Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Opinion | Want a model on how to govern, Democrats? Look to Minnesota’s miracle.

Opinion | Want a model on how to govern, Democrats? Look to Minnesota’s miracle.


You could be forgiven for imagining that state legislatures around the country are lurching rightward, thanks to the media spotlight given to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s culture warring in his state. Other deep-red states are not far behind.

In Washington, President Biden was rightly seen as a net winner in the debt ceiling battle. But with the GOP in control of the House, it was largely a defensive triumph.

This is why the Minnesota Miracle, which is only beginning to get the attention it deserves, is so important. The avalanche of progressive legislation that the state’s two-vote Democratic majority in the Minnesota House and one-vote advantage in the state Senate have enacted this year is a wonder to behold.

To detail everything Gov. Tim Walz and his legislative partners accomplished would far outstrip the space allocated here. Minn Post reporters Peter Callaghan and Walker Orenstein offered a bracing race through the list:

“Democrats codified abortion rights, paid family and medical leave, sick leave, transgender rights protections, drivers licenses for undocumented residents, restoration of voting rights for people when they are released from prison or jail, wider voting access, one-time rebates, a tax credit aimed at low-income parents with kids, and a $1 billion investment in affordable housing including for rental assistance.”

Take a breath and move on: “Also adopted were background checks for private gun transfers and a red-flag warning system to take guns from people deemed by a judge to be a threat to themselves or others. [Democratic] lawmakers banned conversion therapy for LGBTQ people, legalized recreational marijuana, expanded education funding, required a carbon-free electric grid by 2040, adopted a new reading curricula based on phonics, passed a massive $2.58 billion capital construction package and, at the insistence of Republicans, a $300 million emergency infusion of money to nursing homes.” The mix of tax cuts and increases, by the way, will make the state’s revenue system more progressive.

There’s a lot more, including laws strengthening workers’ rights and unemployment insurance for hourly workers previously left out of the system; a refundable child credit for lower-income Minnesotans; and free breakfast and lunch for all Minnesota K-12 students.

It’s no wonder former president Barack Obama tweeted recently: “If you need a reminder that elections have consequences, check out what’s happening in Minnesota.”

True, but not all electoral consequences are so momentous. What makes Minnesota’s experience this year unusual? State Democratic leaders said in interviews that as soon as they learned last November that they would have their first trifecta in a decade — meaning control of both chambers and the governorship — they decided they would not hold back to calculate the politics of every move.

“I thought this would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and it should be viewed that way,” Walz told me. “And I’ve always said you don’t win elections to bank political capital. You win elections to burn the capital to improve lives.”

Democratic leaders quickly worked to bring together legislators from the metro Twin Cities, many on the left, and those closer to the center from rural and small-town areas. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she appointed a staunch progressive from Minneapolis to chair one of the body’s tax committees and a moderate from the increasingly conservative Iron Range to chair the other. “If we couldn’t get both of them on board, then it wouldn’t be something our caucus could do.”

Hortman added that while a two-year budget surplus of $17.5 billion set expectations “very high” for what could be done, $10 billion of it was “one-time money,” meaning that programs had to be funded and revenue raised for the long term.

Because Democrats already held the House, many of their ideas had been worked through over the previous four years. Hortman and new Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic worked closely to make sure any differences between the two chambers’ bills were ironed out in advance.

Most important, said Hortman and House Majority Leader Jamie Long, was the experience of the Democrats’ trifecta a decade ago. As Long put it, the party “passed a lot of really good things” but worried about how various bills might “affect them electorally.”

“There were many things they decided not to do because they figured ‘well, we should win our reelections and then we’ll come back and do all those things next time.’” But there was no next time until this year because Democrats lost their House majority in the 2014 elections. Hortman said leaders from that time told this year’s trifectarians that the only regret they had “were the things that they had left on the table.”

One other lesson for states that want to emulate Minnesota: Keep in mind what Long called “the Wellstone Triangle,” a governing concept framed by U.S. Sen. Paul D. Wellstone.

Long explained: “You need good ideas. … You need elected politicians who are going to be supporting those ideas, and then you need outside organizing for elections and to support those votes.” All three are key to getting things done. In Minnesota, key players included unions, environmental groups and faith-based organizers in the appropriately named Isaiah organization. In the run-up to the session, the outside groups were brought into the task of crafting an agenda.

Democrats in the state are known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party from their merger with a third party in the 1940s. True to the name, the party’s agenda combined social concerns such as abortion rights with what Long called “bread-and-butter, populist things that sell everywhere in the state.”

Walz thinks this will help win back some of the voters who drifted Republican in the Trump years. “There’s nothing extreme about feeding kids,” he said. “There’s nothing extreme about women making their own health-care decisions. There’s nothing extreme about saying don’t demonize these trans children. Just make a place for them. We’ll all be okay. And I think I think it’s working.”





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