New West Bank rep faces first day, partisan tension

Erin Ghere

Everyone is a little nervous on the first day of a new job.
But most people don’t have to deal with protesters, reporters and the pressure of hundreds of voters’ expectations on their shoulders. And certainly not all on the first day.
But DFL Rep. Jim Davnie did. The newly elected representative for the West Bank area officially began his job Jan. 3.
As he eased into his new office, new colleagues and his new job on the legislative session’s opening day, Davnie said it felt like the first day of school all over again.
And he should know. He taught middle school and hig school social studies for 11 years before his election to the seat in November. It was vacated by former Rep. Lee Greenfield, a 22-year veteran who retired.
But this time, Davnie said, he feels like a student and a teacher — a position he’s rarely been in.
His nervous yet excited anticipation of the day could not be seen by looking around his pristine and sparsely decorated office. The large movie poster of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” is hard to miss.
Davnie said his father-in-law punctuates every important family moment with a movie poster. The colorful, fun poster was his choice for Davnie.
Yet even with Davnie’s personal touches, the office is still that of a freshman representative: the large, wood desk bare of anything but a 2001 desk calendar still covered in plastic, white business cards that sit untouched in their holder on the edge of the desk and a man with the wrong key to his own office door.
“In addition to the first day jitters, I have the wrong keys to my office,” Davnie exclaimed that morning.
Fortunately, his legislative assistant Barb Moehrle — whom he only met last week — had an extra key.
Moehrle has been helping lawmakers for 26 years, and spent a few moments in the morning advising Davnie on some of the small details of his first day.
Throughout the session, she will aid Davnie and his two closest neighbors, Rep. Dale Swapinski, DFL-Duluth, and Rep. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, another freshman member.

A ceremonial start, with a touch of partisan tension
Little work is done on opening day. It is more ceremonial than anything else.
Davnie’s first official business was to attend a press conference at 9:30 a.m., an introduction for the newest members of the House DFL caucus.
As is common on anyone’s first day, Davnie arrived a few minutes late. He introduced himself to the reporters and, after a few questions directed at House minority leader Tom Pugh, DFL-South St. Paul, Davnie and his colleagues were let go.
This legislative session could prove divisive between the two parties. Even on opening day, the buzz around the State Capitol was about partisan bickering over committee appointments.
DFL leaders said Republicans, who hold the House majority, dismissed an unprecedented number of DFL members’ committee preferences, instead assigning them to committees they had little interest in.
Davnie said the already partisan nature of the session disappointed him. DFL legislators agree that voters are tired of bickering, he said, and simply want the state’s work to get done.
Still, Davnie proved to be one of the lucky ones. He was appointed to two of his three preferred committees.

Juggling work and family
With his campaign priorities in mind, Davnie will serve on the House’s education policy, K-12 education finance, and local government and metro affairs committees. He also requested to be on the environment and natural resources committee but was denied.
Davnie said he wants to focus on funding for special education and English-as-a-second-language programs, as well as combating urban sprawl by addressing affordable housing and alternative transportation.
Two weeks into the session, Davnie had already coauthored two pieces of legislation, one to establish a guidance-counselor-to-student ratio and another to reduce airport noise at night by banning the use of public dollars to purchase tickets for nighttime flights.
But with all this work to be done, Davnie said its hard to be away from the things he loves most: his wife, Cara Letofsky, and Rose, his 6-month-old daughter.
As a stay-at-home dad since his daughter’s birth in July, Davnie said it was heart-wrenching to leave Rose at child care for the first time the day before the session started.
Smiling, he said he hopes there will be some afternoons he can sneak out of the office and pick her up early.
But Rose got to visit her father at work on opening day, when family members are welcome to attend as the representative-elects are sworn in. Along with Rose, Davnie’s wife, brother, niece and daughter arrived for the noon ceremony.
And as he raised his right hand to take his oath of office, Davnie held Rose, in a white dress and purple button-up sweater, in his left arm.
She was one of about 25 children in the House chambers, including those with second-term Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Woodbury, who sits just to the left of Davnie.
Scattered across Slawik’s podium were Sesame Street books and a Digimon coloring book.
Surrounded by green carpet and magnificent white walls leading up to a windowed ceiling covered with snow, Davnie also cast his first vote in the House chambers: for DFL leader Pugh to be House speaker.
But, as expected, Pugh was defeated and Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, was voted back into the position he has held during the past two legislative sessions.
The vote is merely ceremonial.
After all the formalities of the Legislature’s opening day, Davnie returned to his white-walled, clean office — one which will soon be awash with clutter.
Even with the help of Moehrle, his legislative assistant, Davnie joked, “No one person can stop me from cluttering this office.”
That would start on his second day.