A FRESH START
For freshman Sen. Gene Dornink, inexperience isn’t keeping him from staying active and getting to work in the Minnesota Senate.
Only a month into the legislative session, Dornink, R-Hayfield, has authored 11 bills and co-authored several others.
And Dornink is paying particular attention to his own district, which encompasses southern Dodge County, the City of Blooming Prairie and most of Freeborn and Mower counties. He has submitted a bill that would complete Austin’s funding request for bonding dollars to help offset the cost of the city’s Wastewater Treatment Facility renovation project.
Besides authoring bills, Dornink keeps busy with several important committees, including agriculture, labor, capital investments and human services licensing policy.
With COVID-19 forcing lawmakers to work remotely in many cases, Dornink struggles to get up to speed. “We’re not getting the training we normally would get,” he said. “We can’t meet the people and the relationships aren’t as good.”
On this particular day, Dornink met up with Sen. Chuck Wiger, D-Maplewood, for the first time to share personal information in a hallway between the state office building and the Capitol while en route to the Senate floor. It has become one of the only ways he can meet fellow senators in a year that is anything but normal.
“I want to know them by face,” Dornink said of meeting other senators.
Dornink said he doesn’t feel cheated by not having a traditional start to his legislative career in light of the pandemic that has crippled the state. “I’m just honored to be here,” he said. “Just go with the flow and be flexible.”
Besides, Dornink says, he’s not “a pomp and circumstance guy” who needs all the pageantry that often comes with the legislative session's start. “I don’t want to be that guy that’s full of himself,” he said. “I want to lead by example. I’m not going to tell you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself,” he added.
As the senators dig into the session, the key priorities for republicans are recovering from COVID-19, keeping life affordable and supporting families. Dornink said recovering from COVID will include reopening schools, protecting seniors, supporting small businesses and reforming emergency powers within the state government.
Another priority that republicans have dug their heels into is balancing the state budget without raising taxes. Dornink said the $1.3 billion shortfall could be resolved with budget cuts and by using budget reserves.
Zoom meetings consume much of Dornink’s day. He meets with lobbyists and concerned citizens over Zoom to learn about the issues facing Minnesotans.
Even when the Senate is in session, Dornink is forced to hang out in a conference room next to the Senate floor, watching the debate over closed-circuit TV. If he needs to vote, he dashes from the conference room onto the Senate floor, pushes a red “no” or green “yes” button and then retrieves back to the conference area.
Dornink is relying on the legislative staff surrounding him to learn as much as he can about the goings-on of the Senate.
“I knew it would be new and a lot to learn,” said Dornink, adding he is committed to doing the best job he possibly can.
His legislative assistant is Mitchell Williamson, who pours over his email correspondence and sorts out what needs the senator’s attention.
“I want him to let me see everything,” Dornink said of his assistant. “It’s fun when someone has a problem and you can fix it for them,” he said, adding the best part of the job is solving problems and serving people.
Dornink is the first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers or solutions to problems. But he vows that he will try to follow through with anything that comes before him. At the very least, he or Williamson plan to respond to any correspondence he receives from residents in his district.
Dornink is one of 10 new freshmen senators, which include three Republicans and seven Democrats. The Senate is controlled by 34 Republicans while there are 31 Democrats and two Independents.
The new senator is anxious to get out into his district to connect with residents. In addition to doing a radio show in Austin, he plans to utilize Fridays for his day back home to meet people.
While Dornink was elected to the office last fall, he vows he won’t forget where he came from or who he represents. “It’s not my office… it’s their office,” he said, adding he doesn’t want to forget the people of the district who sent him to St. Paul to represent them.
Dornink, 58, hopes his life experience will be a great asset to serving in the Senate. He grew up on a farm, has raised a family of 12 children and is a small business owner. He operates rental properties throughout the district. He plans to phase out of the carpentry business he has operated in recent years.
“Life has prepared me for this,” Dornink said confidently.
He is coming into office when the political culture is perhaps the most divisive it has ever been. “I like to kind of stay in the middle,” Dornink said. “You can’t be radical right or radical left. You need to have common sense and be someone that will listen.”
Dornink hopes to serve at least 12 years in the Senate. But he’s keenly aware that the people of the district will ultimately make that decision.
And that’s why he is focused on the people.
“I don’t aspire to be the majority leader,” Dornink said. “I want to do the best I can for the people rather than thinking of me and my aspirations.”
Contact the Senator
Best ways to reach Sen. Gene Dornink:
• Call: 651-296-5240
• Email: email@example.com.