When he was 19, Ray Dehn was incarcerated in the Hennepin County jailhouse after a conviction for burglary.
The year was 1976, and Dehn’s thievery fed a junkie’s desires: He liked drugs, and had a particular affinity for cocaine.
Dehn can’t recall if he’d gotten high this particular day in jail, where weed was easy to come by. He was next in line to make his one phone call for the day when a surly guard announced there’d be no more calls. Suddenly, it was Dehn who was surly.
He turned to walk away. “Fuck this shit,” he announced.
Next thing he knew, Dehn was surrounded by a phalanx of guards, who accused him of cussing one of them, a major no-no. Dehn’s assertion that he’d cursed the situation, not the man, was ignored. He was thrown into solitary confinement.
Dehn, now a state rep from the North Side and a Minneapolis mayoral candidate last year, woke up alone the next morning and did some thinking about his life. He’d grown up the son of blue-collar workers, doing himself no favors by constantly getting in and out of trouble. Later, political opponents would allege he’d been involved in “hundreds” of armed burglaries. Dehn says that’s not true. But it is true he broke the law plenty of times.
Ray decided he needed to clean up, in more ways than one. He wanted to stop using cocaine, first and foremost, then find a job.
“I thought, ‘There’s too many bad things going on in my life, that these can’t just be coincidences.’ The universe was telling me to change my direction.”
There are only two ways to go from rock bottom: sideways or straight up. Dehn now counts that day in solitary 42 years ago as the first day of his sobriety. He learned he was much happier sober, and in better control of his emotions and actions. “I became a new person.”
That new person got a degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota. He was also inspired by a chance encounter with a rising politician named Keith Ellison. An affinity for politics grew. When a lawmaker retired from his North Side district, Dehn decided to run.
His DFL primary opponents were both black. Ian Alexander was a realtor with connections to the downtown business community. Terra Cole was a charming favored daughter who’d worked her way through the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School for Public Policy, and whose family ties to North neighborhoods went way back.
Yet it was Dehn, the self-made white dude, who had the backing of Ellison, the state’s best-known black politician.
Ellison’s son Jeremiah, now a Minneapolis City Council member representing North, volunteered on Dehn’s campaign. He knew Dehn as a “spiritual guy” with interests in multiple religions and ways of life, and often saw him at the Masjid al-Nur mosque. Jeremiah was among the supporters making “knock-and-drag” get-out-the-vote efforts, pleading on behalf of Dehn. It’s with not a small amount of pride that Jeremiah says Dehn beat Cole by all of 20 votes.
Dehn’s authenticity and openness has always shone through, says Jeremiah. Not every politician tells you he wants to run for office because he’d been a cocaine addict and felon, and learned from it. Jeremiah doesn’t shy away from such characters. As the privileged son of a congressman-turned-attorney general, he knows that, in some ways, Dehn’s life more typifies the neighborhood than his own.
And it certainly puts Dehn closer to the ground on those streets than Jacob Frey, born the gifted son of a ballet dancer and a chiropractor in suburban Virginia.
“Ray had a lot of credibility as a smart guy who struggled to keep himself out of trouble,” Jeremiah says. “I know a lot of people in North that are just brilliant, but because of life’s circumstances, found themselves in that same position.”
Few make it out of that cycle, or become reborn with Dehn’s passion and ambition. One fellow House member believes his intensely principled positions might just be the greatest threat to a career in politics, where cynicism and backroom horse-trading rule the day.
But Dehn is at peace. Disturbingly youthful and energetic at age 61, he lives an ascetic existence. He drinks water and decaf and goes for long, contemplative runs. He thinks about how to serve people who are now or were once just like him: reckless, poor, anxious, mad, addicted, but not evil.
He’s not the type to lecture—“It’s not my place to tell anyone what their bottom is”—and admits he can’t really grasp how some people use substances socially or to unwind after a long day. In Dehn’s experience, his addictions and circumstances drove him to think like a criminal, and to be one.
If Minnesota wants to make useful reforms to criminal justice, addiction treatment, and how we treat the very poor, it’s people like Ray Dehn we should listen to.
“I just offer what I would call ‘clarifying conversations,’” Dehn says. “I use my own addiction as a place to enter into the conversation. I tell people I was an IV drug user, and they say, ‘No, no way, you weren’t.’ But I was.”
More from Mike Mullen: