At Minnesota Capitol, 19-year-old makes a name for himself

/ 20 May 2014 / Shawna

Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, May 16, 2014

Zander Danielson Sellie has become a familiar face at the Minnesota Capitol.

He’s not a lobbyist, a bureaucrat or a lawmaker, but a 19-year-old St. Paul resident who got hooked on politics last year while working to prevent the closing of Crosswinds East Metro Arts and Science School, the Woodbury school he once attended.

Sellie was at the Capitol the day lawmakers legalized gay marriage, and he saw the powerful impact citizens can have on their government. He also watched as the bid to transfer operation of Crosswinds to Perpich Center for Arts Education stalled because of politics.

“The thing you learn is you have no true friends and no true enemies down here,” Sellie said referring the unlikely alliances produced by the legislative process.

“I learned not to wear my “Safe Schools” button when meeting with a GOP senator who supports Crosswinds.”

After last year’s campaign to save the school fell short, Sellie decided to establish a more permanent presence at the Statehouse this year. He took a “gap year” between high school and college and focused his newfound political energy on a list of progressive causes.

Throughout the 2014 legislative session, Sellie was a regular at committee hearings, rallies and Senate and House floor sessions backing such issues as the overhaul of Minnesota’s bullying prevention law and the push to raise the state’s minimum wage. Meanwhile, his focus remained on saving Crosswinds and the other East Metro Integration District school, Harambee Elementary Community Cultures and Environmental Science School.

Sellie argued that misinformation muddied initial efforts to transfer oversight of the two voluntary integration magnet programs. The only way he knew to keep it from happening again was to be there — every time the issue came up — so he could try to set the record straight.

“I’ve told Zander numerous times: Legislation is written by those who show up,” said Sue Mackert, director of Perpich, which plans to take over Crosswinds.

“Lawmakers rely on us for information. It’s a critical part of the process.” Sellie quickly learned the impact that just showing up can have.

“You can follow the debate online, but legislators don’t know you’re doing that,” he said. “Ask for a meeting. Make an appointment. It might only be 15 minutes. They like hearing from constituents, and they like hearing from kids.” And he’s certain some lawmakers take a quick survey of the gallery audience before casting their votes.

Sellie is such a regular that he began taking “selfie” photos with lawmakers in the gallery during long debates and snarking back and forth with politicos on Twitter. He compares the sausage making of legislation to working backstage during a play production, every piece of the puzzle must line up just right.

“It’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” he said. “If I could put more in my Twitter bio, it would say ‘cat herder.’ ” Sellie has won high praise from lobbyists who have spent years at the Capitol learning how to horse trade to get their bills passed.

Mary Cecconi, executive director of education advocate Parents United for Public Schools, said Sellie is surprisingly connected for someone so new to Statehouse hallways. And he’s not afraid speak up.

“Other people are frightened to do what he does,” Cecconi said. “These legislators respond to him like nobody’s business.”

Sellie has seen his persistence pay off. As the session wound down this week, final bills that would give Crosswinds and Harambee new operators appeared headed for Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature.

That doesn’t mean Sellie is hanging up his suit and signature rainbow bowtie. This month, he’ll head to Duluth as an alternate delegate for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention.

In the fall, he plans to hit the campaign trail for some area DFLers. A graduate of Great River School in St. Paul, Sellie also plans to enroll in Century College and focus on his two loves: theater and politics. One of his political idols is Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk also linked politics and theater.

Sellie said Milk’s message why young people should be politically active is simple.

“I’m here; pay attention to me,” Sellie said.