Sen. Harrington earns his ‘legislative legs’ on the fly

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

State Senator John Harrington in his senate office -photo by Charles Hallman

A 33-year law enforcement veteran, John Harrington rose through the rank-and-file to become St. Paul’s police chief. He is very familiar with rules and procedures. Now as a first-term Minnesota state senator, Harrington is finding that experience useful at the capital as well.

“I thought the police department had rules, manuals, procedures and history, but this place has got as many rules and as much history as the police department ever did in its best day,” says Harrington. He replaces the retired Mee Moua as District 67 state senator, representing the capital city’s East Side.

During an interview last week in his office at the State Office Building, Harrington said that one of the reasons he chose to run for office was that he wanted to continue some of the initiatives Moua started during her three-term tenure. “I was concerned that the torch for these [issues] would not be picked up and run with,” he said.

Among Harrington’s legislative priorities are closing the achievement gap between Black and White students, domestic violence issues, and restoring voting rights for former offenders. “I’ve only got a few things I’m looking at right now.”

Harrington said he represents an area with a population that is 45 percent people of color. “We have Somali, Latino, Black, Native American and Hmong,” he noted. “I don’t know if we’ve found a way to get all of them actively involved in the [political] process.”

As the Senate’s lone Black, he joins second-term Sen. Patricia Torres Ray (D-Minneapolis) as the only senators of color in the Minnesota Legislature. “She is the only Latina, and I am the only brother in the Senate,” Harrington said smiling.

“She and I have had some good conversations because we both have similar challenges. There is a need for us to speak on behalf of [people of color], whether it’s Latino, Hmong [or] Black people.”

He also joins first-year State Representative Rena Moran (St. Paul) and second-term lawmakers Jeff Hayden and Bobby Champion (Minneapolis) as the state’s only Black legislators. Harrington says that he hasn’t had as much interaction with the three House members simply because he is on the Senate side.

Since being elected, Harrington sometimes feels like James Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Adjusting to the pace of how things get done on the Senate floor as well as learning the rules and procedures “is an interesting challenge,” he noted.  “You are sitting on the [Senate] floor at your desk, and the moment will come, and if you don’t seize that moment right then, it’s gone. It moves much more rapidly than I was prepared for.

“I am trying to learn on the fly on how those rules work: How do I get my voice heard in a fashion that it won’t be ruled out of order? Getting used to the place is part of the challenge.

“I’m getting used to the idea of being a representative of an area instead of an entire city,” said the senator. “Being chief, you were in the front of the line; here I’m just one of many. How do you prioritize the needs of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and then compare them with needs of outstate Minnesota? How do you make all these numbers and priorities work in some systematic way?”

Harrington has been assigned to three Senate committees: education, judiciary and public safety, and local government and elections. “Overall, I feel pretty comfortable with my committee assignments,” he said.

The first-year lawmaker believes that the legislature needs more diversity and wants to help recruit “the next generation” of Black state legislators: “people like myself who never thought about being an elected official. My desire is not to just have four Black legislators, but that that number should be far larger than that.”

Several veteran senators, such as Sen. Terri Bonoff, the DFL assistant caucus leader, “have been very helpful and coaching me along,” said Harrington. “Friends and mentors from both sides of the aisle” have advised him that it will take nearly two years for him to get his “legislative legs” under him.

But Harrington quickly pointed out, “I’m hoping that I can have legislative legs under me by the end of this session. That I will have enough experience to feel like I’m fully engaged in the game and fully understand [enough] to make sure that my voice is heard.

“I think two years is a long time, so I don’t really know how that will work,” the state senator concluded. “This is much more a place where persuasion and relationships are more important.”

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