Who The Folk?! Bonnie Westlin

Bonnie Westlin had long been an attendee at her Senate District conventions, but attending this year, she was offered an intriguing opportunity: Run for the State Senate instead. Westlin is the DFL candidate in Senate District 34 (covering Maple Grove, Osseo, Dayton, Rogers) where she will be challenging Assistant Minority Leader Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) in what has been a traditionally Republican district. Find out why Westlin is hopeful that she can flip this seat, why she has a “Godfather” poster in her office and more in this week’s Who The Folk?!

What got you interested in running for office?

I went to my first precinct caucus in 1980 when I was 17. It was for extra credit for social studies, and I kind of got bit by the bug. I was fascinated by the process. I was fascinated by people getting involved to change things. I think I’ve always had it in my mind that I was going to run for office.

What interests you about running for office?

I think what interests me about politics is the same thing that led me to law as well: this idea of wanting to help people, wanting to make a difference, and having an impact on people in a positive way.

Why run this year?

It was an interesting opportunity this year. Nobody was running against Warren Limmer. I went to my Senate district convention with the intention that I was going to be elected as a delegate to the state convention. Sen. (Ann) Rest came to the convention and said they had to one to run against Warren Limmer, we really would like someone to run against him, and we will help you. I thought about it: My son’s older, I’ve had my practice for 12 years now, my life’s a little more settled. Maybe this is the year.

I thought about it, and this isn’t an opportunity that had presented itself before. I’ve always lived in fairly blue districts where you get elected and stay there for a long time, and then there’s 20 people in line to run. It was the coming together of my availability and the opportunity.

I think this year in particular, there are opportunities in my district and in others to pick up seats due to the unique nature of this election. If I’m not successful this year, I’m going to run again in 4 years. There are openings. I think people are upset at the general tenor of our politics. We have to be able to listen to alternative viewpoints.  We’ve become so intellectually ghettoized that we can’t tolerate listening to others’ opinions. It happens on the left too. No one’s hands are clean. You have people who won’t compromise at all. This year things have gotten so ugly and so nasty. People at the top are driving that. That’s why we need different people.

How have you found people responding to your views on bi-partisanship and tolerance of others’ views?

You may end up at a door where you find a Republican voter. We’re not intentionally seeking them out because they probably aren’t going to switch anyway, but I ended up having a 15- or 20-minute conversation with someone on a flashpoint topic. It was a very respectful conversation; I heard his viewpoints, he heard my viewpoints, and neither one of us was going to change the other’s mind. We shook hands and walked away. I’m 99 percent sure he won’t vote for me. I’m hoping that what I left him with was that even though we might disagree, that I’m not a disagreeable person. A lot of problems are so complicated and interconnected. There are ultimate things that people are this or that. There are things related to the issues that we may be able to agree on. Where should we be putting our effort, on the wedge issue that pushes us apart or the issue that draws us together? Democrats and Republicans come to problems with different world views, but it’s not because someone is evil. That’s where it breaks down. I’m not going to say I’ve always been the adult in the room on that, but I think when you find yourself running for office you find yourself viewing things a little bit differently than when you’re not.

What are the issues you’re most passionate about?

You have to look at things globally. When we look at issues of poverty, we look at issues of racial injustice, trying to lift everybody up so that everybody is participating in our society and our economy. Everything is so interconnected in sometimes very practical, mundane ways. Education is the foundation for everything and the earlier we get to kids the better it is for them. Depending on what ZIP code you live in, your schools are going to be better funded. If you have communities where poverty is prevalent, one of the things they don’t have is the same resources for their schools, transportation is an issue, there are often food deserts where they don’t have access to healthy foods.

To me, affordable post-secondary education is important too. Whether that’s a four-year college or finding other paths for students. Not everybody is going to go to a liberal-arts college. We need to provide a wider range of educational opportunities and career paths.

Affordable education is near and dear to me. I graduated law school with about $100,000 of student loans. Still paying on it at 9 percent interest. The student loan issue, I have a very deep personal understanding of. It’s terrible. We’re burdening our kids so they can’t do the things people do when they get out of college: buy cars, buy houses, start families, and that is changing our economy as well.

We want people individuals to be self-sufficient and to get jobs, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and that’s a great concept. But it’s not that easy for everyone. Some people have enormous impediments. So the way we fix that is by lifting people up: We make sure they can an education, we make sure they can get to jobs, and that they have opportunities.

What type of law do you practice?

All family law. It’s interesting and it’s challenging. Most days I enjoy it.

Is that what the Wii in your office is for, in case you have kids in?

When he was younger, my son occasionally would come to work with me, so I have some means of entertainment for him. I don’t often have clients bring their kids in. That may be a way to resolve conflict; we’re going to play Mario and whoever wins, wins this issue.

You have the picture of Jerusalem, the blessing the lawyer, and “The Godfather” (With the famous quote “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”) poster in the corner.

That’s not how I practice law. It’s ironic and funny. But “The Godfather” is one of my favorite movies. I’m assertive. I’m a zealous advocate, but I’m not a jerk. [The Godfather] One and Two were great. Three is a throwaway.

I still haven’t seen Three.

Don’t. It’s two or three hours of your life you’ll never have back.

Favorite Jewish Food?

Matzah ball soup, although I like my sweet kugel. In my chavurah, there’s a couple that always makes matzah ball soup and she makes the best I’ve ever had in my life. It’s comforting, the matzah balls are light and fluffy. It’s awesome.

Favorite Jewish Holiday?

It’s a toss-up. Pesach, for many reasons. The liturgical, theological reasons, the meal. The High Holidays also, all combined. That period of the year is really so deeply moving for me. I love our services (at Shir Tikvah) and our machzor. It’s a very profound spiritual experience every year.

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