Let me tell how the travel and toil of my past could help me serve the people of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. It’s a long story from a full life already, so I’ll just cover a few of the most vivid highlights. This personal journey informs takeaways relating to public policy.
My earliest memories are of growing up in Minneapolis and starting school on the south side at Annunciation. I liked it here, but my father got lured away from Honeywell to take a position in Michigan. Surprisingly, our small-town new school had progressed well beyond my incoming level of math. My mother saved me from having to repeat 3rd grade by home-schooling me over the summer with flash cards to teach multiplication tables. I can identify with contemporary issues over distance learning and remedial education.
In the mid-1980s, having practiced law since the late 1970s, opportunity called me back to the Twin Cities. I served as a Major working on maintenance operations, part of the full-time cadre in a Reserve battalion headquarters based at Fort Snelling. But the chance to take over a retiring attorney’s business in Dearborn, Michigan drew me back to that state in 1987.
In 1990, Desert Storm triggered the mobilization of my Army Reserve unit to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Although my military expertise was supposed to be in logistics, the post looked at my professional background, aptly assigning me to its JAG office.
People tend to forget how lucky we were in that war. But it felt grim enough to get training on notifying next of kin when a service member dies. And it gets under your skin, or did for me, when you’re routinely drafting wills for those about to be deployed to a combat theater.
Not to mention the custodial consequences for children whose primary caregiver got called away from them for who knew how long – perhaps never to return. Many family plans failed when the need for them suddenly became acute. I’d be surprised if there weren’t instances of divorced parents ultimately winning permanent custody out of this; my domestic relations legal work revealed how many judges tended to keep the status quo against challenges trying to change existing arrangements. If a mother went off to war, reluctantly relinquishing custody to the father, he might keep custody when she got back.
Only two soldiers who went through Fort McCoy died after deployment. Still, how many of our soldiers came back intact physically, but with PTSD which wrecked their marriages and careers, sometimes leading to suicide?
I’ll never forget a Captain whose company members had to call her Ma’am. She rightfully arrived on post with swag. But by the time I saw her again for her unit’s out-processing, what happened in the meanwhile had changed her. With a sheepish grimace, she tried to get out of the mandatory parting ceremony. Clearly, she just wanted to fold her folks’ tent and go home. Her truckers had escaped unscathed, but I can scarcely imagine the stress she must have endured from an active Army chain of command obsessed with pulling off the difficult logistics of a complex supply mission.
Then there were the doctors whose solo practices got ruined by their enforced absence. Having spent a couple of near-bankrupt years trying to build up my own little business (Consumer Legal Services), I could identify with their distress. (Unlike our President, I scrambled and sacrificed to ultimately pay off all its bills.) While our post did let some mobilized soldiers go home rather than deploy overseas – saving the family farm and the like got a favorable hearing – the anticipated need for physicians left their plight unresolved. They had to go.
Cases of compassionate discharge came under the jurisdiction of our JAG office. I got involved on the side of recommending mercy for the troops whenever feasible. We even had a conscientious objector from Madison. She got off about as well as she could have hoped. It was probably decisive to have voiced misgivings at the morals of wartime service before she was mobilized. Confined on post for several months as authorities weighed her fate, she escaped with getting busted down four ranks and a less than honorable discharge.
In our free country, service members can take off their uniforms, disclaim any on-the-job obligations while wearing civilian hats, and use off-duty time to demonstrate against the very wars in which they serve. So one January weekend in 1991, I joined an anti-war march in Minneapolis. On another Saturday, I traveled to Rochester to witness Paul Wellstone keynote a rally for peace – lifting my own dog tags to demonstrate the gravity of what was in the offing. And on the cusp of conflict, as Congress pondered how to vote on the resolution which got used to justify our intervention, I flew to Washington. My next two days went to making the rounds lobbying for a diplomatic fix.
Yet none of these interactions became the most salient for me. It got more personal yet. An occasion arose to have me put on that dress uniform I’d gotten dry cleaned in case of a death notification. I remember being pleased to wear it after all. When our JAG leader had to go home incident to his father-in-law’s death, more senior officers on our staff were not immediately reachable. So he asked me to cover the trials of several protesters charged with trespassing at Fort McCoy. We were just there to represent our installation; a Dept. of Justice attorney handled the litigation. This made for a more interesting duty day than hanging out at my shared desk during the slack time between troops coming and going. My sympathies were with the defendants, but the best they could do was use their day in court to express their views. In their acts of civil disobedience, they were admittedly guilty as charged.
