Transportation, equality, mark Yarusso’s work at Capitol
By Blake Apgar // Murphy News Service
The bombast and theatrics common to today’s politics don’t come easy to Barb Yarusso. And she doesn’t care.
The DFL representative from Shoreview says she just wants to dig into the Minnesota’s problems so she can come to a logical conclusion about how to solve them.
“I like to understand issues, and I’m pretty analytical about them,” she said. “That’s my personality.”
Yarusso is using those analytical skills this session pushing the DFL’s view of how to use a $900 million budget surplus. A huge priority for Yarusso is transportation – general infrastructure improvements and, specifically, repair of the Rice Street bridge over I-694, which serves many people from her district who travel to work every day.
Meanwhile, she’s preparing to run for her third term in the House. Her rival from the 2014 election, Randy Jessup, R-Shoreview, recently announced that he would run again this year.
Jessup lost the 2014 race by only 220 votes, and said he is confident he will win this time around, claiming that Yarusso’s views are too far left of what is accepted by the community.
“I think my values are more towards the mainstream,” he said.
Yarusso’s analytical approach to complex and controversial issues could likely be attributed to her extensive education. After she completed her undergraduate education in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, she went on to receive a Ph. D. in the same field from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Duluth-born and Columbia Heights-raised, Yarusso came back to her home state after wrapping up her doctorate to work in General Mills’ testing lab. She later spent time teaching adult short courses at HB Fuller, 3M and Ecolab.
Eventually, Yarusso ended up teaching high school science at Hill-Murray in Maplewood – a gig she kept for nine years. She went on to become an adjunct professor in the chemical engineering department at the University of Minnesota, where she stayed until elected to the Minnesota House in 2012. But she couldn’t shake the teaching bug – she still gets up at 6 a.m. some days to tutor students in math and science.
Her education played a crucial role in deciding to run for office. Coming out the other end of the Great Recession, Yarusso thought she could use her analytical nature and ability to ask good questions on behalf of those in the newly-formed House District 42A, which covers Mounds View, Arden Hills, Spring Lake Park and the upper two-thirds of Shoreview.
After running on a platform that was favorable to public education, environmental protection, human rights, transportation and job development, Yarusso defeated Republican challenger Russ Bertsch.
Part of her success comes from her willingness to get her hands dirty for causes she supports, said Judy Murakami, who volunteers with Yarusso at Holy Hammers, a coalition of churches that partners with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity to build houses for low-income residents.
“She thinks it’s important to be involved with issues such as affordable housing, and she does that by actually doing something instead of just talking about it,” Murakami said.
The 59-year-old Yarusso said coming in as part of the unusually large freshman class in 2012 presented some rare opportunities to get involved at the Capitol, like serving on a conference committee to push through the 2013 education bill.
She was also able to sit on the Environmental Policy and Energy committees. While she no longer sits on Environmental Policy, she gets her fix with similar issues on the Mining and Outdoor Recreation Committee. She also currently sits on the Education Innovation Policy and Aging and Long-Term Care Policy committees.
In her first term, she helped push through the marriage equality bill that guaranteed equal rights to gay couples.
The mother of an adult transgender son, Yarusso is still working toward creating equality for the LGBT community, recently authoring a bill that would guarantee access to therapies for transgender people who are part of medical assistance programs.
“I think doctors ought to be making those medical decisions, not statute,” she said.
Yarusso recently made local headlines for her criticism of a bill that would allow transgender people to use public restrooms only based on their gender on their birth certificate. If there’s anything that can shake her unflustered temperament, it is threatening the rights of her own child.
Yarusso said the bill is merely a continuation of oppressive policy against the LGBT community.
“Politically, it’s a holdover from the marriage fight,” she said.
And while the issue may be timely, coming on the heels of a similar, highly publicized and controversial law in North Carolina, Yarusso says it distracts from larger issues that the state faces.
“It’s important to me, but I don’t want to get side-tracked too much,” she said. “We need to do a bonding bill this year.”
That DFL’s version of the bonding bill would secure long-term funding for transportation projects, such as improvements to the Rice Street bridge over I-694. The bridge, which serves many people from her district who travel to work, has been an important topic in Northeastern suburbs of the Twin Cities. Despite more than 10 years of discussion about the need to improve the design and safety of the bridge and alleviate congestion, the project is not on the state Department of Transportation’s priority list.
Jessup said Yarusso’s support for restructuring the gas tax to fund the bridge and similar projects is misguided, and would only create a temporary financial fix that would harm lower and middle-class Minnesotans.
“For the people of Mounds View, they couldn’t handle it,” he said of a higher gas tax. “I just don’t think Barb is representing their interests.”
Jessup supports funding transportation projects almost exclusively with surplus funds, while Yarusso supports using a lower amount of the surplus to supplement the income from the gas tax.
The papers strewn across her third-floor office in the State Office Building illustrate the arduous process of study and negotiation required to push such measures through a divided Legislature. Yarusso says she is up to the task.
Blake Apgar is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.