By Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
John Kriesel said his biggest fear as a state representative is being pegged as a typical politician.
With one year in the Minnesota House and a possible re-election bid later this year, Kriesel — for better or worse politically — in many ways has proven himself to be anything but a conventional legislator.
“I don’t want to fit the stereotypical politician mold,” the Cottage Grove Republican said in a recent interview. “I’m pretty regular.”
Kriesel is in only his second year of elected office, and yet the combination of a compelling life story, surprising electoral success and a few key positions as a lawmaker has already made him a prominent politician who has attracted more publicity than some legislators get in an entire career.
Kriesel’s quick rise to relevance suggests to some that his political options are wide open and to others that he is not representing his south Washington County district.
“He’s got a huge upside,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, a House Republican colleague and friend who said Kriesel quickly earned the respect of other lawmakers. “This is a guy who can do whatever he wants.”
Others think he hasn’t done enough to best serve his constituents. With the exception of a few major votes, Kriesel has voted with his Republican caucus on nearly all key issues.
“I think that he is out of touch with the district he represents,” said Jen Peterson, the Cottage Grove City Council member who carried the DFL Party’s endorsement in the 2010 race against Kriesel.
Many Cottage Grove-area residents were familiar with Kriesel’s background when he campaigned for the open House District 57A seat in 2010: He was a self-described “misguided knucklehead” who enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard. Later, during a 2006 Iraqi deployment, his military Humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED), leaving him critically injured. He survived, but without his legs. Now 30, he walks with the help of high-tech prosthetic legs and a black cane.
That unusual path to his seat in the back of the ornate House chamber was cause for more attention when he was sworn into office in January 2011, after squeaking out a narrow upset victory in a district long considered a Democratic stronghold. The news cameras that sought him out in the opening days of last year’s legislative session would be the first of many pointed in Kriesel’s direction.
As he starts the second half of his two-year term, Kriesel has a short list of individual legislative accomplishments. He was successful last year in passing a state ban on synthetic marijuana, a chemically altered drug that was legal to purchase and a budding hit with teens.
The ban was sought by law enforcement in Cottage Grove, Hastings and elsewhere, but Kriesel wasn’t the initial House bill sponsor. That was fellow GOP Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings, but he gave the bill to Kriesel after McNamara received a committee chairmanship that would require much of his time. The synthetic pot bill may have been a legislative slam dunk: it’s tough for lawmakers to vote against a drug ban lobbied for by police. With little difficulty, the bill was passed and became law. Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, pushed the bill in the Senate.
That measure created new penalties in state law, but on a number of issues Kriesel has demonstrated a libertarian streak, a hands-off approach so long as an activity in question is not harming people.
“I don’t think the government should be telling people how to live their lives,” he said.
That same belief is behind his push for more gambling in Minnesota. Last year he got attention when he backed a bill that would convert the financially troubled Block E in downtown Minneapolis into a casino and hotel, but the proposal languished.
Those measures are not what Kriesel is most known for in his short Capitol tenure. That belongs to an unrelated bill passed against his strong objections one day after his synthetic marijuana ban was signed into law.
Kriesel rarely spoke on the floor of the House during the 2011 legislative session, but he stood May 21 to deliver a six-minute impassioned speech against a proposed state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Kriesel was one of two House Republicans to vote against the measure, which passed.
That speech and vote dramatically increased Kriesel’s visibility. He has been widely quoted in coverage of the issue and drew further attention when he signed on as board member of a group working to defeat the amendment.
Kriesel said he appreciates the attention, but does not seek it.
“I don’t do anything for notoriety,” he said. “I would just as soon fly under the radar.”
That hasn’t happened. Politics in Minnesota, a leading online publication for political insiders, named Kriesel its politician of the year for 2011. Lavender Magazine, a publication tailored to the Twin Cities gay community, named Kriesel its person of the year for 2011 for his stance on the marriage amendment.
Kriesel drew national campaign donations in 2010, and some of his recent recognition has come from beyond Minnesota as well. Governing Magazine, a national publication covering state and local policy issues, last month put Kriesel on its list of 10 legislators from across the country to watch in 2012.
“These are people who have shown a keen ability to strike alliances across party lines,” the magazine noted. “They’ve racked up significant accomplishments during their time in office so far. And each of these lawmakers has an intensely compelling personal story that informs the way he or she governs.”
As a board member of Minnesotans United for All Families, Kriesel said he is “willing to do anything” to help defeat the marriage amendment this fall. He has spoken at the group’s events and may help send messages to supporters as the ballot measure nears, said Richard Carlbom, the group’s campaign manager.
Also, Carlbom said, Kriesel’s House floor speech against the amendment likely will be part of the group’s campaign.
“We’re going to use it in some way,” Carlbom said.
Still, Kriesel is drawing a delicate line on his anti-amendment advocacy.
“That’s not my most important thing,” he said, claiming he did not think about the gay marriage issue before he was elected, even though it’s been a leading social issue at the Capitol for several years.
Kriesel has said he plans to run for re-election, but said in an interview he will not discuss the highly controversial marriage amendment — or his opposition to it — with constituents as he goes door to door this summer and fall, unless they ask him about it.
“I don’t feel very comfortable mixing the business of the two,” he said.
If people following politics haven’t learned of Kriesel through traditional sources, they likely have noticed his presence on an increasingly influential and politically valuable medium: Twitter.
On the social-networking service, Kriesel mixes the business of politics with his love for sports, beer and food; 140-character commentaries on family life; and musings about his favorite spot outside Minnesota: Las Vegas. He cracks jokes — targeting everyone from influential social conservatives angry at his marriage amendment position to a poor-performing Minnesota Vikings receiver — engages in locker-room-casual political debate, deconstructs an NFL team’s plays and reports on his family’s TV show preferences. (He’s married with two grade school-aged sons.)
