Sen. Kent Eken reflects on surprising change from 20 years in Minnesota politics
DFL Sen. Kent Eken decided not to run for reelection in 2022 after two decades serving in the Minnesota House and Senate.
MOORHEAD, Minn. — The long commutes for Sen. Kent Eken to and from the Minnesota Capitol each week are over, for the most part.
Eken, 59, a DFLer originally from Twin Valley, Minnesota, leaves his post at the end of the year after two decades of service as a lawmaker.
That’s a whole lot of time piloting a small plane or driving from his previous home to St. Paul; either a 2-plus hour trip or four hours, depending on the mode of travel and weather.
“It’s both bitter and sweet,” he said in a recent interview.
Eken represented District 2A in the House of Representatives from 2003 to 2013 and District 4 in the state Senate from 2013 until now.
In April 2022, he announced that he would not run for reelection, in part because of an increasingly challenging political climate and the fact that longtime colleague and DFL Rep. Paul Marquart also chose to step away.
“I would guess my phone's not gonna be ringing quite as much as it used to,” Eken said.
He initially planned to resume his teaching career but instead accepted a job that will take him back to St. Paul from time to time.
As political action director for a public labor union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, he’ll work with lawmakers on labor issues.
Eken said he’ll miss meeting with his constituents and working with fellow lawmakers in St. Paul, where he’s made many friends.
The work of ensuring democracy was always difficult and complex, getting bills through committees, both the House and Senate, as well as securing the governor’s signature.
“It's a long, complicated and sometimes messy process, but it's better than any other system out there,” he said.
Still, the time was right to move on for him, his wife Lori and their four children.
“My family was happy with my decision. I'm happy with my decision,” he said.
Won't miss negative campaigns
Another factor in Eken’s decision not to run again was the recent reconfiguration of legislative districts.
Now living near Audubon, he’s still in a new version of District 4 that includes the larger population centers of Moorhead and Detroit Lakes.
But his hometown of Twin Valley in Norman County and his wife’s hometown of Ulen in northern Clay County were both moved into District 1, causing him to lose some home territory.
It was in those areas where his relatives and lifelong friends still live and where he raised most of his campaign funds.
“They were always with me through thick and thin,” he said.
Eken ran a total of eight election campaigns over the years, five in the House and three in the Senate.
Of those, he said, four were “targeted” races, considered as potentially close and possibly determining party control of the Legislature.
That kind of race often draws negative political ads, not necessarily from an opponent but from interests outside the district.
“They're the ones that get the most nasty,” Eken said.
Ranked choice or instant runoff voting would put a damper on the nasty ads, he said, because more third party candidates would be apt to run.
In the case of multiple candidates, a candidate would want to win votes of those who don’t make it past the first round and would be less inclined to get into mud-slinging.
“I think the negativity has really done damage to the integrity of the system,” Eken said.
Finding more common ground
One way Eken said he’s changed in his 20 years as a lawmaker might be surprising.
At a time when many elected officials are digging in their heels on partisan issues more than ever, Eken said he’s become less partisan.
“When you stop listening, you stop learning, and there's no way to reach common ground and compromise, which is what our whole system is based on,” Eken said.
One area in which he’s become less partisan involves regulation.
Too much regulation can backfire, chasing good people out of a profession and driving away good businesses. There are ways, he said, to reduce regulatory burden without compromising safety.
Eken is most proud of his work in long-term care as the ranking minority member on the Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee.
It’s also, however, the source of his biggest regret.
Eken proposed, unsuccessfully, a constitutional amendment to create a dedicated fund for long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities. It would help cover the increasing number of people who will require that kind of care in the future.
To drive home his point, he told the story of when he first began flying a loaner plane into St. Paul on Sunday nights for legislative duty the next morning.
An experienced pilot told him what to do if the plane's engine ever quit — glide to what looks like a place to land, turn on the landing lights, and if you don't like what you see, turn them off again, joked the pilot.
Eken said the same thing is happening with long-term care, with people avoiding the daunting task.
Maybe someday, he said, other lawmakers will take up that torch.
“We're going to have to deal with it eventually,” he said.