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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon reflects on his time at Tufts and political journey

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (LA'92) is pictured.

The world of state legislative politics is a buffet of issue options. Take a dollop of transportation, a dash of tax policy, a cup of racial justice and a pinch of environmental protection. It is up to the legislator to decide the plate of politics they create in order to maximize the impact they can have. Tufts alumnus and current Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (LA‘92) knows the power of this legislative buffet and has used his years in Minnesota politics to impact layers of the state’s political discourse.

Simon was born and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis. He developed a love of politics in a home filled with access to news, finding the Minneapolis daily newspaper and Time Magazine on his kitchen table every morning.

“I'd be interested in the headlines,” Simon said. “I started to think, ‘Okay, what do I want the headline to be tomorrow or next week?’ And so that led, in turn, to an interest in politics as a vehicle to obtain those outcomes.”

Current events gave Simon a gateway to discovering that changing the news meant changing the politics behind the headlines. His passion for politics informed his decision to attend Tufts University as it met his criteria for a university of academic excellence, near a large city, of medium size with a strong political science department.  

After beginning school in the fall of 1988, Simon declared a major in political science.  With the help of renowned scholars such as his major advisor, Professor Jeffrey Berry, and his thesis advisor, Professor (and now Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences) James Glaser, Simon thrived at Tufts. He was involved in Tufts Democrats and also worked his way up to editor in chief of “Politica,” a student-run monthly magazine that highlighted both the liberal and conservative sides of political issues of the day.

In the fall of 1991, Simon helped organize a group of Tufts students supporting Bill Clinton, taking van-loads of fellow students on weekend trips from Tufts to New Hampshire to assist the campaign.

Simon was set to attend law school after graduating Tufts in the spring of 1992, but he did not have plans for the summer. Simon recounted that he then decided to contact Clinton campaign higher-ups to inquire about open positions.

Betsey Wright, Governor Clinton’s chief of staff, responded and invited Simon to join the team in Little Rock, Ark. Working at the center of the campaign brought Simon true joy, and he agonized over the idea of leaving for law school before the November election. He decided to defer school in order to see the outcome of the movement he had joined. 

“It was just a tremendous experience being on a national campaign, a presidential campaign, a winning campaign in Little Rock, Arkansas,” Simon said.

Simon attended law school at the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he worked at the Minnesota attorney general’s office as an assistant attorney general for five years before transitioning to a position at a private practice in Minneapolis. Still, Simon’s passion for political office never dissipated.

In 2004, Simon, ever a follower of current events, watched as the Republican incumbent for Minnesota state legislator in his district made choices he could not let stand. Though he loved the law firm where he worked, Simon knew he had to do something.

“There were pressing issues at the time in Minnesota, which I think demanded attention,” Simon said. “As much as I really enjoyed practicing law, my concern about these issues overrode those other professional considerations.”

With that, Simon decided to run for office, beginning the grueling process of campaigning against an incumbent. He found that the key to campaigning lay in two main strategies: having firm core values and being willing to engage in hard work. Simply wanting the job was not good enough. Simon knew he needed to present a solid rationale for his candidacy in order to show voters that his core principles matched those of the Minnesota community.

“It’s about door knocking, over and over and over and over again,” Simon said. “You just have to gut it out and put in huge quantities of time — there’s no way around that — to connect with voters as much as you can.”

The work paid off, and Simon took office in the Minnesota State Legislature in January of 2005, serving for 10 years. Simon continued to practice law when the legislature was out of session, and he valued the way his law perspective continued to bolster his legislative prowess.

Because the Minnesota legislature is only in session for four to five months a year, Simon worked alongside fellow citizens with varying career backgrounds — such as cops, teachers and farmers — all of whom brought their unique perspectives to the forefront of politics.

Simon viewed his time in office as a chance to engage in the buffet of legislative issues, acknowledging the importance of carefully learning about all kinds of topics in order to vote thoughtfully on each one.

