So close

Catholic Conference’s Peterson helps OAK get to, but not across, the legislative finish line

With 20-plus years of experience working around the Minnesota legislature, Shawn Peterson has definitely learned to take the long view when advocating serious education reform at the state level, especially in the hard fought battles for school choice.

But even he thought the stars might have aligned this year as the legislature seemed primed to enact the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that woudld allow individuals and businesses to receive a tax credit for donating to charitable entities that award K-12 scholarships to children from income-qualifying families.

Peterson, associate director for public policy at the Minnesota Catholic Conference, is a founder and a key lobbyist at Opportunity for All Kids (OAK), a nascent coalition of advocates for school choice in Minnesota that in 2015 decided to formally mobilize another school choice agenda, even after others had tried and failed. American Experiment’s Mitch Pearlstein, whom Peterson calls “the grandfather of school choice in Minnesota,” is chairman of the organization.

Peterson had the resume and temperament to help assemble the effort. He spent four years earning a double major in Russian Studies and International Affairs at Hamline University as he plotted a career as a counterintelligence officer some 1,105 miles away at the FBI or the State Department in Washington, D.C. Come graduation, however, he fell about 1,101 miles short, landing instead at Minnesota’s State Capitol.

The reason? Love. Peterson met his wife, Susan, during his junior year at Hamline and shelved an already negotiated internship at the FBI. “There was no job in the world worth taking a chance of messing this (relationship) up,” he says now.

In the pre-internet days of 1993, Peterson regularly traveled to the Capitol every Monday morning, where both the House and the Senate would post job openings on bulletin boards outside their HR offices. He eventually scored a job as page for Speaker Steve Swiggum and occupied a desk outside the speaker’s office, where he handled personal legislative projects for the speaker.

“I made $18,500 a year. I thought it was all the money in the world. I had health insurance so it was awesome and I was right in the thick of it. The 17-year Swiggum relationship was a good one, he says, where he learned “there were really good people on both sides of the aisle who were really trying to do the right thing for their constituents.” But it also gave him broad bipartisan experience as he moved up the ranks first as Republican sergeant at arms, chief sergeant at arms, and then bipartisan director of research and constituent services. In 2006, when Governor Tim Pawlenty appointed Swiggum Minnesota’s commissioner of Labor and Industry, Swiggum three days later asked Peterson to be director of research there, where he stayed until 2011.

The OAK coalition saw that its legislation was supported by key legislators in both parties, including Senator Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen. Plus, they were armed with a well-publicized public opinion survey that revealed two-thirds of Minnesotans support this kind of legislation.

But OAK got caught in the political crossfire that also took down the transportation and bonding bills. “We were definitely a huge casualty, from our perspective. I think it just got kind of thrown in there with the end-of-session mess.”

Undaunted, Peterson thinks the good-news lesson from the last session is that there appears to be a legislative appetite for school choice.

“I think we got a lot farther faster than I think we thought we would when we started this,” he says. “We thought this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint, which is expected any time you introduce a big policy change. But sometimes a little bit of luck and prayer and good timing is everything at the legislature.”