Bigham, Jurgens look back on service in State Legislature
Two state legislators, Senator Karla Bigham (D) and Representative Tony Jurgens (R), bid farewell to their state offices as the year comes to a close. Senator Bigham chose to step away from the state side of politics to work more closely with Washington County residents as a county commissioner. Representative Jurgens was unable to secure the nomination for the newly created Senate District 41a from the Republican Party and has decided to retire from state politics.
Senator Karla Bigham
Senator Karla Bigham started her political career in 2004 as part of the Cottage Grove City Council at age 25.
“I served on the Cottage Grove City Council for two years until the then State Representative Katie Sieben decided to run for State Senate,” explained Bigham. “I ran for House in 2006 and won, I was reelected in 2008. I retired in 2010 and did not seek reelection. I ran in 2014 for the Washington County Board of Commissioners defeating incumbent Autumn Lehkre and stayed there until 2018 when I was elected in a special election to the State Senate.”
Bigham opted to not run for reelection to the Senate in part because of the redistricting but mostly because she wanted to return to the community she has been a part of for so long where she could have a larger local impact.
“Working at the county level is very different from the state level, because the county is an administrative level of government. We deal a lot with the services that are mandated by the state and the federal government. That’s everything from veteran’s services, community corrections, libraries, all those types of services we are responsible for administering. Then the state sets the budget for obviously the whole state, but it’s just not as detailed, if you will, right? You don’t administer really anything from the state legislature. This is a very busy and detailed part of government,” added Bigham.
Bigham also pointed out how the county receives money and has to figure out the rest.
“They give us a big pot of money, and it’s not nearly enough because we have so many unfunded mandates, but they give us the money, and then we have to implement the programs that are mandated to us,” said Bigham. “So, a county budget is about 80 percent mandated spending from Federal and State. We only have 20% discretionary discretion over our county budget. It’s not a lot if you think about it.”
What was it like being a freshman Senator?
“I came in in a special session. Remember that the class that came in in 2016, had already been there for a year together. I obviously was excited to represent the area and really focus in on the items that were a priority to the area. Plus getting to learn another side of government. Coming from local government and the house, I had a good idea what needed to get done and representing what the residents of the area wanted. It was exciting to kind of have that new opportunity to be their voice in the Senate. I think, coming back to it was interesting in the way that things had obviously changed a lot from when I had been there in the house. The players had changed, and just the tenor and tone of politics had changed. So, trying to balance all that out while working on projects like the Hero Center in Cottage Grove, to Hastings City Hall and Highway 316. Plus, projects in South St. Paul. Trying to balance all of that out.”
Those projects that Bigham had mentioned were also on her list of big projects that she was proud she had been a part of.
“The Hero Center will rise to the top of a nine-year legislative career,” said Bigham. “It is so necessary to provide that center for training for our first responders and police that it will probably rise to the top of my legislative career. Hastings City Hall, Highway 316, the Hastings bridge is another one. Wakota bridge is another one, and I think dealing with the contaminated water that 3M polluted. The mitigation, the settlement, prevention of the chemicals being brought into the system will always be there, that’s never going away, I’ll always continue to work on that. But that was a huge team effort.”
Bigham continued, “I would say, getting a lot done as a member of the minority in the Senate has made me proud to be honest, that I was able to push through such a toxic political environment and able to accomplish a structured settlement, and the restoration to competency which will make our communities safer, and treating people that needed help with dignity and respect, making sure they get it. Those are some of the top things that come to mind. I think the other one that comes to mind is making sure that we have peer support and critical incident management for our police officers and firefighters that can’t unsee the stuff that they have seen. I worked closely with the sheriffs and police chiefs for peer support money and programming for our law enforcement. It’s nine years, you know, it’s been a busy nine years, to say the least, and to see the change that has occurred in the political environment is probably a lot of what sticks out to me, in my experience in the legislature as well.”
Bigham expressed how partisan state and local politics have become with elected officials not reaching across the aisle, not working together for the common good. Even in writing bills, pieces that slip in and completely change the bill.
