From campus to the Capitol building

Reps. Whelan and Christensen, both U alumni, won Legislature seats in 2014.

Representatives Abigail Whelan and Drew Christensen.

Zach Bielinski, Alex Tuthil-Preus

Representatives Abigail Whelan and Drew Christensen.

by Kevin Beckman

Before she started writing bills, Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, had to work past C papers in her political science class.

And Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Burnsville, toiled his way through the political science department’s formidable internship program. 

In 2014, both Gophers were elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, where they serve on the Higher Education Policy and Finance and Education Innovation Policy committees together. Now, as their first terms come to an end, both are running for re-election this election season. 

While they each got something a little different from the University of Minnesota, both said the school helped equip them for careers in the Legislature after graduation.

Christensen and Whelan said attending the University of Minnesota gave them a sense comradery in the Legislature.  

“We’ve both kind of established ourselves as people that other legislators can come to with questions about the University of Minnesota because we’ve had such recent experiences at the U,” Christensen said. “Certainly the U is a passion of mine and Representative Whelan’s.”

Days on the quad

From getting her bachelor’s degree in political science and history to her master’s in public policy, Whelan, 28, said the University encouraged her to consider things from different perspectives and enhanced her drive and motivation. 

“Their incredible emphasis on diversity, in many ways, forced me out of my shell,” Whelan said. “I got to see lots of different sides of things and aspects of things that I hadn’t considered.”

Whelan said during a course on the Supreme Court, political science professor Timothy Johnson encouraged her to develop her writing skills with a bit of tough love. 

“He pushed me and challenged me,” Whelan said. “He gave me a C on one of my first papers, and I was angry. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Overall, I ended up doing well in the class. He forced me to become a better writer.” 

While getting her graduate degree, Whelan served as a teaching and research assistant for Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the University’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the department of political science. 

Jacobs said of the two or three dozen teaching assistants he’s had in his tenure at the University, Whelan was in the “all-pro league.” 

“She was so great the first year. I kind of lobbied her to do it again the second year,” he said. “She became someone I thoroughly relied on. … If I could have hired her permanently, I would have done it.”

For Christensen, who said he always wanted to attend the University, the school taught him how to identify problems that are in the greatest need of solutions.

“I think that’s definitely an approach that I honed at the University of Minnesota — trying to absorb as much information as I can and being able to make a good decision based on the facts and the information that’s available,” Christensen said. 

He said the internship experience he got at the University held special significance for him, particularly the political science internship program, directed by Paul Soper.

“[Drew] was always very engaged in politics during his undergraduate career, exploring a variety of public service careers,” Soper said. “I’m not at all surprised that he pursued a seat in the state Legislature.”

Ombudsman oversight of psych department

Following years of scrutiny and critical reports about the University’s human research practices after the 2004 suicide of research participant Dan Markingson, Whelan co-sponsored a bill mandating state oversight of clinical drug trials in the University’s department of psychiatry. 

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton and requires the state’s Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities to ensure that the psychiatry department’s efforts to protect human subjects comply with federal law and the University’s Institutional Review Board mandates.

“My hope is that it will foster a more open environment at the University,” Whelan said. “Bringing a third party in to kind of help do damage control will ensure that things like what happened to Dan Markingson don’t happen again.” 

Christensen, who voted for the bill, said he’s hopeful the new law will shed light on a department marked by controversy. 

“I’m just hopeful that we can find facts in the situation and hold people accountable that need to be held accountable,” he said.  

Fetal Tissue Research Center 

This past legislative session, Whelan authored a bill that would have withheld $14 million in funds meant for the University’s medical school unless the school established a research center to oversee its use of fetal tissue and agreed to only use fetuses that died of natural causes.

While the bill did not pass committee, Whelan said the measures stemmed from lingering questions about the legality and ethics of the University’s past fetal tissue research, which came under scrutiny after the University denied — allegedly by mistake — and then confirmed that research using aborted fetal tissue occurred at the school.   

“I don’t have a problem with [the research],” Whelan said. “The University is known for great research and breakthroughs. I just want it to be done ethically and within the bounds of the law.”  

Reflections on 2016 legislative session’s end

Whelan and Christensen both expressed disappointment with the end of this year’s session, which saw a lawmakers fail to compromise on a bonding bill and the veto of a tax bill by Gov. Mark Dayton that had been agreed upon by most of the Legislature. 

“It was kind of bittersweet,” Whelan said. “It felt like we did really good work. We passed a tax bill with 89 percent of the legislature voting for it … and [Dayton] pocket vetoed it. … I was frustrated.”

Christensen said he was also unsatisfied about the tax bill. 

“I think that it’s unfair to the college students that [the tax bill] would have helped,” he said. “The tax bill included provisions to help college students and especially college students with student debt.”

Dayton and legislative leaders have been discussing holding a special session in August. 

Christensen and Whelan expressed mixed views on its prospects.

“I’m optimistic,” Christensen said. “I think the governor will understand that it’s the right thing to do for Minnesota. I think there’s real opportunity here for a grand compromise.”

Whelan said her hopes weren’t so high but didn’t discount the possibility. 

“You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” she said. “You never know, but personally I think it’s a slim chance.