ST. PAUL, Minn. -- During his 22 years as a board member of Mayo Employees Federal Credit Union, David H. Senjem developed a great appreciation for the virtues of the private sector combined with the effectiveness of the people helping people approach.
These days, Senjem has the opportunity to apply that philosophy on a larger scale.
Since January 2007, the second-term Minnesota state senator has been the leader of the Republicans in that chamber. That has meant trying to help his state's Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty pass his agenda while playing defense against some of the policy initiatives of Democrats, who control the Minnesota Senate 44-23.
During many of the debates about how to close the state's $3 billion budget shortfall, he said he has been guided by the compassionate approach to problem solving that has long been the hallmark of credit unions.
"I remember well how credit unions helped people with very little collateral get loans. There was once a single mother who needed $300 to buy a washing machine but had very little money. We took a chance on her, and she paid us back," he recalled in an interview during a luncheon honoring delegates from Minnesota and Colorado. "This is an example of how the private sector works well."
Senjem said the revenue short fall could cause some of his colleagues to suggest taxing credit unions, a fight he is fairly certain the credit unions would win.
"There's a lot of energy in the credit union movement. If someone tries to tax them, the fight will be short-lived," he said.
Although he enjoys politics, his current leadership position is not one he sought. He was drafted after his party lost control of the Minnesota Senate during the 2006 elections.
"It's a labor of love that you don't necessarily always enjoy," he said.
Senjem's responsibilities include trying to keep his caucus unified and peeling off the votes of a handful of Democrats to defeat initiatives from across the aisle.
He describes the atmosphere as "one in which there are stark differences, but neither side has the reputation for acting like attack dogs."
Senjem, a 65-year-old native of Hayfield, Minn., has always been interested in politics but didn't hold elective office until he was in his 40s. He served on the Rochester, Minn.. City Council for 12 years before being elected to the state senate in 2003.
Because the Minnesota Legislature is part time, Senjem still works full time as the environmental affairs officer at the Mayo Clinic. In his position, he is responsible for ensuring that the clinic complies with state and federal regulations.
After graduating from Luther College in Iowa, he joined Mayo as a researcher in a microbiology laboratory but took an administrative position after five years and has been out of the lab ever since. He has worked at Mayo for 45 years and has been a member of its credit union the entire time.
This is the first Republican National Convention he's ever attended and said he is happy to be a delegate, especially since he was a strong backer of John McCain in 2000.
Senjem said he admired the courage McCain has shown during his military career and also the likely presidential nominee's tendency to challenge the status quo.
"Although the calls from voters for change are strong, I'm not at all certain that the Democratic Party owns that label," he said
Since there are only two Minnesota Senate seats up in November, one thing that won't change is the party that controls that chamber. But Senjem promises to continue working in the trenches, inspired by the values he learned as a credit union volunteer.
"They are the model for what's right about America," he said.