“I know people think that sounds funny, because they’ll be like, ‘Well, Senator Bigham, for five years you were in divided government, you guys pass some stuff. So, what do you mean?’ Well, I mean, that a lot of those decisions have been made by three people. I mean, that think of how much hasn’t gotten done because of obstruction. I think the voters this fall, finally chose how to deal with, or unclog that obstruction and that divided government, and they gave the power to Democrats. All three, the Senate, House, and Governor, all Democrats now in. The voters sent a message that we thought divided government was going to work, but we have so many needs, things aren’t getting done. We’re going with the Democrats, their vision and their goals for Minnesota. I think, not just the division has been just something I have never experienced, and I’m not that kind of person. I work across the aisle, I have always respected the fact that this area sent Representative Jurgens, a Republican, Representative Frankie, a Republican and Senator Bigham, a Democrat, up to the state capital. I work with these people, because that’s who the voters sent me, and that’s what they backed. I wish the sentiment across the legislatures and understanding was that Minnesotans expected us to work together. What they really ultimately received was a lot of obstruction, and division. Let’s see how this goes coming up. They have a lot of expectations to get things done, the Democrats do. And I, for one, believe they will get a lot accomplished on behalf of Minnesota.”
What made Bigham decide to leave the state side of things and return to the county?
“First and foremost, county government has always been where my heart is. Even when I left the county board in 2018, I continued to advocate for counties, educate my colleagues on what counties do, and their important partnership with ours within our state. I feel like I made a big difference in the legislature with that process. It just came down to it that the county is where my heart was. I talked to my family, and it is where I just said, this is where my heart is, that is where I want to be. Then, after looking at the lines and the big geographic change of going up the river valley, and losing a lot of the district that I’ve known and loved… It was difficult, but it just solidified that decision for me to attempt to go back to the county board and thankfully the voters agreed.”
Bigham has decided to make the transition from state to county politics and also transition from her full-time position with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office where she worked in the Child Protection Division for five years. That transition will be helping incoming Senator Judy Seeburger make her transition into the Senate. Bigham says she will help introduce Seeburger to others she will be working with along with bringing her up to speed on some of the items from the communities she will serve. She also has her own introductions to make within the county. New department heads and others have been hired since her last time on the county board.
Bigham also helped explain that for many, working in a state legislator position is technically listed as a part-time job, but it is one that requires full time hours. For her, the income paid to be a Senator was never her only source of income during her nine years.
What does Senator Bigham feel are things that were left on the table that she had hoped to get done?
“That is a whole separate interview,” Bigham said as she laughed. “I am extremely disappointed that we did not get a supplemental budget through when we were sitting on billions of dollars of a surplus. It is disappointing that we couldn’t repeal Social Security taxes and that the bonding bill didn’t get done. But I choose to focus on what was accomplished in my tenure in the Senate. That was the largest middle class tax cut in the state’s history. The bonding projects that enhanced our community, and the policy that made our communities safer. I believe in those things. I’ll leave you with this. When you’re dealing with public policy, the public service, I’ll ask you this. Is your job ever done? No. I think that’s why people want to continue in a role of serving, because there’s always going to be a public policy issue that needs attention and help. That’s why I encourage people to get involved in their communities in some form to help be part of that solution.”
“I will say this, there are a couple things that I think would have made our communities safer, and those things didn’t get done. That is the funding for community corrections. Is it not one of the top ways to get people who are violating off the streets a way to make the streets safer? The second one is fully funding the BCA’s lab requests because of the backlog of rape kits, sexual assault kits, and ballistics and forensic testing people that there isn’t evidence to prove because it’s sitting in the lab, they’re still out doing crimes. So those are the two things that I think the public reading this article to get behind to contact the Senate and the House and let them know to get behind appropriations for these bills, because it will make our community safer. I wish we could have gotten that public safety bill through that had a lot of a lot of good things on and basically just needed a final vote,” Bigham added.
With the DFL controlling all three branches of the state government, some may be concerned about passage of more extremely one-sided bills, Bigham is not one of those concerned.
“With the control in the Senate, you will not see policy that is extreme left or extreme right come out of the legislature and be signed by the Governor,” Bigham said.
Once seated back on the County Board, Bigham hopes to focus on two things to start: a major renovation at the Park Grove Library and how to properly utilize the opioid settlement money to help fight Fentanyl issues in the communities.
