Communication professor takes seat in Minnesota Senate


January 11, 2021

By Mike Killeen

Aric Putnam isn’t interested in being labeled as a politician.

“I want to make the world a little better, and politics is how I’m doing that right now,” he said.

Now, Putnam has a forum to do just that. In November, the communication professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University defeated incumbent State Sen. Jerry Relph to represent District 14 in the Minnesota State Legislature for four years (Relph passed away on Dec. 18).

Putnam’s first day in the Senate chamber was Tuesday, Jan. 5, when the 92nd session of the Minnesota Legislature was convened.

Deciding to run for office was much like becoming a professor, said Putnam, who will be on sabbatical spring semester.

“It’s a space where I think I can do good, and I will keep doing it as long as I feel that way,” Putnam said. “Then I’ll do something else. 

“As George Washington said in his Farewell Address, politics isn’t a career. I think the job is to do good, inspire others to want to do good, and then get out of the way and support them when they do it,” Putnam said.

Does being a communication professor help him achieve good in the State Senate?

“I don’t think so. I think being a teacher and a curious person helps, though,” said Putnam, who has taught at CSB and SJU since 2003. “A teacher has to be able to explain and justify and do so with complex and dynamic groups of people. A good teacher has to believe that their work can make people better, have faith that we all can be better and believe that we should be better.  But you can be a professor and not be a good teacher or be especially curious or intellectually active.”

Putnam has been assigned to two high-profile committees: Higher Education Finance and Policy and Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy, in addition to Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee. 

“We are going to be working on inspiring more Minnesotans to stay in Minnesota for post-secondary education, and inspiring more people from more communities to pursue careers that serve public needs like teachers and nurses,” Putnam said.

Putnam represents a district that encompasses parts of three counties – Stearns, Benton and Sherburne. It includes both the city of St. Cloud and rural, largely farming areas in Benton and Sherburne counties.  

“It’s a complex place, more like America than any other bit of Minnesota,” Putnam said. “Whether you’re a farmer or a refugee from civil war or a soccer mom, you are here, we are together and trying to figure out who we are going to be. That self-conscious looking forward not in spite of difference but within it, that’s America, right there.

“I think you reach out to all people as people, not as a demographic, as a human to a human,” Putnam said. “That might sound naïve, but it’s the opposite. And it works. Authenticity is the currency of politics today and what we need.  We have to start being real with each other. I am.”

For Putnam, that includes eliminating the blue state-red state divide.

“Often, ‘bipartisanship’ is just a tool of partisans. It’s a game politicians’ play to appear reasonable,” Putnam said. “I don’t need to do that because I am genuinely reasonable. We need to be post-partisan, focused on solving problems, driven by issues and a vision of better, not on manufacturing the appearance that the two-party bureaucracies play nice. They don’t.”  

Even though District 14 does not include the CSB or SJU campuses, current and former students showed up with energy and labor to help Putnam with his campaign, he said.

“They helped with community outreach, made phone calls, did design work and ran our social media accounts. It’s been great to see them learn and grow. I really appreciate them,” Putnam said.

Putnam will see one familiar face at the State Capitol in St. Paul.

Rep. Dan Wolgamott, who won re-election in House District 14B in November and is a 2013 graduate of SJU, was named an assistant majority leader in the Minnesota House. He was elected to the position by his DFL peers in mid-December.

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Aric Putnam

Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Renee Worke (left) swears in State Sen. Aric Putnam (right) Jan. 5 as Putnam’s campaign manager and College of Saint Benedict graduate Bri Sharkey-Smith (’07) looks on.