State Sen. Melisa Franzen was recovering from a C-section just days earlier, but it was the first day of the legislative session, and she was determined to be sworn into her second term in person with newborn son Arthur in her arms.
“That day was really hard to orchestrate,” Franzen said. “I was so tired and in pain, but it was just an important day for me to be here with my family because we worked together on that. I gave up time from my family to go door knock when I was pregnant.”
Franzen, a 36-year-old DFLer from Edina, and her husband, Nathan, have two boys under 5. She knew on that day in early January when she took another oath of office that “we’re signing up for this for four more years.”
The young parents who serve in Minnesota’s Legislature juggle family commitments and child care arrangements with the long and unpredictable hours, not to mention the constant political pressures, of working at the Capitol. Turnover among more youthful state lawmakers has been heavy in recent years, but those still there say they’re driven by wanting the perspective of working parents to be part of debates on things like school funding and child care costs.
Minnesota lawmakers earn relatively low pay, are often required to stay for floor debates and votes that stretch past midnight, and are frequently summoned for last-minute meetings. Many weekends bring meetings with constituents or must-attend political events. It’s a factor as to why the average age of members of the Minnesota Senate is nearly 60, and the average age of House members is 52.
The struggle is even more acute for those who represent far-flung districts and must travel to St. Paul every week during session.
“It’s very difficult to leave on Monday mornings,” said state Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona. But it’s “absolutely awesome to come home on Thursday evenings. When I open the door, the boys come running to me.”
Miller, 34, and wife Janel have three boys, a 5-year-old and 3-year-old twins. Like many legislators who live outside the Twin Cities, he rents an apartment in St. Paul during the session, which typically runs just short of six months in odd-numbered years and two to three months in even-numbered years. The rest of the year typically requires regular trips back to St. Paul even after the session adjourns.
“As a rural legislator, there are times where it becomes very lonely,” Miller said. “I go back to my apartment and I’m used to my house with my wife and kids. I’m here by myself. There’s nothing on the wall. I have a bed and a couch, no cable, no internet. It’s basically just a place to sleep.”
Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, and his wife, Amanda, became parents for the first time less than three months ago. Since then, Metsa has spent considerable time on the road, driving three hours each way to help his wife with their new baby, Josiah.
“It definitely is a game-changer in planning and scheduling,” the 37-year-old Metsa said, adding that it means “a little less sleep and a little more work.”
Aside from the constant travel between the Capitol and his home in recent weeks, being gone during his infant son’s milestones weighs heavy. “When they’re giggling for the first time and you’re not there to see that, it’s kind of hard to deal with,” he said.
Metsa said he and his wife have struggled to find infant child care in their rural district. With few providers and long waiting lists, “that’ll be a hurdle in the coming months,” he said.
There are other considerations for aspiring legislators, or even those mulling re-election, said state Rep. Anna Wills, R-Rosemount.
Wills gave birth to twins Shalom and Solomon a week before the start of the current legislative session. Her oldest is not yet 2. She said she and husband Rob delayed starting their family.
“We waited a couple of years longer before we had our first,” Wills said. “Once I had a term under my belt, I felt a little more comfortable with the work of being a legislator.”
Because her twins are so young, Wills brings them to work often so she can nurse. Like many moms, she is both nursing and bottle feeding. On a recent weekday, Shalom was particularly fussy and spent the day with Wills at the Capitol.
“As we get into the last couple of weeks here, with the longer days, I will have them with me pretty much full-time,” she said.
Unlike the Senate, the House is far more family friendly, legislators said. Children are allowed on the House floor, whereas in the Senate, with older members and more stodgy traditions, it’s frowned upon.
State Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, is thinking about pushing for more relaxed rules on the Senate floor. The former House member said he had an easier time caring for his kids when he was a state representative. Isaacson said his children were welcome in the reserved room for members off the House floor. That’s not the case with a similar room off the Senate floor.
“The Senate just doesn’t allow for that kind of flexibility,” he said.
Isaacson and wife Cynthia have three kids: Iver, 3, Owen, 2, and Esme, 8 months. With help from family and friends, the two working parents managed to piece together a child care system.
During long floor sessions, Isaacson and his wife live-stream debates so the kids can see their father giving speeches. She records the kids watching and shares the videos with Isaacson.
For all the time spent away from their kids, legislators said they hope to impart lessons of the value of public service, leadership and giving back to communities.
“For me, one of the most powerful moments is when my daughter is on my lap, right on the House floor,” said state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park. “She gets to see her mommy, making decisions and being a leader.”
Flanagan’s daughter, Siobhan, is still mystified by mom’s workplace. Fellow legislators or legislative staffers are quick to offer treats to the 4-year-old.
“She thinks I work in a castle, and that people give me candy all day,” Flanagan said.
Ricardo Lopez • 651-925-5044