From private colleges to State Capitol
Last year, with all 134 seats in the Minnesota House of Representatives up for grabs, Democrats managed to upset the former Republican majority, winning 75 seats to their 59.
Among those Democrats were two young new legislators, both of whom attended Minnesota private colleges — Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn of Eden Prairie and Dan Wolgamott of St. Cloud.
We caught up with the duo just as the legislative session was beginning in February, to find out a little about them and how their years in Minnesota private colleges influenced their current political careers.
Private college alums are well represented at the Capitol, and became even more so after the last election; here’s a list of legislators who are alums, with the new ones flagged.
Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL, District 48B (Eden Prairie)
When Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2009, she had no intention of entering politics. Graduating with a degree in Spanish and entrepreneurship during the great recession meant, she says, “a rocky start to my career.” She worked as a school aide in Wisconsin, managed a private tutoring business and then segued into managing the volunteer efforts of two nonprofits. Her final job before winning a seat in the legislature was working in operations and administration for an IT consulting company.
Despite never having run for office before, Kotyza-Witthuhn — like thousands of others across the nation—experienced a compelling call to action after the 2016 elections. “I felt we needed more diverse representation in our government, and that it was critical to have people from all walks of life—every age, gender, race, faith, professional background—in the legislature, where we’re making decisions that affect everyone.”
Her husband, Rory Witthuhn, whom she met at St. Thomas, encouraged her to run for Congress, but Kotyza-Witthuhn decided that was a little ambitious for a first foray into politics. Instead, she ran for the District 48B state representative seat, upsetting longtime incumbent Republican Jenifer Loon.
She did so on a platform that called for investing in early childhood and K-12 education, making health care more affordable and accessible, and passing gun violence prevention legislation.
Kotyza-Witthuhn took on this ambitious agenda and a challenging new job during the same year in which she and her husband started the process of adopting three siblings, ages five and under, through the Minnesota foster care system. “I guess you could say 2018 was a banner year,” she says, in a typically understated fashion.
The week before she was interviewed, Kotyza-Witthuhn had taken her two older children, ages 5 and 3, to the state capitol with her for two days when schools were closed during a cold snap. Unsurprisingly, she is now working with other parents to open an on-site daycare at the capitol for legislators, staff and lobbyists. “We want to make this a more family-friendly place,” she says.
Although Kotyza-Witthuhn didn’t get her political start at the University of St. Thomas, she does credit the school with giving a Sheboygan, Wisconsin, girl a great base for the future. Attending a smaller college allowed her to be involved in many activities, she says, such as the residence hall association, the tutoring mentorship group and the international education center. She also had the opportunity to study abroad twice, in Argentina and Australia. “I so appreciate the well-rounded basis of a liberal arts education and the relationships I was able to build with classmates and professors at St. Thomas,” she says. “I met my husband and my closest friends there, and that support system and network is still a big part of my life today.”
As for the life Kotyza-Witthuhn is living today, it is being played out on a far bigger stage than she ever imagined back in her days as a Tommy. And it isn’t easy balancing an instant family of three children with a demanding new job. Her strong drive to make a difference in Minnesota politics is what keeps her going. “We each have the power to change the community,” she says, “but only if we take the opportunity to stand up and advocate for that.”
Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL, District 14B (St. Cloud)
Unlike his fellow legislative freshmen, Rep. Dan Wolgamott has long known he wanted a career in politics. A high school football player from Elkhorn, Nebraska, he decided to attend Saint John’s University not just for its top-notch Division 3 football program but because when he toured the college, he learned that Barack Obama’s national security adviser was an alumnus. “I knew right then that Saint John’s would be a place I could make the kind of connections and have the sort of experiences I wanted to start my career,” he says.
Once at Saint John’s, Wolgamott wasted no time getting involved in politics, meeting St. Cloud Rep. Larry Hosch and Sen. Carol Clark within weeks of arriving on campus in the fall of 2009. He went on to manage Hosch’s 2010 campaign as a college sophomore. “That exposure and those connections led me to see that local legislative politics is exciting, hard work in which you can make a real difference,” he says.
Wolgamott made a fast impression on the faculty, too, says Matt Lindstrom, the Edward Henry Professor of Political Science and director of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement. As a first-semester freshman, Wolgamott was in Lindstrom’s Introduction to U.S. Politics class. Remembers Lindstrom, “He sat in the front row, and his positive enthusiasm for learning was contagious. He would frequently come to my office to discuss political leaders and headlines of the day. It was clear to me early on that his drive to learn and be civically involved came from his selfless desire to bring people together to get things done.”
Lindstrom took to calling his gung-ho student “Governor,” adding, “But now I am proud to call him Representative.” As for Wolgamott, he credits his college mentor with kick-starting his political career. “Matt Lindstrom left no stone unturned helping me build my network and career. He’s changed my life with his support and with the time he has invested in me.” Lindstrom says he was proud to attend Wolgamott’s swearing-in ceremony in January.
Both men agree the McCarthy Center that Lindstrom directs was a key part of Wolgamott’s Saint John’s experience. The center’s Jackson Fellows and Brandl Scholars programs allowed him to take unpaid summer internships in Senator Al Franken’s Minnesota office and in the Washington, D.C. office of U.S. Congressman Tim Walz.
Working with Walz, now Minnesota’s governor, was “a life-changing experience,” says Wolgamott. “A lot of interns didn’t get to know their Congressperson, but Congressman Walz took the time to talk with me every day, answer my questions and tell me how he was thinking about things,” he says. “After that summer, I knew I wanted to be a politician just like him: with common sense, a good work ethic, down to earth and passionate.”
Now that the two are working together again in the state capital, says Wolgamott, “I have to pinch myself every day. It feels like I’m living a dream.”
The new St. Cloud representative worked hard to get there. His win last fall was the third time he had run for office, after trying for state representative in 2014 (starting his campaign just six months after graduation) and losing a close race for state senate in 2016. “I was pretty heartbroken after losing that senate race,” says Wolgamott. “I don’t think I would have run again if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of the Saint John’s community.
Now that he is in office, the new representative is focusing on two main issues: obtaining state support for local school districts’ special education costs and getting the Northstar commuter rail line completed all the way to St. Cloud. In his off hours he works as a realtor and a high school football coach, and spends time with wife, Nicole (a Bennie whom he met while at Saint John’s) and their two daughters.
As for the future, the enthusiastic politician is happy right where he is today. “I aspire to getting re-elected to my district,” he says. “I really love working in the House. You can strike a good work-life balance while really making a difference.”