When I was covering politics full-time, 42 years ago, one of the more significant stories on which I reported was the ouster of GOP Rep. Bob Pavlak from the Legislature.
In 1978, Minnesotans elected a state House of Representatives comprised of 67 DFLers and 67 Independent-Republicans. The DFL saw a way to break the tie in Pavlak’s race.
Pavlak, a St. Paul Police sergeant, had defeated incumbent DFL Rep. Arnold Kempe by only 321 votes. A few days before the election, the St. Paul Dispatch had published an erroneous editorial critical of Kempe’s lack of attendance. The newspaper had received from Pavlak’s campaign the information it used in the editorial. The information was accurate, but the editorialist misinterpreted it, creating the error.
The critical sin was that Pavlak supporters then distributed 1,800 photocopies of the erroneous editorial throughout the district. The DFL went to court, but the district court judge ruled against it. The matter was then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. With only a week left in the legislative session, the High Court ruled that Pavlak’s action was “deliberate, serious and material” under Minnesota’s fair campaign laws, but cited the state Constitution’s Article IV, Section 6, which says that the House and the Senate shall be the judge of the eligibility of its own members.
Pavlak, who maintained his innocence to his death, was not allowed to vote on his own eligibility, and he was ousted on a straight party-line vote, 67-66.
That brings us today to the strange case of Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul. Ironically, although the boundaries have changed through the decades, Pavlak represented District 67A as does Thompson. Perhaps the similarity ends there, but Thompson’s eligibility to serve is also in question.
It became an issue when Thompson was stopped July 4 for a minor traffic violation. His car had no front license plate. When the officer asked him for his driver’s license, Thompson produced a Wisconsin license.
Minnesota law states that if you move here from another state, you have 60 days to turn in your old license and get a Minnesota license. Thompson says he has lived in the district for 18 years, but the state says he has never had a Minnesota driver’s license. He renewed the Wisconsin license in 2005, 2012 and in November 2020, the same month he was elected to the Minnesota House.
So where does he live? When he filed his affidavit of candidacy, he listed only a St. Paul post office box.
During the traffic stop, he allegedly gave a Blair Avenue address that is outside 67A. The state Constitution requires that all legislators live within the districts they serve for at least six months before being elected. The StarTribune reported, Thompson had his Minnesota driving privileges revoked in 2019 because of unpaid child support. Thompson resolved the child-support issue and his driving privileges were reinstated July 7.
Thompson immediately called the stop “pretextual.” He said “We’re still getting driving-while-Black tickets in this state.”
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said the stop was “by the books” and demanded an apology. Thompson responded, “The issue is we need to rewrite the book.”
Maybe, but the issue at hand is one of lawfulness. Minnesota is one of 30 states that requires a front license plate. At some point, the Legislature thought this was a good idea and made it a law, not a pretext.
The issue is not even about the merits of front license plates. Thompson, serving in the Legislature, is in a better position than almost all Minnesotans to get changed any law he doesn’t like. However, if a legislator thinks existing state laws should be ignored, that’s a game changer.
As it was, Thompson was in front of the microphones after the Legislature passed its second police reform bill in as many years. He complained that the changes did not go far enough. Among his proposed changes, he wants to shorten the time delay in releasing police body cam footage, but it took nine days and considerable urging by others before he gave that permission, as required by law.
Thompson also has been a leader in bringing protests and demonstrations to the front yards of public officials’ homes. He was one of the speakers in a video that went viral last summer in front of the Hugo home of former Minneapolis Police Union executive Bob Kroll. The video shows Thompson beating effigies of Kroll and his wife.
And yet, when he filed his affidavit of candidacy last year, Thompson listed only a post office box as his address. Demonstrations in front of public officials’ homes can be intimidating to their families; it got so bad in front of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s home last summer, that Freeman moved. One would think if Thompson does, indeed, live in Minnesota, he would at least have the courage to list his own address publicly.
The House of Representatives may have grounds to remove Thompson from office. It needs to hold hearings to determine not only his legal residence, but where he voted in the last several elections and how he proved he lived in the district. Having House members who don’t live by the rule of law or who may be ineligible because they live outside the district they represent brings dishonor on and hurts the legitimacy of the entire body.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at email@example.com.