In the season when Christians sing of their hope for peace on earth, the Minnesota Council of Churches is stepping up its effort to promote interfaith peace and friendship in this state.
On Dec. 11, leaders of the council's 24 member churches -- mostly mainline Protestant denominations -- will meet with their counterpart "positional" leaders of at least eight non-Christian faith communities in Minnesota. They will host Shaykh Hafiz Muhammad Naqib Ur Rehman (Pir Saab) of Pakistan, a leading Sufi Muslim exponent of interfaith harmony and nonviolence who is making several stops in the Twin Cities next week.
The goal of the meeting is simple, yet profound. It's to deepen personal relationships between local leaders of diverse faiths, explained the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, Minnesota Council of Churches executive director. No joint proclamations are planned; no new organizational structure is being proposed -- at least, not initially.
Rather, Chemberlin said, the aim is the creation of informal but genuine bonds of friendship, of the sort that can lead to quick joint action and mutual support if and when interfaith harmony is threatened in Minnesota. "The relationships are central," she said.
In some Minnesota locales and among lay people as well as clergy, interfaith relationships are already strong, she said. But there's added value when the people who have been chosen to speak for their faith communities know each other and can count on each other's public witness and personal support.
While no subsequent interfaith leadership meetings are yet planned, Chemberlin and the Council of Churches seem eager for more. Events like the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., which left six worshippers dead, inspire in them a sense of urgency. Their effort at local friendship-building should inspire in others a sense of hope.
A number of stories about former Minnesota U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel have come my way since he died on Nov. 17, at age 86. One might be of use to newly elected members of the Minnesota House, where Frenzel started his political career and served from 1963 through 1970.
It came to me from former Court of Appeals Judge Jack Davies, who arrived in the state Senate four years before Frenzel's came to the House, and was a member of the Liberal (now DFL) caucus, then in the minority.
Frenzel affiliated with the majority Conservative (now Republican) caucus. But he wasn't initially treated as a rising star, Davies related. To the contrary: Frenzel was denied the seats he sought on major committees, presumably because he had backed the losing candidate for speaker, Aubrey Dirlam, within the Conservative caucus. The winner, Lloyd Duxbury Jr., rewarded his allies with plum assignments, leaving Frenzel out in the cold.
"So Frenzel let it be known within the lobbyist corps that he had time to handle a 'few' bills," Davies said. "Already realizing his ability, many lobbyists came to him with their major bills. Frenzel took on sponsorship of an impressive number." He wound up making considerable impact on state policy, despite his lesser committee assignments.
That's the story Frenzel related to Davies at the session's end. Frenzel added: "Duxbury came to me yesterday and said 'You win.'" The next session, Duxbury assigned Frenzel to two major committees, appropriations and commerce. The future congressional leader on fiscal policy was on his way.
For decades, when Minnesota editorial writers took on a weighty national or international topic -- say free trade, federal budgeting, Social Security reform, Middle Eastern policy or how best to stimulate the economy -- the assignment inspired a call to former U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel.
Frenzel was consistently generous with his abundant knowledge, even with journalists who were far from experts. That's why editorial offices are among the Minnesota places in which news Monday of Frenzel's death in Virginia at age 86 was keenly felt.
Republican Frenzel's long career of public service started with his election to the Minnesota House in 1962, representing Golden Valley. He was soon allied with about a dozen generational peers in the Legislature who acquired the label "Young Turks." They were moderate Republicans, mostly from the metro area, who favored high-quality public services and were unafraid to deploy state government toward that end. He was a standout in a group that was loaded with ambition and talent.
When the Third District congressional seat opened in 1970, Frenzel won it by only 2,780 votes out of 220,000 cast. It was his last close election, though he would run nine more times. In Congress, his ability was soon rewarded. He became ranking Republican member of the House Budget Committee, an important voice on the House Ways and Means Committee, and for 15 years a congressional representative to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks in Geneva. He became a strong exponent of free trade, holding that is key to securing a peaceful world.
Frenzel stayed in Washington after leaving Congress, but never retired. He signed on as a guest scholar with the Brookings Institution and became director of its governmental affairs institute. He said yes when President Bill Clinton called on him to help sell the North American Free Trade Agreement and when President George W. Bush asked him to serve on commissions on trade and Social Security reform. He was ever-ready with a quip, a cogent explanation and a quotable line when asked -- and he was asked often.
I was among the Minnesotans who was disappointed in 1990 when Frenzel decided to remain in Washington, and bold enough to tell him so. I hope that in one of the many conversations we had thereafter, I told him that I changed my mind. He was doing stellar service for his state and country right where he was.
Sondra Samuels said aloud what others had been thinking Wednesday at a salute to two of Minnesota's favorite nonagenarians, former Gov. Al Quie and former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser: "I am so honored that we are not here doing a eulogy!"
Quie and Fraser were undoubtedly glad about that too.
