Sen. Kupec – freshman year in St. Paul

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

District 4 Senator Rob Kupec talks with teens at STEM Day at the Capitol.

Eighteen months ago, Rob Kupec couldn’t have forecast where he’d be spending the first five months of 2023. Familiar to Moorhead area TV viewers, the genial weatherman was appearing on KVRR-TV every night to predict which way the wind would blow in days to come.

Fast forward to the final days of May. Kupec had just wrapped up his freshman session in the Minnesota Legislature as the senator from District 4. “We adjourned at 10 p.m. May 22 with two hours to spare,” he reports. “I packed up my apartment and my office, met with my assistant, and was home by 4 p.m.

“I went for a walk with my wife, got some sleep and went to work the next morning.”

It was a quiet, welcoming homecoming after his first days representing Clay and Becker counties. One of four DFL freshman in the Senate, he was part of the first DFL “trifecta” in eight years, with Democrats in control of the governorship and both houses of the Legislature.

Kupec was intensely active during his five months in St. Paul. The Moorhead man was the chief author of 74 bills and co-author of 109. He successful reached across the aisle to recruit Republican co-sponsors for most of his measures. Not all made it across to the opposite house, but, he says, “I had a pretty good record – especially for anything that involved my district.”

Among the measures impacting his home territory: funding for Moorhead’s 11th Street underpass project, the new Dilworth Fire Department, and several projects relating to the Moorhead School District, including closing a gap in support for the Career Academy. 

The measure he considers the biggest he carried affects all Minnesotans. The Right to Repair Act started out targeting farm implements, which could be repaired only by technicians authorized by their manufacturer. Its focus shifted, though, after negotiations led to a memo of understanding with the ag corporations that took farm machinery off the table.

“Instead, it shifted to guarantee the right to repair almost everything,” the senator reports, “including phones, laptops, home appliances, even electric wheelchairs. That’s important. When it comes to Apple i Phones, for example, there are only two dealers who could repair them in the entire state, neither of them in Greater Minnesota. You had to mail in your phone and wait. It was just easier to buy a new one. But beginning in 2024, technicians with the right skill set will be able to diagnose and fix them with the right tools and parts available. We’ll have, by far, the most comprehensive Right to Repair rules in the country.”

Right to Repair, he says, was “by far my biggest, heaviest lift bill. We were constantly negotiating with Apple, TechNet and the rest.” (TechNet is a national,network of technology CEOs and senior executives.) “Yet it very much flew under the radar, with the attention on more controversial measures,” including paid family medical leave, codifying the state’s existing abortion rules into law, and of course cannabis. 

Of the latter, he says, “It wasn’t one of my priorities. My approach was, ‘It’s going to happen, so let’s do it correctly’ … especially after THC edibles more or less got snuck into the omnibus bill in the last session.”

Elective office wasn’t high on Kupec’s list of goals until the Clay County DFL organization approached him last year to run for the seat long-time Sen. Kent Eken was leaving. “I’d run for a county legislative spot back in Albany, New York, when I was 29 or 30,” he recounts. “I lost. I ran against an incumbent Democrat and got 25% of the vote.” 

Rob and his wife Deb White moved to Moorhead a few years later, in 2000, when she joined the faculty of Minnesota State University Moorhead as a professor of sociology and criminal justice. He was a stay-at-home dad to their son Quinn for two years before putting his degree in meteorology to work as weatherman at WDAY-TV, first as a fill-in, then on weekends, and finally full-time in 2008. In 2013 he became chief meteorologist at KVRR, a position he held until announcing he would run for office last summer. 

At that point he moved to Heritage Insurance, where he serves as its own chief meteorologist, focusing on forecasts for its crop insurance clients. “I do video forecasts and data analysis,” he explains. “It’s a little like what I’d been doing, but different.” He adds, “It’s rare for an insurance company of this size to have its own meteorologist – possibly unique.”

Kupec enjoys campaigning. “I love door-knocking. My colleagues look at me like, ‘Really?’ I love talking to people. 

“The fun part was when they didn’t realize I was running and just wondered, ‘Why is our weatherman on my doorstep?’ Most people like it when somebody shows up at their door asking their opinions … and then really listens.” Most encounters, he recalls, were pleasant. “Some were not, of course, but those were focused on national politics. Even when you’re running for state office, they wanted to vent. So you listen.”

Rob’s move to St. Paul on New Year’s Day was a smooth one; he simply took over the apartment Sen. Eken had occupied. On Jan. 2, he toured the Capitol. “I’d set foot in it only once before, back in the early 2000s when I chaperoned my son’s sixth grade class on a field trip,” he says. “I’d never been on the floor until now. That early 20th Century over-the-top architecture is amazing. It was like working in a history museum.”

One staffer, Tamara Grady, worked in his office nearby in the Senate Office Building. She had been assigned to his campaign in District 4 and accepted his offer after his election: “I hit the legislative assistant jackpot,” he says now. He also had “the two best interns” from the University of Minnesota.

Reflecting on his experience as a freshman, Rob says the popular view of the deep political chasm separating the two parties isn’t quite the same from inside the chambers. “You look at a lot of votes, and they did break along party lines,” he concedes. “What’s missed is all the negotiations in committees that offer lots of time for the minority party to be heard,” he observes. “I tried to get Republican co-authors on all the bills I sponsored.

“What I did not like was the kind of ‘gotcha’ politics that come out on the floor – the sort of thing where the minority party puts in something that says ‘this does not apply to Clay, Becker and St. Louis counties,’ the counties that are considered swing districts,” he says. “They were just looking for something to run in political ads next year.”

Negative advertising, he says, seldom bothers him personally. “Except the ads with no basis in fact,” he adds, “the ones that said something like I was going to take away people’s health insurance or drugs.”

In the end, Kupec enjoyed his first year as a senator. “It was incredibly busy. It was frustrating at times, but sometimes exhilarating,” he says now, looking back. “I don’t know if it ever felt normal to go to work in the Capitol. As soon as it begins to feel like you’ve got it down, it shifts to another phase.

“There’s always more to learn.”

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