“In the legislature, you also have to be a generalist, because when bills get to the floor, you may not serve on the agriculture committee, or particularly be focused on those issues, but you’re going to have to vote on them,” Simon said. “You have to be a generalist in some sense but also pick a few issues that you can really dive into.”

Simon chose to load his plate in particular with issues of public safety, consumer protection, civil rights and, most specifically, election management. At the end of his tenure as state legislator, Simon was chair of the elections committee.

Simon constantly engaged with the inner workings of the electoral system, so when the Secretary of State of Minnesota announced that he would not be running for another term, Simon felt compelled to run. He was drawn to this job that would entail being the chief elections officer of the state.  

“It was a natural fit and a natural extension of my passion for these issues,” Simon said.

Simon ran and won the election in 2014, subsequently throwing himself into preserving democratic processes in Minnesota. He knows that appreciation for the role of secretary of state has risen in recent years as people increasingly value voting as the gateway to flourishing democracy. The secretary of state has an immense impact on establishing a “fair, accurate, honest and secure” system, Simon explained.

“There’s a lot of discretion there, and that discretion has to be used with great care,” Simon said. “No one in that position in any state, regardless of political affiliation, can put their thumb on the scale, so to speak, for any political party [or] for any candidate.”

Simon takes his role very seriously and knows that keeping people confident in the election system is integral to a democratic future.

“Especially at a time like now, when we have this swirl of disinformation around elections and people trying to weaponize cynicism in order to undermine well-earned confidence in our election system, it is more important now than ever that we have people in office who can demonstrate the security and the integrity of the system,” Simon said.

To execute his job to the best of his ability, Simon added that he often uses data provided by Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life, commending it as an extraordinary asset for Tufts and for the country.

“Our office leverages their output frequently and regularly. [Tisch College does] great work,” Simon said. “They generate really useful data and insights, particularly around youth political involvement and participation, which is vital to our voter outreach efforts in Minnesota.”

Now, Simon is running for reelection as secretary of state, and more than ever, he is focusing on fundraising outside of Minnesota. As the nation faces intense democratic threats, people across the country value Simon’s position more and more.

“[The people] understand that no matter where they live, you need people in all the states that are pushing in the same direction to protect the freedom to vote, to defend democracy [and] to push back against dangerous disinformation,” Simon said.

While fundraising in Boston, Simon visited Tufts on Sept. 19, speaking to students and connecting with former mentors. Looking back on his time at Tufts, Simon feels he owes a lot to the political science department and was honored to come back and speak to political science classes.

“Even on an intellectual level, so much of how I operate in the public space, I can trace to experiences at Tufts, to classes at Tufts, to discussions at Tufts [and] to activities at Tufts that really helped form my worldviews in many ways,” Simon said. “Those four years really helped shape who I am and how I think about issues and how I approach public affairs.”

Simon is “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of his campaign, and he thinks his message supporting an honest and secure Minnesota electoral system will prevail.

“We need to push back against dangerous and destructive conspiracy theories that undermine well-earned confidence in our election system,” Simon said. “So I’m cautiously optimistic but taking nothing and no one for granted.”

Though he knows America won’t easily agree on election issues, he calls himself a “long term optimist about democracy in America.” Still, he acknowledges the challenges the nation must overcome in order to reach consensus on the definition of truth in our elections.  

“It’s okay for people to be skeptical. It’s okay to ask questions of your government, hard questions,” Simon said. “Feel free to disagree with decisions or disagree with aspects of the system that you don’t like, of course. That’s not disinformation; that’s just debate. But when people knowingly spread false facts and information about the system as it is, that is a real danger to democracy.”

Voting is essential, Simon emphasized, and he hopes that more people take actions to secure their freedom and right to vote.

“All roads lead to the ballot box, meaning, no matter what other issue you care about, whether it’s environmental protection, or schools, or roads, or health care or anything else, you’re not going to get very far unless you can get people elected to office who share your views and values,” Simon said. “You won’t get that done if we don’t have an election system that’s fair and impartial and secure and accurate.”