‘An honor and a privilege’
Dornink shares thoughts on his first legislative session
When Minnesota State Sen. Gene Dornink (R-27) first entered the Senate Chamber at the Minnesota Capitol, he was overwhelmed with the sense of history it represented.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be the voice of the people; you can feel that when you walk in the Senate,” he told the Herald. “There is a weight knowing that you’re voting on behalf of a lot of people. You take it seriously; there’s not a lot of people who have had that privilege to be there.”
But that weight paled in comparison to the task that lay ahead. Like every new legislator in 2021, Dornink took his first oath of office in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which created a disadvantage that previous freshmen legislators did not have to face.
“What was hard for me is I’m a people person,” he said. “It was a big surprise getting adjusted to the Zoom calls and not having people to visit. It was different from what it’s supposed to be.”
“When you can’t talk eye-to-eye, there is that tension and frustration,” he added. “As far as working with and getting to know (DFL senators), it was hard (…) This year was tough because it was a budget year, but with COVID, what we experienced as freshmen is hopefully something we’ll never have to do again. I feel like I didn’t get the experience that I should have or could have, but that’s okay. We go with the hand and circumstances we’re dealt.”
Adding to that was adjusting to a new schedule. Dornink served on the Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy, Labor and Industry Policy, Capital Investment, and Human Services Licensing Policy Committees.
“I knew it was supposed to be busy, but I didn’t know what it meant to be busy,” he said. “Sometimes you have a committee meeting, but then you have to present a bill in another committee, so you couldn’t be there. Sometimes you just can’t do it because of scheduling. Presenting bills in committee through Zoom was difficult.”
“The biggest surprise was when they said there are usually 2-3,000 bills (per session),” he continued. “I did not know that. Only a few hundred actually get heard and passed. That was eye-opening.”
What Dornink realized was that knowing how the process works is different from the actual experience of seeing the process in action. As an example, he cited SF819, a Senate bill to establish a three-year short-call substitute teacher pilot program, of which he was the lead author. State Rep. Patricia Mueller (R-27B) was the lead author on the House version of the bill (HF699).
“When you’re the author of the bill, it’s yours,” Dornink said. “You have to present it, you have to know it. I presented it to the committee, and at first they just laid it over for inclusion in the education bill. But they saw that it was a really good idea, so they pulled it out and I had to re-present it in the education hearing. They passed it right there and I got to present on the floor, which is very intimidating. It’s one thing to sit in the chamber, it’s another to stand up and speak. That was the best experience I had. It’s one thing to sign on with somebody else’s bill, but when it’s your bill, you have the reins and it’s really neat.”
Dornink noted that while there is a degree of partisanship, members of both parties were able to come together to get things done.
“On the floor is when it’s more partisan,” he said. “They call it ‘theater’ and it’s ratcheted up for the media. But when you’re talking in the halls, we can disagree, but still work together. I was pleased with how that worked. We did a lot of good things and a lot of things didn’t get done, but people have to remember that we’re the only split legislative body in the nation. You can’t just get your own way, and that’s what government is – people coming together and coming up with what is hopefully a win-win.”
Dornink said he is ready for the next session. In the meantime, he will be touring the state with the Capital Investment Committee to get an idea of the various projects taking place throughout Minnesota. He hopes to also spend time talking with constituents.
“What I enjoy is this time, when I can go to ribbon cuttings, talk with law enforcement and businesses, and meet with people the best I can,” Dornink said. “I said when I ran that the answers are out here, I just have to be a good listener, and that’s what I try to do. If people want to reach out to me, that’s how I hear what’s important to them, and I’ll always do the best I can to be their voice in the Senate.”