Kurt Rutzen: Man on a Mission

by AMY CARLSON GUSTAFSON

Note: Apostrophe featured Kurt Rutzen in its magazine back in 2013. Below is that feature story highlighting Kurt. For the 2016 election, Kurt wrote a special story for Apostrophe offering his insight on the importance of voting. Find his latest story here.

Man on a Mission

When Kurt Rutzen, man on a mission, testified in front of members of the Minnesota legislature regarding cuts to programs for people with disabilities, he struck a nerve. Big time. It’s impossible not to be moved by his compelling speech. It garnered thousands of views on YouTube. In it, he says he’ll never be a rich man because of his cerebral palsy, but a loving family and group of friends makes him the wealthiest man in the world.

“Richness to some people is having five boats and only using one, having three cars and they only use two; but richness to me is so much different,” said Rutzen, who is humbled by the attention the speech has earned him. “I’m so, so rich with love and people who care about me. I have a family that’s tremendous – they’re the best ever. I have friends that love me and people who really, really care about me. That’s richness to me.”

When he delivered his “I’ll never be a rich man” speech, Rutzen was speaking from the heart. He often does at the Minnesota State Capitol where he’s a devoted public policy volunteer for The Arc Minnesota. Whether he’s talking about how cuts to service are devastating especially for folks who don’t have family to help them or visiting with elected officials keeping them abreast of upcoming issues, Rutzen has proven to be an effective community advocate for people with disabilities.

“I’m thankful I have a disability,” said Rutzen, 42, who says he gets a lot of support from his family including his father, David; mother, Wanda; and older brother, Kevin.

“That sounds crazy, but I get all these opportunities to try and make a difference for others. It’s not about me, it’s about other people. If we can make their lives better, it’s all worth it.”

Read Kurt’s take on why it’s important to vote.

Funding for eyeglasses

In fact Rutzen’s determination has made many people’s lives better. Even a snowstorm didn’t stop him in 2011 from testifying in front of panel of politicians about the impact of increasing co-pays for individuals with disabilities. That section of the bill was taken out after Rutzen spoke. When the senate wanted to eliminate funding for hearing aids and eyeglasses, Rutzen and others testified against the cuts, and they didn’t go through.

Kurt Rutzen in his office

Kurt Rutzen manages three stores at www.qualitymall.org, a site offering information about person-centered supports for people with disabilities.
Managing the stores is part of his job at the Institute on Community Integration (University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities) at the University of Minnesota.

Steve Larson, a senior public policy director for The Arc Minnesota, says that Rutzen’s impact at the capitol has been great.

“It’s one thing for a paid lobbyist like myself who doesn’t have a disability to go up and advocate with legislators, but it’s certainly more effective for a person who is receiving services to come up and tell exactly how it’s working or not working for him,” Larson said. “Kurt has developed great credibility and respect from many of the legislators. As a result, they listen to what he has to say. If Kurt doesn’t know all the facts or details about the subject, we tag team. He opens the door, and I fill in some additional information if a legislator needs it.”

Republican representative Mike Benson, who also happens to be a longtime friend of Rutzen’s, sits on the Minnesota House of Representatives’ Health and Human Services Reform Committee. He meets regularly with Rutzen.

“He is a person that this community needs to be in front of the legislature advocating on their behalf,” said Rep. Benson. “It’s his tenacity, his persistence, his passion that makes him stellar at that job.

“It’s pretty hard to turn Kurt down if he wants to talk to you,” Benson added. “He’s so genuine. He’s overcome his own disabilities to become successful at what he does now. Unless you were to bring up some hardship he had because of his disability, he would not. When he’s talking, it’s always in the third person — these are the things this community needs. I never hear Kurt talking about or bringing up his disabilities.”

Constitutional amendment

Rutzen and Rep. Benson are on opposing sides of the current voter ID issue supporting a proposed constitutional amendment in Minnesota requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls. Rutzen is worried about people with disabilities having difficulties obtaining photo IDs. But even though they differ in their beliefs on the issue, it doesn’t affect their working relationship or friendship.

“What people need to realize is that we might not all agree, and we won’t agree on every issue or very important issues, but we can get along and talk it out and just be respectful,” Rutzen said. “If we could just do things with more common sense, I think we’d all be in a better position.”

Kurt’s day job

Even though he spends so much time at the Capitol in St. Paul during the legislative session, Rutzen also has a part-time job at the Institute on Community Integration (University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities) at the University of Minnesota. Rutzen’s shares an office on the second floor of Pattee Hall in Minneapolis where he manages three stores on Qualitymall.org, a site offering information about person-centered supports for people with disabilities.

Along with his involvement with The Arc Minnesota, Rutzen serves on The Arc’s national board. He’ll be traveling to Washington, D.C., prior to the upcoming presidential election for an Arc  conference and board meeting.

When asked where he got his passion for advocacy, Rutzen says he’s always “cared deeply” for people. Before moving to Minneapolis and becoming a volunteer at the Capitol, he was part of a group in Rochester, Minn., that would lead Bible studies for jail inmates. He’s also extremely involved in his church participating in various activities, and he’s even on the tenant board of his Minneapolis apartment complex where he lives independently with his beloved cat, Harley.

A great sense of humor

Rutzen’s busy schedule doesn’t stop him from finding time for a laugh. Everyone who knows him will tell you he appreciates a good joke, citing Steven Wright, Carrot Top and Louie Anderson among his favorite comedians.

“He’s got a great sense of humor,” said Pastor Ron Hanson of the New Brighton Christian Church that Rutzen attends. “We had a Valentine’s Day banquet here a few years ago, and Kurt got up and did a few minutes of stand-up. I don’t know if any of the material was his own, but coming from Kurt it was funny.”

Kurt Rutzen also likes to get a good-natured rise out of folks, according to his friends. If he’s in a room of Minnesota Vikings fans, he might start rooting for their rivals, the Green Bay Packers.

“He loves to push your buttons in a funny way,” Rep. Benson said. “That’s a hallmark of Kurt – he’s a jokester.”

Rutzen’s also known for adding touches of humor to speeches to the legislature and is not afraid to go off script when trying to woo the crowd, says The Arc’s Steve Larson.

“It’s not necessarily always telling jokes,” explained Larson. “But he keeps things light and that’s good because things get too serious sometimes at the legislature. He’s got a sense of humor about things. When he talks about himself and about what he can and can’t do, he usually twists it in some way to be humorous.”

But it’s not just his sense of humor Rutzen’s friend Jackie Entsminger appreciates. Entsminger, the apartment manager at Rutzen’s complex, calls him a “wonderful human being” especially when it comes to having compassion for others.

“Kurt has so much sympathy and empathy for people that sometimes it might wear him out,” Entsminger said. “If he really thinks someone is hurt, tears will well up in his eyes. He doesn’t like to see anybody that’s been disregarded at all, which is the worst thing to do to somebody in life.

Amy Carlson Gustafson is a reporter at the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press.

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