Congress

For Jim Hagedorn, being staffer in the minority was formative time

Freshman congressman worked for a Minnesota Republican, and was son to another

Minnesota Rep. Jim Hagedorn got his first taste of life in Congress as the son of a former congressman and as a staffer to Minnesota Rep. Arlan Stangeland. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Freshman Rep. Jim Hagedorn isn’t fazed at being in the minority. He learned to navigate the House during his time as a staffer for another Minnesota Republican, Arlan Stangeland, who served in the 1980s during the heyday of Democratic dominance in the chamber.

Stangeland pushed legislation by cultivating relationships across different interests, according to Hagedorn, whose father, Republican Thomas Hagedorn, also served with Stangeland in the House. And the younger Hagedorn saw how those legislative efforts proved vital to the success of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Hagedorn recently spoke to CQ Roll Call about those formative experiences. 

Q: How did you become a staffer?

A: I started out as what they called back then a Lyndon Baines Johnson intern for Congressman Arlan Stangeland. He was a friend of our family’s and I took an internship and I guess they liked the way I did the work. … They offered me a permanent position as a legislative assistant, so I just kind of stumbled into it.

Q: What was your portfolio with Stangeland?

A: All sorts of business and tax issues, firearms issues, then defense and foreign affairs. We had just a couple of people doing the legislative assistant work, so we all had a big portfolio.

Q: What years were you with Stangeland’s office?

A: [From] 1984 to 1991, so the Reagan Revolution — that was quite a time to be on Capitol Hill as a Republican. Working for a good rural Minnesota congressman who was on the Ag Committee [was] nice too.

Q: Now that you are on the Agriculture Committee — how has that contributed to how you approach your job?

A: Seeing Arlan do the work day in, day out and also kinda following it when my father was on the Ag Committee. And they were friends. They served on the committee together. It was pretty interesting. What they taught me is Ag is one of those committees where you should all work together. For instance, in Minnesota we don’t have cotton farmers and in some places in Texas they may not have sugar beet farmers, but we want them all to be successful no matter where they live.

Q: What was it like to be in Stangeland’s office while your father was part of the Minnesota delegation?

A: My father was kinda gerrymandered out of office in ’82, I started working for Arlan in ’84. They were on the [Agriculture] Committee, and they served together.

The big difference when we worked on the Hill in the ’80s — again, we had [Reagan] and he was very persuasive in getting Congress … to pass bills that we needed.

There was a solid band of what you’d call conservative Democrats, people like Phil Gramm of Texas, who [later] converted to be a Republican … and they were kind of the people that helped swing the votes in our favor because we didn’t have the majority.

People like Congressman Stangeland would have to try to work in order to get some ideas through from time to time, but it was very difficult. Now things have changed a little bit. Both sides know they can get back the majority with swings of votes in elections.

Q: Were there any signature bills that you helped author with Stangeland’s office?

A: One in particular, Arlan was the Republican leader to handle the work for welfare legislation in the ’80s, so we carried that bill. We did it on a bipartisan basis with [Charles W. Stenholm] of Texas, a conservative Democrat, and so the concept of empowering people, helping them become self-sufficient, not dependent on government … that was our bill. When they went to reform welfare in the ’86-’87 time frame … we could never get a vote.

But that legislation, when Arlan left office in 1990, shortly after, it was conceptually picked up by Newt Gingrich and the new Republicans who finally with the majority were able to work with President [Bill] Clinton to make those ideas the law of the land.

Current Rep. Jim Hagedorn stands in front of Rayburn 2245 circa 1989 during his days as a legislative assistant/Courtesy Rep. Jim Hagedorn
Hagedorn stands in front of Stangeland’s Rayburn office circa 1989. (Courtesy Rep. Jim Hagedorn)

Q: Were there any similarities to the staffer lifestyle today?

A: Generally speaking, when you’re a House staffer … the salaries were pretty modest, but you worked on the Hill because you believed in a cause. I was a conservative, I wanted to work for a conservative member, I wanted to be part of whatever we could [do] to help President Reagan.

We played softball, I was coach of our congressional softball team — the Stangeland Stallions. We were a very successful team. We’d hold tournaments on the monument grounds. It was real fun.

Q: How important was [Stangeland] to your personal growth and your professional growth?

A: Arlan was a dear friend. What I told people at [his] funeral — I said, “Everybody knows Arlan, a farmer, good guy here in the community. … Even though he was in the minority in the House, people forget that he was part of the coalition that changed America, saved America when Reagan was in office.”

He was part of the team, just like my dad. … So President Reagan didn’t become a great and successful president without people like Arlan Stangeland, standing with him every step of the way.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about prospective staffers who are thinking about being a member one day or want to pursue that route?

A: If you want to contribute and help fundamentally make the changes that are needed in order to improve people’s lives and to defend the country, this is one of the best ways to do it.

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