But it was more than longevity and past accomplishments that were being praised as the two former elected officials, one Republican, one DFLer, were honored as part of the Citizens League's annual meeting and the sixth annual observance of the "Common Quest for Common Ground" series established in honor of the late Humphrey School dean John Brandl.
Samuels called attention to the work Quie and Fraser are still doing, today more together than apart, to spur organizations such as the one she heads, the Northside Achievement Zone, to lift families out of poverty via improved education for their children. With a voice thick with emotion, Samuels called them "my brothers" because "they love children and they love justice."
Republican Quie and DFLer Fraser were contemporaries in the state Senate in the 1950s and in Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. They developed a relationship of mutual respect, if not yet friendship, and occasional collaboration on matters such as civil rights at a time when bipartisanship was more evident in Washington.
But as their parties became increasingly polarized, these two elder statesmen drew closer in the Twin Cities. They became friends and partners as senior advisers to those trying to enroll more young children in quality preschool and deepen parental involvement in their children's schooling. Though Quie is 91 and Fraser 90, their work continues, "the embodiment of a distinctive Minnesota ethic that prizes lifelong civic responsibility and commitment," wrote Dane Smith of Growth & Justice.
They are an inspiration in many ways, not least this: They did some of their best public work when they ceased trying to win the next election for themselves or their party, and instead focused on future generations. That message may be lost on today's crop of candidates in the days before a general election. But chances are good that Fraser and Quie will still be conveying that message by persistent, committed example, long after next Tuesday's election is over.
If the keynote message chosen for the annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Minneapolis this week is the indicator I think it is, there's no love lost in the nation's state capitols for the 13-year-old federal school reform initiative called No Child Left Behind.
Tuesday's featured speaker was Sir Ken Robinson, a British-born educator and author who has turned his critique of the federal law's standardized testing imperative into a sort of cottage industry. His 2006 TED talk touting more creativity-enhancing educational tactics is deemed the most-watched video in the history of the acclaimed short-talks series.
Modern humans have "created all kinds of issues that we have to think more creatively about. But the problem with education is that we have adopted in many countries in the last 10 or 15 years a policy of standardizing, which is militating against the development of individual talents and general creative capacities," he told the assembled legislators from around the United States and 26 other nations.
No Child Left Behind is well intentioned, but its reliance on standardized testing as the chief agent of reform "removes discretion from the people who actually do the work of education," Robinson said. Testing has become "the purpose rather than the means of school improvement"; teachers "feel deprofessionalized," and the creativity of both students and teachers is stifled.
HIs was the opening general session's second punch at No Child Left Behind. Earlier, former Minnesota House Speaker Martin Olav Sabo was honored as one of NCSL's founders 40 years ago. Sabo said he'd been especially pleased when NCSL leaders "raised a courageous voice" in criticism of the "fundamental overreach" by the federal government that No Child Left Behind represents.
Robinson asserted that educational systems should be judged by how well they promote creativity. If that idea catches on at the state and local levels, I'll look for the academic pendulum to swing back toward the liberal arts and fine arts, disciplines that have lost emphasis under No Child Left Behind.
Legislators galore from around the country have arrived in downtown Minneapolis for this week's annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a Denver-based organization that's been a spur to better state governments for 40 years. Its agenda is chock-full of discussions of both public policy and legislative best practices.
At a general session Tuesday, NCSL will salute one of its founders, former Minnesota House Speaker Martin Olav Sabo. Sabo, now a retired U.S. congressman from Minneapolis, was a leader in the late 1960s and early 1970s of a movement to modernize the nation's legislatures so they could more promptly and effectively address public needs. He was NCSL's third president, in 1976-77.
While Sabo served as speaker from 1971 through 1978, much changed at the Minnesota Legislature. Annual sessions, open meetings, open records, party designation, year-round staffing, a private office for every legislator, a professionally-staffed research division, regular redistricting, the arrival of significant numbers of female legislators and minority-race representation all happened during those years.
One might say that the modern Legislature was invented on Sabo's watch. But in an interview last week, he deflected credit elsewhere, including to the voters of Minnesota, who approved the change to yearly sessions.
Bill Kelly, a former Minnesota House tax committee chair who also served a stint as an NCSL staffer, says Sabo is too modest. He says Sabo brought several crucial ideas to Minnesota from NCSL and one of its predecessor organizations, the National Conference of Legislatures, which Sabo also chaired. One was insisting that House Research be nonpartisan, and therefore credible regardless of which party was in control. Another: giving the House minority the chance to appoint their own members to standing committees, allowing them more opportunity to develop expertise and shape legislation.
Today's Legislature continues to benefit from those changes. But it's been some time since legislators seriously asked the question that Kelly said drove reform 40 years ago: Is state government up to the challenges of modern American life? Two state government shutdowns within the last decade suggest to me that Minnesotans ought to call that question again.