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THE FINAL CHAPTER

Petersburg, retires, minnesota, owatonna
After decades in politics, Petersburg calls it quits
By
Alex Malm, Contributing Writer

State Rep. John Petersburg walked down the steps from the House Chamber May 20 with a box full of snacks from his desk on the House Floor under his arm, while holding his wife Deb’s hand. 

After 12 years, it was his last time walking down to the Rotunda as a legislator. Earlier this year, he announced he would be retiring, after a four-decade career in politics, including serving on the Claremont School Board years ago. 

While standing in the Capitol Rotunda, reflecting on his career in a building where he spent the last 12 years, Petersburg spoke about how his career in politics began. 

 

School, Church, Then State Politics 

From the 1980s into the 90s, he served on the Claremont School Board, which was in the process of merging with West Concord and Dodge Center, to form what is now known as Triton. 

At the time, there was an urgency to close the West Concord school, due to its age and many issues with the building. He said both Claremont and Dodge Center had the room for more students, and he had the votes to merge them, so he called one. 

At first board members who weren’t running again abstained, so it didn’t get approved. The following year, there was a different outcome. 

One of the things he learned at the time, he said, “was why policy that you do may not always be right at the time, even though it will be right in the future, and why you shouldn’t be worried about if you get voted down or not.” 

Petersburg said he was involved with politics in other ways as well, including spending time with the Minnesota School Board Association where he and others lobbied for various initiatives in the nation’s capital.

He would also go back to school and worked as a church administrator at Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna for more than two decades. 

“If you know church politics, it's politics all the time too,” Petersburg said. 

He explained that unlike in St. Paul, church council votes needed to be unanimous, even down to things like the color of the carpeting. If one person disagrees “everything stops, you go back to ground zero, and start over again.” 

“I tell people I came up to the Capitol because I thought it would be easier and it was,” Petersburg said. 

 

Hwy. 14 Completed 

Petersburg served on the Transportation Committee the whole time he was a legislator. 

“That was really one of my primary goals to finish Highway 14 between Dodge Center and Owatonna, which we were able to get done,” Petersburg said. 

He also served a couple of times on the Tax Committee, where a piece of legislation known as the AG2School Credit was passed. He said essentially, it helps communities considered “ag land heavy” get school building bonds passed. 

He explained when it comes to school levies, the first acre plus the homestead is assessed. Previously, the entire acreage was part of the assessment for school building projects. 

A bill was passed for the state to pay for a percentage of the assessment for the agricultural land, which Petersburg said helped when it came to passing the new high school project in Owatonna. 

“For me, it was one of the areas where the state could actually help with building projects,” Petersburg said. 

During his career in St. Paul, Petersburg was part of both the minority and the majority caucus. 

“It's sometimes easier to be in the minority, but it's more frustrating,” Petersburg said. When in the minority, he added, it's hard to get bills passed, but he would try to get certain things added.

One silver lining: There wasn’t much pressure, he said. 

“When you're in the majority, you actually have to legislate, meaning that you have to put together bills that will be signed into laws, which means you have to put things into bills that you don’t like,” Petersburg said. 

But through building relationships, something he learned from church politics, he felt he was able to get more things passed in omnibus bills while in the minority versus while in the majority. 

 

Forever Legacy 

Petersburg took this reporter to the basement of the Capitol to talk about a piece of legislation that came from a group of sixth graders at Owatonna Middle School. He described it as probably the most fun and insignificant overall.

He explained when the Capitol was closed for remodeling, teachers weren’t able to bring students to St. Paul to learn about it. 

So teachers taught the students about it in the classroom, and then a student discovered the story about six people who died over a century ago when the building was originally built. However, students realized there was no plaque to honor them. 

Petersburg spoke to the students and after a couple of tries, including the students testifying at the Capitol, legislation was passed to have a plaque installed. He then raised the question: “what should the plaque look like.” 

It was ultimately decided to have a statewide competition for all sixth graders across the state to come up with a design. 

After over 50 submissions came forward, a panel was put together to judge the designs. It was decided to put together the two best designs, and Petersburg was “flabbergasted” when he found out the two designs came from St. Mary’s and Owatonna. 

As he noted the plaque will remain there indefinitely for people to see. 

 

Changing Culture 

In the 12 years since Petersburg was elected, there's no doubt the rhetoric of politics on a national stage has changed. 

He said it's been no different in St. Paul. 

“It’s changed drastically, when I first came, we used to debate the issues, and we used to have a lot more statesmanship style discussions around it. Now it's becoming more and more polarized, more and more partisanship,” Petersburg said. 

The last night of passing legislation took place on May 19. With a Sunday, 11:59 p.m., deadline, DFL lawmakers pushed through a 1,000-plus-page bill, with a number of different omnibus bills inside of it. 

There was no debate, which led to yelling from those in the minority. 

“It certainly demonstrates we’ve come so far in how we deal with each other and how partisanship and the goal of the caucus is more important than procedure or anything else,” Petersburg said.

 

“Renew Myself” 

Over the past couple of years, Petersburg has had a tough go of things. 

During the previous biennium session, he lost his wife of 13 years, and then just over a year ago, he remarried. 

“Life is too short and with a new wife that supported me on last year’s journey, it's important for us to kind of get together and do more things,” Petersburg said. 

That, coupled with the negativity in St. Paul, contributed to his decision to retire.

“I’m 72, and it got to the point where things like what happened last night (May 19) are getting tougher and tougher to do, because I truly believe you got to keep a positive attitude, but when you're bombarded with negative stuff like that all the time it's draining, and it's tough,” Petersburg said. 

He’s got projects to complete and wants to do more traveling during the summer, but politics won’t be on his list. 

“For right now, I want to take at least a year off… and kind of just renew myself,”  Petersburg said.

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