Representative Tony Jurgens
Representative Tony Jurgens started his political career quite some time ago helping former legislator Denny McNamara.
“I bumped into Denny walking into church at the same time, so, I introduced myself and told him that he could put one of his signs in my yard and then I offered to help him put signs up,” said Jurgens. “I had an old beater pickup at the time, and I said, I can help with that. So, he took me up on that and from there every two years, I helped put signs up for Denny McNamara. At the same time, I was volunteering for a lot of different boards and commissions, I was on the Cottage Grove Economic Development Authority. I chaired the public works commission, I was on the Washington County Library Board, the finance council at my church, and Knights of Columbus with a lot of different things in both Hastings and Cottage Grove. Over the years, Denny had said to me, ‘sometime when I am ready to retire from this, you should think about running because you have connections in both of the cities that are in the district.’ I always thought sure, someday in the future, I would maybe do that. Well, in 2016, he came to me and said that he was going to retire, and this is the time I should run. I really had not given it a serious thought and it happened pretty quickly because it was coming up on the filing deadline. It was sort of a last-minute decision. I thought sure, why not? Let’s do it. So, I filed and started my campaign late May/early June of 2016 and never looked back after that.”
Jurgens explained what it is like to be a freshman Representative.
“It is very overwhelming,” he said. “The first term really was overwhelming. I’ve heard it described as it is like drinking out of a firehose and that really is true. There is just so much that is going on and you’re trying to figure out how everything works. In the meantime, the halls of the State Office Building and the Capitol are buzzing with thousands of people and people that want 15 minutes of your time. You have 15-minute meetings, going back-to-back-to-back. In between committee hearings, you go from a committee hearing back to your office for an hour, and you have four 15-minute meetings, then you have your next committee hearing. Then you have a floor session. Especially in the initial weeks of a session you are out every night, there’s different organizations that have gatherings that you are expected to attend. So, you’re trying to figure out which one of these can I make it too? Can I make it to all of them for a short period of time? It’s really fun, and it is exciting, but it is crazy busy.”
“I know what Representative-elect Shane Hudella is in for the next few weeks. It is very rewarding, he’s going to love it as I did. But it’s kind of that’s the one thing that I don’t know if you can really prepare yourself for. He is immediately going to get pulled in so many different directions. There is so much that is happening in St. Paul at the Capitol, but you can’t lose sight of the people that you’re there to represent,” added Jurgens.
Has Jurgens reached out to Hudella to offer advice? The two have chatted a little and Jurgens has said he is always willing to help with any questions if he can, but he believes that Hudella will do well figuring out his own way of navigating the Capitol and the processes involved.
What does he feel his biggest accomplishments were in his time in office?
“My biggest accomplishments are actually all the small things,” explained Jurgens. “The times when constituents or a business, when they weren’t getting results from a state agency. Those aren’t the types of accomplishments that generally get noticed publicly. But I know I made a difference. Other things like securing funding for the Hero Center in Cottage Grove and the rebuild of Highway 316 in Hastings are a couple of things that I’m proud of. The Hero Center is a model for law enforcement training centers around the state and they had the funding for the planning and design before I got elected, but they needed almost $10 million from the state to make it a reality. Representative Keith Franke and I were able to get that project included in a bonding bill on our first term to get the Hero Center built. As for Highway 316, MNDoT didn’t have any plans for a rebuild of that road, but we brought attention to the problem, expedited the process, involved the community and got it done.”
Jurgens credits his awesome staff for helping him get the majority of the things done. Either through their hard work or making a phone call, the house staffers were great to work with and he admits, he will miss the wonderful people he met during his time at the Capitol. Jurgens also feels he was lucky to live so close to St. Paul, because he could easily spend a day at the Capitol and still make a community event in the afternoon or evening with a quick drive, unlike his fellow legislators from outstate MN who had to drive 4-6 hours just to get back to their district.
What does Representative Jurgens look at as items left on the table, things he did not see get done as he had hoped?
