindergarten, Nienow said, “Let the schools and community decide.”
Nienow’s terms in the Minnesota Legislature have been non-consecutive, twice in the minority and once in the majority. He has gained more visibility this session in his willingness to take on Gov. Mark Dayton regarding Minnesota Vikings stadium funding issues.
He has even been mentioned as a potential Eighth District congressional candidate. “No, I’m not running for Congress. You never say never, but I’m not running for Congress.”
Nienow, in between legislative terms, worked for Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, directing a district office of constituent services. Bachmann recently appeared with Nienow, both supporting one another’s efforts to improve Medicaid payment issues.
Acknowledging his minority status, Nienow said, “We (Republicans) can help.” He has been working with E-12 Division committee chair Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, and Sen. Teri Bonhoff, DFL-Minnetonka, on language for an amendment to the education bill.
Often shedding his suit coat while conducting business on the Minnesota Senate floor, Nienow is not bashful about challenging other lawmakers. “If you would go back and view Senate floor tapes, you would see I talked much less when I was part of the majority than in the minority,” Nienow said.
Gov. Dayton apparently thought Nienow was talking too much, “shooting his mouth off,” the governor said, about his legislation asking for a delay on Minnesota Vikings stadium bonds until sufficient revenues were realized from electronic pull tabs and other revenue sources.
Nienow says financing the Vikings stadium is not the role of government. Nienow opposed the Vikings stadium last session, saying he was working for the best deal for the taxpayers and he also believed that the funding mechanism was not going to work. He said he has been proven correct on both counts.
Where will the money come from to pay for the state’s stadium obligation? “That’s the problem,” Nienow said. “Once, we burn the front money from the Vikings, it comes out of the general fund,” he explained.
Dayton promised this would not happen, Nienow claimed. Nienow said his actions on this issue have elevated discussions. Funds would then come from Health & Human Services, the schools and bridges and roads, Nienow said.
It is incumbent upon the governor to “get engaged” on the Vikings stadium dilemma. “So far, he has been at arm’s length,” Nienow said.
While serving in the minority, Nienow says a legislator’s strongest attribute is “to message and get out there and talk to the people.” He says his legislative style is different serving in the minority than it was serving in the majority.
In the minority, Nienow said he is typically on the defensive, trying to stop what he terms bad legislation.
Nienow used a sports analogy of a hockey game. “You go flying down the ice and you see this guy give a devastating body check into the boards and people go, ‘Ooh, that was a hit.’ Or, a player will raise his stick, poke someone in the eye and people will say that’s dirty and that’s wrong.”
Nienow is energized by playing hard in politics. “We’re down here to win in a debate of ideas and I would hope that the ideas I support prevail,” he said. “I don’t mind the full contact experience but I really try to avoid any cheap shots.”
If someone presents a bad bill with bad policy, Nienow said he will point it out and “will beat it up, but I don’t need to get into the personal, cheap shots.”
During his time in the Legislature, Nienow has radiated to Health & Human Services and education issues. Current legislation authored by Nienow includes: Medicaid overpayments; Second Amendment affirmation; drone privacy protection; Internet password privacy; educational choice scholarships and education general education disparity aid eligibility.
Nienow is not shy in espousing his opinions on controversial legislation. On proposed gun legislation and same-sex marriage bills, Nienow doesn’t believe either will pass this session.
Nienow admits to enjoying his political career and interacting with people. “In politics, on a good day, 40 percent of the people don’t like what you’re doing. If you can get 60 percent on board, you are doing a good job.
“Every question has a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer when it comes to a bill. The population will break it down as to whether it should be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You can’t vote both. There’s no yellow button.”
As citizen Sean Nienow, he said he is a family guy. He and wife Cyndy have seven daughters and one son. Nienow grew up in the Stacy area, attended North Branch schools and the last two years were in Cambridge. Since 1989 when he moved to Cambridge, Nienow has watched the area, “from growing corn to growing houses,” he said.
Nienow keeps in constant contact with his constituents, by personal interaction and by his District 32 Connections newsletter. “If you think I need to know something, don’t assume I know it; send me an email, pick up the phone, or send a letter. I don’t know what I don’t know.”
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]