Tomassoni can’t have it both ways with RAMS job

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

If you haven’t heard yet, the duly elected State Senator from the Iron Range, David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), recently announced he would take a job as Executive Director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS) while continuing to serve in the Senate.

RAMS is a public influence group that helps Range cities and schools get funding from state and local sources. Immediately, there was a major backlash throughout St. Paul as Republicans and Democrats alike blasted the rather apparent conflict of interest between being a senator and a person who gets paid a lot of money to get even more money from other senators.

Tomassoni said it was fine; he wouldn’t work during the session or register as a lobbyist. He’d just do “administrative duties.” Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a fellow Iron Ranger whose wife works as Tomassoni’s legislative aide, quickly urged Tomassoni to file for an opinion from the state Campaign Finance Board determining whether the job would be a conflict of interest.

So, last week, the headline here in the Hibbing Daily Tribune and in papers across Minnesota’s Iron Range blared “Good ruling for Tomassoni.”The “ruling” was actually a draft opinion from staff at the state Campaign Finance Board that stated, “A conflict of interest is not created by a legislator’s employment or occupation.” Simply put, *actions* can be conflicts of interest, but holding any particular job isn’t *in itself* a conflict of interest.

A technicality. Nevertheless, Tomassoni got some good headlines, which was the point of that particular exercise. Tamp down the drama; make it look like no big deal.

What Tomassoni didn’t ask the campaign finance board was whether he’d need to register as a lobbyist for completing job duties that, according to his RAMS employment contract, include tasks that are essentially lobbying. Holding meetings. Influencing “political units.” Publishing persuasive mailings. Further, he didn’t ask if it would be a problem that RAMS has taken grants from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board over the years, of which Tomassoni is a board member and chair. He also didn’t approach the Senate Subcommittee on Ethics, even though they’re the most appropriate venue for determining Senate conflicts of interest.

So if taking the job isn’t a conflict of interest, every time Sen. Tomassoni took a vote, attended a meeting or strolled down the halls of the State Capitol, he’d create one. His hope right now is that no one says anything once that starts happening.

Wait, now. Are you sure I’m not just picking on a guy, here? Is this political? Is this partisan? People can have jobs and serve in the legislature.

Sure they can. Just not if their primary purpose is to influence political action for paying clients.

Hold on now. After all, in recent years, former Sen. Ron Dicklich was the RAMS director. Why is it such a big deal that Tomassoni would take that job too?

Well, there are several key differences. First, Ron Dicklich left office before he took that job. Former Sen. Jerry Janezich left office before he took a job as a lobbyist for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU). Former Sen. Doug Johnson (DFL-Cook) left office before he became a lobbyist working for all manner of private interests, including the failed Excelsior Energy power plant and, today, Essar Steel.

The problem is that Tomassoni seeks to serve as a de facto lobbyist without even the courtesy to leave his senate seat first, more than doubling his salary to push around papers and essentially sell the influence the people of the Range gave him. But even more troubling, why are all our senators becoming lobbyists? It’s a political culture of money, influence and closed doors kept away from most hard working Iron Rangers.

It’s hard to find someone close to the situation who thinks this Tomassoni’s new job is a good idea, though some shrug in passive shock. The comments sections of major newspapers in the state — usually viper pits of arguing partisans — seem frighteningly united in scorn, not just for Tomassoni, but for an Iron Range that would allow this.

Sen. Tomassoni, by his comments and actions, believes that you, his constituents, won’t mind that he makes money selling influence while supposedly representing you. He thinks you’re too lazy or afraid to say anything. He thinks it doesn’t matter whether he shows up to work as your senator or as a hired gun. He thinks you’ll support him and vote for him again anyway. He thinks you don’t care.

Well, do you?

Tomassoni should resign and take the job he wants. Then the people of District 6 should find a senator who will put them first.

UPDATE: This story is developing faster than my column deadline allows. New twists and turns suggest Tomassoni’s attempt to pull off this scheme is breaking down.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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