Minnesota mean at heart of government shutdown
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 07 / 03 / 2011
By JAMES HOHMANN | 7/3/11 7:09 AM EDT. APPLE VALLEY, Minn.—There once was a time when Minnesota held an exalted position in American politics. It was known as a model of good government, the kind of place that sent poets to the Senate and produced politicians with nicknames like “The Happy Warrior.”
For the second time in six years, the state’s leaders failed Friday to agree on a budget in time to avert a government shutdown, marking Minnesota as one of just five states where government has ground to a halt in the last decade—and the only one where it’s happened twice.
The state is now known for its political gridlock, the kind of place that sends a professional wrestler to the governor’s mansion and produces politicians who write books such as “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.”
It’s a far cry from the state’s image 40 years ago, when Time Magazine ran a 1973 cover story touting Minnesota as “A State That Works,” praising the “almost unnaturally clean politics” and highlighting its honorable “citizen-politicians.”
While there are no easy answers to the question of what went wrong over the years, Minnesota’s political class laments that the same toxins that have poisoned Washington have overtaken St. Paul.
“What’s changed is that the two political parties are driven by their extremes more than they should be,” said Al Quie, a Republican governor in the 1970s and 1980s. “I’ve come to believe in the power of something that’s invisible, the relationship people have with each other…I know the two Republican leaders. You couldn’t find two better ones for [Democratic Gov. Mark] Dayton to work with. It’s the climate.”
Carleton College professor Steven Schier said the state’s politicians have always been more moralistic than anywhere else.
What has fractured is the bipartisan consensus that government could be a force for good in people’s lives—and over time, both major party platforms grew apart.
“We are consumed with matters of abstraction,” Schier said. “We are the extreme example of a polarized state…Elites are rigid about their principles, and they’re very far apart.”
That polarization is hard to miss. Minnesota has experienced contentious statewide recounts in successive elections, first in 2008 when Democrat Al Franken—author of the anti-Limbaugh book— won his U.S. Senate seat by just 312 votes, and then in 2010 when Democrat Mark Dayton prevailed in a tight governor’s race.
For the past two decades, the state has moved away from its legacy of electing genial, mild-mannered pols whose stature commanded the national stage—such as Eugene McCarthy, the liberal senator and poet, Hubert “The Happy Warrior” Humphrey and Walter Mondale. In their stead has come a series of bomb-throwers on the left, right and even from the middle.
Democrats have sent the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Franken and Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the progressive caucus, to Congress; Republicans have produced Rep. Michele Bachmann, a top social conservative and the leader of the tea party caucus.
Independent Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former pro wrestler, claimed the governorship for a single mercurial term in the late 1990s.
“Our state used to be much, much, more unique,” said former Rep. Bill Luther, a moderate Democrat who served in the state House in the 1970s, the state Senate in the 1980s and the U.S. House from 1995 to 2003. “We were held out by so many people as being a leader in so many areas. Over time, what has happened is we’ve become more nationalized like other states. If you’re from a state that mirrors the national trends, you wouldn’t notice.”
“We’ve had a lot of independent thinking to make Minnesota the great state that it was from both Democrats and Republicans, and we’re not seeing that today,” Luther said.
Independent thinking is not something either party values much any more. The expectation in St. Paul, as in Washington, is that the legislators will toe the party line. The role of caucuses and nominating conventions in choosing party candidates, along with the growth of the anti-tax movement and the power of labor unions, has created extraordinary demands for ideological purity.
“Sure there’s always been partisanship, but we realized that at some point we had to compromise,” said former state House Speaker Dee Long, a Democrat who recounted her budget negotiations in the early 1990s with a Republican governor. “You knew you had to sit down and make a deal at some point.”
That’s not the case now though, as the state’s famed Minnesota Nice ethos gives way to Minnesota Mean.
Former GOP state House Speaker Steve Sviggum said politics in Minnesota started to become “more of a hardball game as opposed to a softball game” after a 1973 law brought party designation to the state House and Senate. Members had previously caucused less formally as conservatives and liberals.
A major inflection point came in 1979, according to Sviggum. The Minnesota House was evenly divided, 67 to 67, and Democrats voted to expel a just-elected Republican member accused of campaign violations. Since he could not vote on his fate, he was kicked out and Democrats took control of the chamber.
“It was all about having the gavel and having the majority,” Sviggum said.
There was no going back after that power grab.
In the Republican Party, former Gov. Arne Carlson said anti-abortion evangelicals and knee-jerk opponents of tax increases took over Minnesota’s GOP.
“The culture of the Republican Party went from Eisenhower-type moderation of the ‘50s to very far right by the ‘90s,” said Carlson, a Republican who served from 1991 to 1999. “My administration was kind of an aberration, a temporary stop, on the longer journey.”
Carlson has established himself as a vocal critic of former Governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who he calls “the symbol of what it’s going to take to be the nominee of the Republican Party” for statewide office going forward.
Bad blood in the legislature, the extremes in both parties and the increasing professionalization of politics have further corroded the state’s good government culture. Bill Hillsman, a Minneapolis-based media consultant who produced iconic ads for Wellstone in 1990 and Ventura in 1998, said the proliferation of career politicians makes compromise harder and causes gridlock.
“The posturing that goes on is just incredible, and voters are getting pretty sick of it,” he said. “Our legislature is supposed to be a part-time legislature. These people all take themselves too seriously.”
Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch rejected the notion that Minnesota has embraced scorched-earth politics or has changed in a fundamental way. Negotiators abided until Friday by an agreed-to “cone of silence” about what was on the table.
“The tone this year has been good,” she said. “I still believe in Minnesota Nice, but there’s a deep divide in what folks believe here.”
Koch, who accused the governor of playing class warfare in the same interview, worked Saturday afternoon in her office at the state capitol, even though the governor announced negotiations will not recommence until Tuesday.
“The conversation we’re having in Minnesota is very similar to the conversation we’re having in D.C.,” she added. “It’s truly just two different philosophies.”
Tom Horner, the third-party candidate who garnered 12 percent in last year’s race for governor, said part of the problem is that both Republican legislators and the Democratic governor wrongly think voters backed their positions on taxes and spending in 2010. He argued that many Dayton voters turned out simply to vote against conservative Republican Tom Emmer, and vice versa.
“I don’t know that that creates any kind of mandate,” Horner said. “We haven’t had an election in a while that really has created a mandate.”