“My first thought is the elimination of state income tax on all social security benefits” said Jurgens. “We got close this past session, but close does not count. There was an overall agreement on a tax bill that would have included eliminating all state taxes on Social Security. But the overall agreement was just a framework and those that were negotiating the details of that entire bill never got it done before the end of session. I was hoping that the governor would have called a special session at some point during the summer or fall, to let us take that up again, since we got so close to it, but that obviously didn’t happen. I’ll be watching to see if the legislature gets that done. It is interesting though, the governor was on board with eliminating the tax on social security last year. Prior to that he was not, but this past year, he came on board and said he would sign that bill if it made it to his desk. Now with Democratic control in both the House, the Senate and the Governor’s office, he is choosing to use words that are a little bit different. Now it makes it sound like he might be willing to increase the income level before state taxes kick in, but I’m not sure if he still is thinking to completely eliminate it.
“The other thing is funding for the complete replacement of the Hastings Veterans home,” he added. “It is a big price tag, $60 million. That is something that we were working hard on last year and hopeful to get that included either in a bonding bill or with such a large surplus to pay cash for it. Either way, to find the funding to make that a reality. So that’s another thing that I’ll be watching for and hopeful that the Hastings Veteran home gets included, that the funding gets included to completely replace that. Because those Veterans deserve it. The staff out there does a tremendous job with what they have to work with. It’s always cleaned and well maintained. But the buildings are over 100 years old, it wasn’t designed to be a home for veterans. In many cases, there is two to a room and there’s no amenities, it is just a bed in a chair. They deserve better than that and I think that the state can provide that for them.”
What is preventing the various bills from getting passed? Why did the money never come through for the Veterans Home or the Civic Arena?
“It was just time really,” he added. “There were so many the differences between what Democrats wanted to do and what Republicans wanted to do, and so vast, there was no way they could come together on an agreement, and I’m talking an overall budget agreement. It was all tied together. They could have done a bonding bill, we could have done a bonding bill. But that was all part of everything else that didn’t get done. They weren’t going to just do a bonding bill, they were going to say, ‘Okay, well, we have a tax bill here, we have a public safety bill here and education bill, all these other bills that were all tight,’ you weren’t going to get one without the other, it was either all or nothing, and we ended up with mostly nothing from that standpoint.”
What is next for Jurgens? Will he make a return to politics? “No, no, I think that’s all in the past for me, I don’t see a scenario where that would happen.”
Just because he does not see a return to politics in his future, he does look back fondly on his time representing Hastings and Cottage Grove.
“It sounds cliche, but it’s the absolute truth that it has been an honor of a lifetime to represent my district in the House of Representatives. I’ve met hundreds of people that I didn’t know before. Not only do I know them now, but I consider them friends. People that I met through this job that are going to be friends now going forward. I look forward to that, you’re still going to see me around town at events because that’s just what I do. I’ll still be down at the Hastings Rotary Pavilion on Thursday nights and listening to music because my wife and I enjoyed doing that. We did that kind of thing before I was a state representative. I wasn’t showing up to events because I had to because of my job, I show up to events because I enjoy them. And I’ll continue to do that, even when I’m not the state representative anymore. It is just something that I will continue to do and I’m looking forward to maintaining the acquaintances and the friendships that I’ve made in this job.”
After spending time getting to know both of these legislators, it is clear that they have a love of service to their communities. It takes special people to run for public office, especially in such a polarizing society like we have today. Much like local sports officials are also humans, so are our local and regional politicians. Next time you see one, take a moment to chat with them. If you don’t agree with them on political ideals, really talk to them. Don’t yell, just talk, find out things you have in common so you can find ways to talk about ideas that you may not share. You’ll be surprised at what you learn from people like Tony Jurgens and Karla Bigham. Thank you both for your service to community and best of luck on your future endeavors.
Editorial note: These two legislators were instrumental in my development as a reporter. I feel extremely fortunate that I had both Representative Jurgens and Senator Bigham as the legislators that I could go to for state news that affected our communities. Their understanding, support, grace, kindness and respect for this rookie reporter was appreciated far more than I can express. They made sure I had the information I needed especially when I did not know I needed it. That helped me learn and grow as an interviewer and I am forever grateful to both of them for that and even though I know we will stay in contact going forward, I want to wish them nothing but the best in the next chapters of their careers.