Rep. Bennett enjoys learning, meeting constituents

Published 9:00 am Sunday, April 19, 2015

House District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett sits in her office in between committee meetings Tuesday in St. Paul. — Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

House District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett sits in her office in between committee meetings Tuesday in St. Paul. — Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

ST. PAUL — For Rep. Peggy Bennett, every day is a little bit different.

Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is a former first-grade teacher at Sibley Elementary School. She was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives last fall and was officially sworn in as a representative on Jan. 6. She has since retired from teaching.

During the week, Bennett spends her time at the Minnesota Capitol doing any number of things. She said she gets her schedules at the beginning of the week and toward the beginning of her term, the schedules were reliable, but now they can change at the drop of a hat.

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For example, on Tuesday Bennett was meant to have two committee meetings, one from 10:15 a.m. to noon and another from 12:45 to 2:30 p.m.

However, Bennett ended up having to go to a floor session and a Republican caucus before 11 a.m., when she had an Agriculture Finance Committee huddle — or a meeting of just the Republican members of the committee. Also thrown into the mix was talking with constituents — Katie and Gary Jacobsen of Albert Lea and their grandchildren, 12-year-old Maya and 9-year-old Van of North Mankato — and a meeting with Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt.

“You kind of just have to go with the flow,” Bennett said, adding that it was hard to get used to such a fluctuating schedule because she’s used to structure in the classroom.

When Bennett isn’t in the Capitol, she’s in Albert Lea, catching up with errands. Usually she’s been in the Twin Cities from Monday to Thursday each week and Fridays through Sundays are spent in Albert Lea, but soon she will have to start spending some Fridays and Saturdays at the Capitol as well.

While her cats, Moshie and Kelchi, stay home in Albert Lea, Bennett takes her dog Colter with her. From time to time he stays in her office if Bennett has a meeting or floor session that stays into the evening.

So far, Bennett has said her time at the Capitol has been good, though similar to “jumping into a whirlwind.” She said it has been a lot of learning but she has been enjoying it.

Moving so quickly has been a big hurdle for Bennett. She said she’s still learning the ropes but she works with helpful people who are willing to answer questions for her. She said while it feels like a cram course now, next year will be easier as she’s built more background and understands the processes of committees and floor sessions.

Bennett said her favorite part of being a representative is meeting with constituents and hearing their concerns and ideas. She said she believes the best ideas come from the people at home.

With her mind on her constituents, Bennett is on both education and agriculture committees. She is the vice-chairwoman of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, working alongside Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who is the chairwoman of the committee. Bennett also is part of the Education Finance and Agriculture Finance committees.

Though she knows a lot about education due to her educator background, Bennett said she asked to be on the Agriculture Finance Committee to better serve her constituents, as agriculture is an integral part of Freeborn County and District 27A, she said.

But there are some constants in Bennett’s schedule, she said. Committees are on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, usually; she said not many committees meet on Mondays.

Committees have deadlines for finishing bills, she said, so if a bill isn’t completed during committee, the members must work into the evenings or on Fridays.

Floor sessions can be a bit more unpredictable, Bennett said. Some sessions are just paper-pushing sessions, she said, which are more of a formality. Other times, floor sessions can last for hours, even overnight. So far the longest session Bennett’s had to be in was 6 1/2 hours, though she knows longer sessions are coming up as omnibus bills — or a bill made up of a number of smaller bills compiled together — come to the floor.

Bennett said the biggest thing she’s had to get used to in floor sessions is how much people talk. She said everyone wants to get in all of their points, but she’s used to getting to the point of what she’s saying quickly. However, she said the House floor isn’t very quiet, especially when someone talks for a long time, and smaller side conversations happen often. Bennett said this is also difficult because she likes to focus on what someone is saying if they are talking, but noted it’s hard to stay focused if someone talks for a long time.

While her schedule seems hectic, Bennett said she gets a lot of help from her legislative assistant, Nick Lunneborg, and communications specialist, Andrew Wagner.

Bennett called Lunneborg her right hand and said he takes care of her calendar and scheduling and keeps her organized. While Bennett said she prefers to reply to her own emails, Lunneborg helps sort them for her. Wagner assists Bennett with setting up interviews and sending out press releases.

So far, Bennett has met with many constituents and lobbyists. While walking through the underground tunnels between Capitol buildings, different lobbyists stopped to ask her questions and talk for a minute.

While lobbyists are interested in their own side of an issue, Bennett said they can become good resources for learning more about the issue. She used Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, or GOCRA, as an example.

GOCRA is lobbying to have silencers — which Bennett said should be called suppressors, instead — legalized. She said GOCRA became a good resource to learn more about silencers and hear about both sides of the issue.

Out of it all, one thing Bennett said she dislikes is political game playing.

She likened it to chess. She said sometimes one side tries to get the other to have a bad vote, which she believes can be used for campaigning purposes.

However, she said she’s been very impressed with the caliber of people on both sides of the aisle, as well as the staff.

“It’s been a great experience,” she said.