Brian Bakst, Associated Press, Published December 25 2012
Minnesota politics: 1-party rule back
Next month, Minnesota Democrats will assume control of the House and Senate to go along with a governor’s office held by Democrat Mark Dayton. It’s a notable consolidation of political power in a state government defined for 20 years by fractures that gave two or more parties a leadership stake and allowed standoffs to become routine.
But the last stretch of one-party dominance – Democrats had total control from 1987 to 1990 – came with its share of scrapes, too. Major legislation fell to vetoes, once forcing lawmakers into special session. The governor openly questioned the ability of legislative leaders, who responded in kind.
“It’s not always everyone humming the same tune,” said former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, a key player in those years. “And I don’t expect that to be the case this time either.”
A dominant and politically contentious issue then was Gov. Rudy Perpich’s effort to remake the state’s tax system. His call for easing business taxes got a lukewarm reception among Democratic legislators, who wanted a greater emphasis on tax pressures facing homeowners.
When the Legislature in 1989 shelved Perpich’s tax priorities in favor of their own, he vetoed their bill. It required a fall special session to get a tax plan passed.
In an echo from that era, Dayton has signaled a significant tax overhaul will be a key part of his agenda next year. His framework hasn’t been released.
In the final two years of his governorship, Perpich vetoed all or parts of seven bills, including a few pieces of major legislation. Other setbacks caused tensions that spilled into public.
One time Perpich went to Moe’s legislative district – almost 300 miles from the Capitol – to criticize his fellow Democrat for not advancing his proposals. Moe lashed back. Perpich also publicly scolded House Speaker Bob Vanasek, suggesting he couldn’t control his caucus as they scuttled parts of the governor’s agenda. Vanasek responded that Perpich was affixing blame on others for “his shortcomings” and called him “a master politician at grandstanding.”
Reflecting recently on those choppy times, Vanasek said it’s natural for legislators and the governor to diverge even if they’re from the same party.
“There’s a lot more massaging and debating and negotiating that takes place in the legislative arena that doesn’t necessarily take place in the executive branch,” Vanasek said. “All those commissioners owe their job to the governor. All those legislators have their own election certificates.”
But in the end, Vanasek said more often than not the governor will get his way.
Sometimes the governor can play one chamber off another.
Back then, Moe was the crafty Senate majority leader closing in on two decades in the Legislature opposite Vanasek, a more junior House speaker. Both harbored ambitions of running for governor if Perpich cleared out.
A similar dynamic is in place now, with Tom Bakk taking over as Senate majority leader in his 19th year and Paul Thissen becoming House speaker in his 11th year. Both ran for governor in a 2010 race Dayton ultimately won, and neither seems ready to rule out a future shot at the office. For his part, Dayton served in the Perpich administration early in his career and often cites him in admiration.
Former Sen. Duane Benson was the minority leader the last time Republicans were powerless. While Republicans had little bearing on the agenda, Benson said the alignment didn’t condemn GOP members to a strictly adversarial role. He said some Republicans thrived and helped shape major crime and health legislation around the edges.
But it depended on Democrats encouraging inclusiveness even if they didn’t have to from their position of political strength.
“If you’re in the majority, you don’t sweep the table clean. Throw them a few crumbs now and then and get them engaged,” Benson said.
Still, he has doubts about whether either side will embrace that advice in this age. “The art of the game has been replaced by ‘You want it, I don’t.’ It’s all or nothing.”
In the absence of differing parties in charge, other fault lines might come into greater focus. Rural, suburban and urban splits could be starker. The same goes for intra-party divides on cultural policy.
The brewing debate over whether to legalize gay marriage is a case in point. Top Democratic lawmakers have shied away from promising action in 2013. But some rank-and-file members argue now is the time to strike after election where voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage ban in the state constitution.
Amid suggestions that the new leaders want to guard against the appearance of overreaching majorities, Democratic Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis said voters could just as well punish legislators for being too hesitant to tackle big issues.
“You have to worry about what will happen if we don’t show people there was a reason to have a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature,” said Kahn, who is entering her 40th year in the House. “We have to show people there was a real reason.”
Fellow Democratic Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth said the session should be largely confined to bread-and-butter issues like job creation, school financing and college affordability.
“It’s important that we keep the focus narrow,” he said.
But Marquart and other Democrats know that the onus is on them to avoid gridlock at all costs.
“There are no excuses not to get things done,” Marquart said. “That’s the challenge we have.”