Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, has covered state government and politics for more than 30 years.

Civil rights inspiration

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: July 3, 2014 - 12:05 PM

The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bears a strong Minnesota stamp. Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey was the bill’s floor leader who got it over its highest hurdle, a Senate filibuster, exhibiting lawmaking skill that would become the stuff of political science textbooks.

That fact alone brought the 50th anniversary of its enactment, culminating last Wednesday on the date President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, particular notice in this state. The Humphrey School of Public Affairs did its namesake proud with commemorations including a June 9 appearance by former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton noted that Humphrey “knew the difference between compromising to get something done that will really advance your cause and compromising on the cause itself.” It was that discernment — a product of Humphrey’s schooling in the Minnesota politics of the 1940s and 1950s — that allowed him to recruit and keep his essential ally in defeating the filibuster, GOP Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Humphrey yielded to Dirksen’s preference for state and local rather than federal enforcement of the new law in order to secure Dirksen’s support.

One cannot look back at the Humphrey-Dirksen partnership of June 1964 and not lament the absence of similar Senate bipartisanship in recent times. Or wish that the legislation that killed Jim Crow laws had more thoroughly eradicated Jim Crow attitudes, habits, and economic patterns in America.

But anniversaries are for inspiration, not lamentation. I found some in the eloquent speech Dirksen gave on the Senate floor the day the filibuster broke, June 10, 1964.

“We dare not temporize with the issue which is before us,” he said. “It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come.” It had come because, by the thousands, ordinary Americans had become part of a grassroots movement, calling and marching for change.

Today’s Americans also confront issues that are essentially moral in character — income inequality, immigration, disparities in educational opportunity. The partisan environment may have changed in Washington. But the impetus for change still can and must come from ordinary Americans with a moral compass.

Conventions deserve separate weekends

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: June 1, 2014 - 2:20 PM

State political party conventions aren't conducted for the benefit of the people in their host arenas. They attempt to convey messages and meaning to the broader electorate -- even if most of those broader electors tune in only briefly.

Belief in that mission inspires journalists to report on these biennial confabs. It's why I felt duty-bound this weekend to spend one day with the Republicans in Rochester and another with the DFLers in Duluth. After more than 35 years of covering state party conventions, I could not imagine skipping either event.

But I had to wonder this year whether the parties share my belief in the purpose of conventions. If they do, why did they schedule their big shows for the same weekend, when each would detract from Minnesotans' focus on the other?

Mine might be the lament of a road-weary journalist. But every contributor of time and treasure to this weekend's not-inexpensive meetings has grounds for complaint, too. They aren't getting their money's worth when Party X's convention must share the news spotlight with Party Y's down the road.

The party officials I consulted blame the primary date shift from September to August four years ago for this weekend's convention collision. Fewer opportune weekends are available now, they said.

But that's not the whole story. There's also reluctance to meet after the filing period, which decides whose names are on the primary ballot. Conventions aim to whittle down that list. This year, the filing period closes on June 3.

Further, legislators don't like meeting while the Legislature is in session and its contentious issues are unresolved. Avoiding Easter, Passover, Mother's Day, Memorial Day and the Fishing Opener also comes into play. So, I fear, does a paucity of good will between the parties.

Holidays won't go away. But all the other excuses used to justify this year's same-weekend schedule deserve reexamination. Political parties are already deemed too insular and inscrutable. Conducting conventions simultaneously only makes that reputation worse. 

Moms transformed marijuana debate

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 9, 2014 - 5:27 PM

The moms stood in the House gallery for an hour and more as the debate over medical marijuana proceeded, bearing compelling witness to the point they'd been making all session: This issue is about the very lives of sick children and their families.

They are Minnesota mothers of young children suffering debilitating and potentially fatal forms of epilepsy. They've been at the Capitol all year, so much so that many legislators know not only their names, but their children's. They know how desperate those families are to relieve their children's misery, and how convinced they are that medicinal cannabis -- their preferred name -- can bring that relief.

Maybe because they were there, Friday's debate in the House was unlike any other this session. It was highly personal and emotional as legislators said they empathize with those standing moms and the other sufferers they represented. In turn, they told their own stories about the conditions marijuana or its deviatives might ease. Tearful stories were shared about the helplessness of losing a young wife and mother to breast cancer, the horrors of sickening chemotherapy, the desire of children to ease a father's multiple sclerosis symptoms.

The partisan politics that is the daily norm on the House floor drained away. The vote that sent the bill back to the Senate, and likely to conference committee, was a bipartisan 86-39, with 17 Republicans voting yes and two DFLers voting no.

Citizen lobbying is not rare at the Minnesota statehouse. But this year's dogged persistence of the "marijuana moms" has been extraordinary, and appears to be a game-changer. The opposition of law enforcement and the medical establishment has been enough to stymie medical marijuana bills in previous years. If this year proves different, the sick Minnesotans who will have legal access to marijuana's relief will have these mothers to thank.
 