I thought about changing out of my uniform between the federal courthouse and the place where a cousin of mine worked at the time. But why bother? Figuring I’d surprise her with a visit when she’d be at work, it was I who got an unwelcome surprise: death-of-kin bad news. It turned out her brother had just killed himself; she had left to join her family. Matt had strictly civilian issues, but that experience, and the funeral which followed, has made military suicides very resonant to me.
Such are the costs of war. Even in its milder manifestations, it’s plenty bad enough. Stories like these help explain why my campaign leaflet features de-funding the Pentagon in the face of far more pressing priorities.
After being released from Desert Storm service, I moved back to the Twin Cities. That led to joining a Grain Exchange Building law practice representing plaintiffs in civil rights and employment law cases. There’s an emotional toll incident to helping people in stressful situations. My first exposure to this came from staffing a suicide crisis line and then representing family law clients back in Michigan.
Instead of broken home relationships, I found myself trying to salvage as much as possible out of broken work relationships. This put me up against some of the best blue-chip law firms in the state – which made for a tough learning curve.
My clientele from various law practice settings consisted of working class, middle class, and low-income people. The latter were folks who qualified for help when I provided government-funded representation for the indigent. My career as an attorney taught me how the law often falls short of its promised protection for those who need it most.
Taking a chance to run for Congress in 1994 ended with my 30% share of the DFL primary in a three-way race. But that also led to a prolonged hiccup in my career. I reluctantly left Minnesota after years of under- and un-employment to start over in the public sector. Along with so many Americans in these difficult days, I have known the hardships of struggling to make ends meet in the face of unexpected job loss.
My main source of income during those years came from the US Postal Service in temporary and seasonal work. I can identify with the hostile management ethos which led to the term “going postal” –and is currently manifested with a Trump appointee at the top who seems determined to degrade service. This is an especially troubling agenda in the run-up to an election depending as never before upon mail-in ballots.
Another reason I again avoided bankruptcy: part-time duty with the Minnesota Army National Guard. I took riot control training at one point. Although never called up for that, it gave me an appreciation of how citizen-soldiers can “man the barricades” in an emergency with more restraint than most police. It’s a rough equivalent to having cops live in the community where they serve; you don’t have as much of an us-against-them mentality.
The prospect of steady work in immigration service lured me away from Minnesota in 1997. I joined the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and its post-911 successor, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). My main activity became interviewing people who sought humanitarian protection in the US.
I had in-my-face exposure to the tragic stories of people seeking refugee status from Africa and other countries all over the world – even parts of Europe. When their narratives weren’t literally true, they would pretty much still reflect what actually did happen to someone they knew (“based on a true story,” if you will). Or the harm they endured directly may not have been quite as bad as they remember. The accounts I heard day in and day out almost always had a ring of emotional truth to them.
That said, the rule of law seems to be the main thing which separates the US from refugee countries of origin. We need to keep it that way. Or better yet, promote the rule of law abroad.
More than any other single issue, immigration has put a strain on our rule of law. Nativists insist on harsh treatment of migrants – to an extent which makes it hard to suppose that racism has nothing to do with it. On the other hand, abolishing ICE is tantamount to declaring open borders – which would trigger a host of problems of its own.
Multiple roles in immigration work took me to Denver, Chicago, Washington, DC, Ghana (West Africa), back to DC, and finally on to Los Angeles – with Chicago-based trips to the Twin Cities area for refugee interviews. But I digress.
And typically so. Even with the stability of working for Uncle Sam over 18-plus years continuously, I wound up dividing that into 9 separate positions. My diagnosis of having an Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity (ADHD) “Disorder” helps explain such roaming.
You could call me a job-jumper. A more charitable view: here you see a “Renaissance man” range of activity for a wide-lens perspective. Others have taken narrower routes to greater heights, but few would be grounded in so many different settings. At times my path spiraled sideways more than upwards, but that’s to be expected from someone with ADHD. At least the hyperactivity piece of it drove me to the gym, keeping me fit for life.
On the upside, geographic and employment instability have enriched the breadth of my perspective and experiences – well beyond the 13 years I spent in the Twin Cites metro area. Yet there’s no area in my residential history which has drawn me in longer than right here.
So in retirement and at a time of pandemic, why not come home to engage in the public-spirited act of running for office? When it looked like the contagion coast was clear enough to do so, I drove cross country to get here.
Soon after my arrival, another tragedy broke out. It was intense to attend the very first rally after George Floyd’s appalling homicide, and the one at our State Capitol the next Sunday. When unable to keep good social distancing and still hear speeches, even in open space below the Capitol, I left demonstrating to others.
That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. I hope this candid sketch helps you evaluate me as a candidate for Congress.
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