“I sort of live by the mantra, take your job seriously but I’m not going to take myself seriously,” Kriesel said.
His Twitter following is extensive. At 5,000 followers, Kriesel has far more people tracking his tweets than does any other state legislator, said Garofalo, another prolific Twitter user.
“What that means is that people want to know what he thinks. He’s seen as a thought leader. He’s a trendsetter,” said Garofalo, R-Farmington. “Ultimately it’s a measure of (political) street cred. People for various reasons want to follow him.”
Kriesel said Twitter is an online sounding board for him. He gauges support for issues based on the feedback he gets to his tweets, but adds that he doesn’t “set anything in stone” based on Twitter comments.
“It’s a pretty good cross-section of Minnesotans,” he said of those with whom he connects on Twitter.
Kriesel’s connection with his hometown city leadership is different.
Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said to his knowledge Kriesel has not reached out to city leaders or sought their input on any legislation during his term in the House. In fairness, Bailey added, the city has not asked anything specific of Kriesel in the past year.
Still, Bailey said the city has a closer relationship with Sieben and even McNamara, whose district includes only part of Cottage Grove.
Many of the area’s elected officials were on hand last fall when the city broke ground on its city hall and public safety building, Cottage Grove’s largest-ever municipal project. Kriesel was invited, Bailey said, but did not attend.
Kriesel said he plans to campaign for another term this fall by telling constituents he is doing his best to represent them. He said no one is going to be happy with every vote he takes.
“I went into this saying I was willing to work with both sides,” he said of Republicans and Democrats, “and I followed through on that.”
If he’s on the ballot this fall, Kriesel’s record will be the subject of Democrats’ criticism, but it’s unclear who might challenge him. District 57 Democratic leaders have said at least one person was planning to challenge Kriesel — if they are still in the same legislative boundary after a Feb. 21 redistricting decision — but nobody has filed papers to raise and spend money on a campaign against him.
Kriesel dismisses speculation he may be shooting for higher political office in the future, such as a congressional bid or even the U.S. Senate.
“I’ll never rule it out,” he said. “It’s not something I think about.”
Regardless, he has developed a growing network of influential politicos. He once worked in former Sen. Norm Coleman’s office and is friends with Ed Goeas, a leading national Republican pollster. Kriesel got campaign help from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2010, and Kriesel backed Pawlenty’s GOP presidential bid last year. The two chat every once in a while, Kriesel said. (He said Pawlenty called him with kind words on the fifth anniversary of Kriesel’s combat injury.)
Pawlenty’s autobiography is among mementos in Kriesel’s office on the fourth floor of the State Office Building in St. Paul. Other items include Kriesel’s own book, “Still Standing,” an autographed Vikings helmet, family pictures, a photo of him with his military buddies and his framed Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Kriesel’s friendship with Goeas already has proven beneficial to him. The two apparently met by chance in early 2010 in Phoenix. Kriesel’s family was on a vacation; Goeas and his family were staying at the same hotel. They had dinner and struck up a friendship, Goeas said.
With deep-pocketed GOP connections, Goeas and others held a Washington, D.C. fundraiser for Kriesel later that year. It drew donations from former Bush administration officials Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, among other influential Republicans.
“We ended up raising a pretty good chunk of money,” Goeas said in an interview. “It was all kind of based on this is a great guy who deserves our support.”
In addition to helping to raise money, Goeas said he talked through Kriesel’s campaign with him, discussing the importance of reflecting the values of the “blue-collar district” and the importance of campaigning door to door.
The first-time candidate built a solid core of supporters.
“It always impressed me that he would get a group of volunteers (for a parade) that was much more at a congressional level than a state rep level,” said Goeas, who is president of the Tarrance Group, a firm that conducts polling for Republican congressional and presidential candidates.
Kriesel’s willingness to be open to solutions regardless of party affiliation could take him far, Goeas said.
“I think he potentially could go very far,” he said. “Someday I’d love to see him run for Congress.”
As the 2012 legislative session gets under way, Kriesel plans to push a couple of proposals that could land him back in the spotlight. In addition to a number of bills he has authored to expand gambling, he has introduced a measure to allow a greater variety of fireworks to be used and sold in Minnesota.
Kriesel said that would help stop the flow of Minnesotans into Wisconsin to purchase fireworks. People are using them anyway, so they should be legalized, he said.
“It sounded like Fallujah — Cottage Grove did,” he said of his neighborhood on July 4 last year.
Kriesel said his legislation — which doesn’t yet have a Senate companion — would allow cities to have tougher ordinances, and would prohibit some large explosive devices.
“You won’t be able to make IEDs,” he joked.
Another bill that could draw attention would change terms of a little-known but constitutionally protected measure that prevents lawmakers from being arrested for certain crimes during a legislative session. After they are sworn in, lawmakers are given a so-called “get out of jail free” card to carry with them.
“I thought it was a joke,” Kriesel said, pulling his card out from his wallet, where he keeps it alongside his frequent dry cleaner card.
Kriesel’s proposal would classify drunken driving as a crime that is not protected by the card. The idea was brought to him by a group of students.
“We shouldn’t be above any law,” he said.
Additionally, Kriesel could get further involved in helping to pass a Vikings stadium bill this session. He served on a Vikings stadium working group during the interim and is a big proponent of using proceeds from expanded gambling to cover the public cost of a new football stadium.
Kriesel said he has no problem advocating for bills dealing with a Vikings stadium, gambling, fireworks or other non-budget issues because those are the topics people write to him about.
“Those are issues that regular people care about,” he said, “and I’m a regular person.”