Bell Museum in bonding crosshairs

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 7, 2014 - 10:20 AM

The long-neglected James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History appears about to have its moment in a conference committee spotlight. Created in 1872 by the state and sited on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the Bell's 75-year-old facility has been treated as a near-orphan in many recent years, excluded from university funding requests and denied state funding via gubernatorial vetoes and legislative parsimony.

But it found a champion some years ago in House capital investments chair Alice Hausman. The St. Paul DFLer put full funding -- $51.5 million -- for a new Bell Museum into her bonding bill.  After several rounds of downsizing, it is still there -- for now.

Keeping it there is now a major challenge. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler singled out the Bell Tuesday when he issued a stern statement objecting to the House bill's tightfisted response to other university requests.

"The University of Minnesota recognizes the Bell Museum as a great asset to the state," Kaler said. "However ... we support funding for the Bell Museum as long as it does not divert money from projects requested by the regents for the university."  He noted that the House bill that left the Ways and Means Committee Tuesday fully funds only one of the university's six top priority requests, that for renovation of the Tate Laboratory of Physics.

It's hard to conclude that the Bell isn't squeezing the university's share of the House bill, when those items are packaged together on summary sheets and in House File 2490's text. But Hausman is correct when she says that the Bell is not a university facility. It's a creature of the state, created to fulfill a scientific and educational mission embraced by the Legislature 142 years ago. Its cramped 75-year-old Art Deco building may be charming, but it's an impediment to the fulfillment of that mission today.

The Legislature has demonstrated considerable creativity in adding buildings to the Capitol complex without general obligation bonding, using lease-back agreements. The Bell is a state facility, every bit as much as a new state Senate office building will be. Surely legislators who want bonding authorizations reserved for the university and other purposes can be as creative with Bell financing has they have been with their own office needs.


 

Prof. Oberstar's seminars

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 3, 2014 - 6:38 PM

A visit to the Star Tribune by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar was a special occasion no editorial writer wanted to miss. Oberstar, who died Saturday at age 79, was a font of knowledge about his beloved Eighth District, his policy specialty -- transportation -- and a whale of a lot more. 

Oberstar's Editorial Board briefings were the equivalent of graduate school seminars. Far from being out of touch, as his political rivals claimed, he was often the first to tell us about new mining technology, pending industrial expansion in Duluth, or a proposed nature preserve in the southern part of his district.

He was also as conversant about Twin Cities transit needs as any metro-area member of the state's congressional delegation. As the House Transportation Committee chair from 2007 until his defeat in 2010 and the ranking minority member for many years before that, Oberstar was deeply familiar with Minnesota's requests for federal transportation dollars.

He loved cycling and was a champion for bicycle trails. He loved railroads, and regaled us with stories about his first trips from Duluth to Chicago and back aboard the fast trains of the 1950s. But his critics had it wrong when they accused him of neglecting highways and bridges. When the Interstate Hwy. 35 bridge fell in Minneapolis in 2007, Oberstar quickly and successfully led the charge for nearly full federal funding of its replacement. 

Oberstar was a popular Editorial Board guest for another reason: He was fun. He always brought a big smile, a warm greeting (sometimes in French), good humor and abundant enthusiasm for his topics. Though he visited infrequently, he always seemed as glad to see us as we were to see him. 

I was looking forward to seeing the former congressman next month at the opening of the Green Line, the new light rail link formerly known as the Central Corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul. He helped make it happen. He surely would have been there. He surely will be remembered there, and missed.

Marijuana and the art of compromise

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: May 1, 2014 - 2:14 PM

Big policy changes seldom occur in a single session of the Minnesota Legislature. More typically, change comes incrementally over several sessions, nudged along by a few key legislators and persistent interest groups who are willing to take what they can get one year and come back again for more.

Second-term Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, is encountering that reality as the sponsor of a bill to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

On Thursday, Melin stood before TV cameras to announce her decision to limit the scope of her bill, so as to neutralize the opposition of the state's major law enforcement organizations. The new version of the bill will allow cannabis extracts and oils to be prescribed under clinical trials to treat certain medical conditions, and vaporized marijuana to be used under medical supervision.

That's very similar to a proposal Gov. Mark Dayton offered six weeks ago. Melin and medical marijuana advocates rejected it then, saying it did not go far enough. Some advocates say they won't support the new version. They note that a stronger bill, legalizing pot smoking for medicinal purposes, is advancing in the state Senate, and would provide relief for more conditions more conveniently. 

But Melin, a 28-year-old attorney, sounded like a veteran when she explained why she's come around: "I personally wish we could do more. I don't like that some people are being left out. But if we can do something for some people -- and I'm actually of the opinion that this is doing a lot for a lot of people -- then that's actually a pretty big victory for the cause and for a lot of these families. It will allow them to access the medicine they need."

After weeks of trying to persuade medical marijuana opponents that her bill would not erode public health or safety, Melin's persuasive work is not over. She must now convince her allies that doing something beats doing nothing this year. That, too, is the mark of a good legislator.


 

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