Two Elected Officials Share the Trials and Travails of Modern Public Service

Senator Warren Limmer and State Representative Dennis Smith

The Minnesota Constitution, Article IV, Section 8 says: “Each member and officer of the legislature before entering upon his duties shall take an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution of the United States, the constitution of this state, and to discharge faithfully the duties of his office to the best of his judgment and ability.”

In short, support the law, and do your best. What does it mean to “do your best” at the Capitol? How does a citizen arrive at the desire to tackle the arduous task of gaining and keeping supporters, running elections and enduring the daily grind of public life?

A visit with two elected officials provides a brief glimpse into the unique personality and drive required to embrace the business of forging law in today’s political climate. Meet State Sen. Warren Limmer (R-34) and State Rep. Dennis Smith (R-34B).
Sen. Limmer took this oath for the first time in 1989 as a member of the State House. He had graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in federal law enforcement and served as a corrections officer for four years. With a 1:150 officer to felon ratio, it wasn’t the long-term position he anticipated. He settled into real estate and family life in Maple Grove but says, “Even as a kid, I was always interested in politics.”

He describes a home life in which his parents sat down with the family to listen to the news. The kids had to be quiet. “We knew it was important to mom and dad,” he says. The gravity of understanding world events made an impact. For show and tell, while others brought in pets or baseball cards, Limmer shared a news article. “News is a day-by-day record of history,” he says, making sure the relevance of his choice long ago is clear.

It’s not enough to simply comprehend the events of the times, a public official must enact influence and share a vision for a new path. Sen. Limmer has long held the ability to express what’s on his mind. Even at a young age, “My mom would find me talking to strangers in the grocery store,” he says.
When Sen. Limmer was a fifth grader, his class paid a visit to the Capitol, and one of the members on the floor threw a stack of papers up into the air to get members’ attention. “This is the place for me!” a young Limmer immediately realized.

Rep. Smith raised his right hand and uttered the oath in 2014. His path into politics came more directly through a degree in business from North Dakota State University, followed by a law degree from (the then named) William Mitchell College of Law.

Interacting with others was modeled by his father, who talked to customers every day of a 45-year career delivering milk in the bottle. Rep. Smith, too, recognized his stomping ground early. “I dreamed of working in the building across the street since I was a high school student,” he says. On days off from school, he would wander around the hallways of the Capitol. His parents taught the importance of giving back to society, and this was where he saw himself giving back.

Degrees in justice and law helped both men, but inspiration seems to also have come from leaders in the past who set public discourse in a style they seek to emulate.

When asked to identify a great public servant of our time, they both name President Ronald Reagan for what he meant for conservative people. The declaration inspires a passionate discussion about President Reagan’s relationship with former U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill.  
From opposing parties, “Reagan and O’Neill fought like advocates and then put their politics aside and were friends,” says Sen. Limmer. This kind of relationship building, the time it takes and the understanding of others’ perceptions it fosters is held in the discussion as a key ingredient in “getting more done” on the Minnesota floor.

“If we would pause and get to know each other … instead, it’s two warring camps predestined to have conflict,” Sen. Limmer says.

Lack of time for social interaction and restrictions on expenditures, such as sharing meals together, forces legislators to constantly walk a narrow line between getting to know (and understand) their coworkers and making sure there is no appearance of impropriety.

Sen. Limmer and Rep. Smith agree that having strong principles and knowing when to stand strong for what you believe is right while also recognizing when to compromise, is a Reagan-O’Neill trait they admire.

It’s clear the honor of discharging their duties extracts significant sacrifice. “It’s not understood that this is a part-time job,” Rep. Smith says. Only one out of five state legislatures in the U.S. employ legislators full time. Minnesota senators and representatives are called to devote 74 percent of a full-time job and are paid $45,000.

“It’s really full time and much more,” says Rep. Smith. “The building of relationships that Warren talked about takes time.” Meeting with constituents (in 15-minute increments), preparing for legislation, spending time in committee meetings and sessions extends beyond the hours the sun rises and sets.

Arrival in the final quarter of a child’s sports event is common and is often followed by a return to the office until the deep hours of the night. Loss of time with aging parents has real life consequences.
When asked about specific sacrifices Sen. Limmer says, “Don’t ask my wife!” And here lies perhaps the most heart wrenching consequence of the honorable job. “Wives are protective,” Sen. Limmer continues. “They absorb the slings and arrows. We are tough skinned, but they are more affected. Lori [Limmer’s wife] absorbs everything, and she gets ruffled.”

Rep. Smith relays a time when he was excited to have his daughter and son, then 17 and 15, with him on the floor to witness the expected passage of the REAL ID bill on which he was the lead author. During a lunch break, they visited a food truck.  He noticed a group of protesters, loudly voicing opposition to the bill, “using language probably stronger that is needed,” he says.  

Normally, Rep. Smith may have approached them for a direct conversation, personalizing the issue. On this day, he guided his kids to avoid the chaos, in time for his daughter to notice her father’s name on one of the placards. She mentioned seeing his name, he passed it off, she confirmed that, “Yes, Dad, it’s your name!”—he hurried them on.

Good judgement concerning when to address issues directly and when to let them run their course is a daily test of ability. When asked if there was a challenge of the job they could definitely do without, both men are quiet in thought. “Well, I could do without the House,” Sen. Limmer says. Rep. Smith quickly replies, “You stole my line!”

Both men would also like to squeeze in a bit of exercise between meetings, but the available gym equipment is meager; another victim of the desire to limit the appearance of misappropriation of public funds. “I actually like when people approach me when I’m exercising,” says Rep. Smith. “‘Elliptical time’ goes by faster if people are talking.”

Through it all Sen. Limmer and Rep. Smith must still succeed in representing constituents. Both men seek out invigorating debate, not contentious arguing, but true, heated, refining discourse.

“Some colleagues serve their first term and they figure out it’s not for them. For those who do fit, we need you,” says Sen. Limmer. Rep. Smith.

“As long as you are thoughtful and can listen, you are qualified.”