Five years ago, Ben Lien sat in pencil-scratched desks at MSUM as a political science student. On Jan. 8, the 2008 graduate stood behind a much fancier, wooden desk to get sworn in as a freshman member of the state House of Representatives.
Across the domed capitol in the other chamber, five-term state representative and former MSUM adjunct professor Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, simultaneously took the oath of office to become a freshman state senator.
Eken, 49, takes the place of powerful former Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who retired with the most seniority in the upper chamber. Lien, 29, is the first DFLer to represent Moorhead since 1990. He replaces five-term Rep. Morrie Lanning, who declined to run for re-election.
Higher ed agenda
Both men said they are excited to tackle issues of interest to MSUM faculty, staff and students, including a higher education bill which affects tuition rates, the bonding bill which funds construction projects on campus and an increase in the state minimum wage to at least the federal level.
Eken, a teacher and Concordia College graduate, said that in Moorhead, education “is really the economic engine for prosperity.”
“Watching out for greater Minnesota is going to be the same general policy that I am going for,” he said.
As a member of the Senate capital investment committee, Eken plays a role in shaping which renovations or new construction gets funded on college campuses throughout the state. He vows to carry on the tradition of Langseth, chairman of the committee for more than a decade, who directed many millions of dollars to dozens of MSUM and M State projects throughout his tenure.
“(Langseth) set a great example of how to get things done for your district,” Eken said. “He’s a mentor of mine.”
As a member of the House higher education committee, Lien said he plans to “scrutinize” the budgets of MnSCU and the University of Minnesota “making sure that any sacrifices don’t come down on the backs of students – that we’re not going to add to the burden of tuition costs for students.”
He also said he plans to sit down with MnSCU leaders to see which campus construction projects they would like prioritized. Other issues the Moorhead-area legislators plan to address include permanent flood protection and assorted border cities legislation.
Lien credits MSUM for helping to prepare him for the policymaking big leagues.
“It was very instrumental in being able to understand the connection between government, public service and the folks you’re serving – to be focused on the people you’re serving as opposed to personal interests, personal agenda, personal ideology and partisanship,” he said. “I’m really making (this job) about the district.”
MSUM College Republicans “congratulates (Lien) on a great race and we wish him the best this session,” president Anna Wilson said.
Wilson agreed with Lien and Eken’s support for investing in education, but differed with the DFL-controlled legislature on likely the most dominant bill this session – the attempt to raise taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans to fix the state’s deficit.
“We think cutting spending is a necessary part of closing the gap,” Wilson said. “We need to learn to live within our means.”
She also said any increase in the minimum wage might hurt the local economy because “we’d be sending a lot of small businesses across the border to North Dakota.”
Up in his capitol office, Eken’s smartly dressed children waited patiently to eat a late lunch as their father shuffled from appointment to appointment on his frenetic first day as a senator. Eken’s jovial mother-in-law even made the trip from Twin Valley for the occasion. During the swearing-in ceremony, Dan and Phyllis Lien stood behind their son on the House floor, beaming with pride for their son’s achievement.
“It was really special to see it come true,” Dan Lien said.
Phyllis Lien added: “He worked really hard for it and he got it.”
Rep. Lien “will be a fair and strong representative for Moorhead and Oakport,” his mom said.
Checking in with Lien last week at his downtown St. Paul flat, he said he’s been putting in 10 to 11 hour days getting acquainted with the issues and the capitol environment. Other lawmakers, he said, have been great to work with thus far.
“People are really open to having serious conversations and making sure there are common understandings,” he said. “They really want to make things work.”
Editor’s Note: This reporter worked for the DFL during the 2012 election cycle.
BY BRYCE HAUGEN