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

Staggered Senate terms, anyone?

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: March 20, 2014 - 12:46 PM

This week, the Minnesota Senate's DFL majority is likely going to be very glad to see Friday come. They've been on the receiving end of a scolding by the DFL governor, thinly veiled scorn from their House counterparts, and a barrage of barbs from the GOP minority, all over their handling of politically sensitive tax and facilities issues.

At this writing, the Senate majority is aiming for redemption via approval of a $430 million tax relief bill. It's a good measure.

But critics note that the bill would not be necessary if the Senate majority had pursued different policies in 2013. The new bill includes federal conformity measures that the House favored last year, and repeals three ill-advised expansions of the sales tax to businesses that the Senate promoted 10 months ago.

The Senate also tucked planning money for a new office building for senators in the 2013 tax bill, and DFLers have been asked to defend it ever since. That building's fate now rests in the hands of a politically nervous, DFL-dominated House Rules Committee. On Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton accused senators of holding up this year's tax bill for the building's sake. They denied the charge -- but the Senate tax bill has been leaping through procedural hoops since.

Dayton's signature on a tax relief bill will soothe some DFL political nerves. But it's not likely to diminish the sense that the Senate isn't as attuned to public opinion as Dayton and House members. That stands to reason: Dayton and the House are on the 2014 ballot. Senators' four-year terms aren't due for renewal until 2016.

This year's tax-and-facilities drama is bound to revive interest in an old proposal -- staggered terms for state senators. Of the 38 states whose senators serve four-year terms, 28 states stagger their terms so that half of senators are on the ballot each year.

A four-year term brings a welcome long-term perspective to state lawmaking. It gives senators more  latitude to take political risks. But that risk-taking is only beneficial if it serves the state's long-term interests, not self-interest-- and does not lead to risk-takers' remorse soon thereafter.

The state Constitution gives Minnesota senators a degree of political freedom that officials in many other states would envy. My hunch is that some Senate critics would say that the Constitution is too generous in that regard, and that it should be amended to stagger Senate terms.


Female athletes still face collegiate hurdles

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: February 5, 2014 - 12:58 PM

Chris Voelz, passionate as ever for women's athletics, was back at her old University of Minnesota stomping ground Wednesday morning to jar Minnesotans out of any complacency they may have lately acquired about gender equity in college sports. 

Voelz made plenty of feminist waves between 1988 and 2002 as the last Golden Gopher women's athletic director — a position that was eliminated in Minnesota and around the country as colleges opted to eliminate the gender separation in sports administration. Voelz left Minnesota soon thereafter; today she's executive director of the Los Angeles-based Collegiate Women Sports Awards.

The merger of men's and women's athletic departments has not yet produced a happy ending for female coaches and student athletes, Voelz said. She was the featured guest at the seventh annual Jean Freeman Breakfast, part of the University of Minnesota's observance of National Girls and Women in Sport Day.

Men hold 80 percent of collegiate athletic director and head coaching positions in the country, she said. They also hold 70 percent of associate and 66 percent of assistant athletic director positions, a share that has barely budged in the past 15 years.

Every Division I school in the country spends more per student on male than female athletes, Voelz said. That disparity ranges from $1,000 per student to a whopping $30,000.

In the past 10 years, U.S. colleges have expanded sports teams in order to create 43,000 more opportunities for male students to play at the intercollegiate level. The comparable expansion for female students is 37,000, she said, citing NCAA statistics.

"It is time that we debunk the perpetuated myth that Title IX has caused men to lose opportunities. It simply is not so," Voelz said.

Title IX, barring gender discrimination by any educational program receiving federal funds, has revolutionized sports for women since its enactment in 1972. But revolutions take time — and with people like Voelz still pushing for change, this one may not yet be over.


This Dayton running mate is an insider

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: February 4, 2014 - 1:19 PM

As chief of staff, Tina Smith has been so integral to Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration that her title might have been deputy governor.

If Dayton and Smith prevail this fall in a bid for a second term, her new title will be lieutenant governor. The DFL governor announced Tuesday that Smith, 55, will be his running mate, succeeding Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner-Solon in that role.

When Prettner-Solon announced last month that she won’t seek a second term, she allowed that she had hoped to be more of an insider on Dayton’s team. In choosing Smith, Dayton appears to have taken that message to heart. Smith is the administration’s ultimate insider, the person who has tackled the most complicated and politically difficult issues that have come to the governor’s office in the past three years.

A former General Mills marketing professional and former chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, she worked with the business community, legislators and Minneapolis officials to craft a Vikings stadium plan that could clear political hurdles. A former Planned Parenthood executive, she was sufficiently savvy about health care to win Mayo Clinic trust in the bid for state help for the Destination Medical Center (DMC) project. The DMC Corp. governing board elected her its chair last fall. An MBA graduate of the Tuck School at Dartmouth College, Smith has pushed Dayton’s cabinet for more efficiency in state operations.

What Smith has not done — not since her high school student council days — is run for elective office. But she has coached numerous Democratic candidates in Minnesota and around the country. And she demonstrated at Tuesday’s announcement at state AFL-CIO headquarters that she knows how to deliver a campaign pitch and rev up a crowd (albeit a friendly one).

Though balanced by gender, as winning gubernatorial tickets have been since 1982, the Dayton-Smith team breaks with some political ticket traditions. It offers no geographic balance. Both Dayton and Smith spent their adult lives in Minneapolis.

Smith also lacks something governors and presidents usually seek in a running mate — a  defined, loyal political base. Dayton’s 2010 choice of Prettner-Solon, a longtime elected official in Duluth, seemed to be an attempt to curry favor with DFL primary voters in northeastern Minnesota.

With no primary to fear this year, Dayton seems unconcerned about Smith’s lack of an electoral base. In choosing Smith, he seems to have his eye less on the 2014 election than on keeping a talented player on his team in a second term.

The Capitol/immigration connection

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 14, 2014 - 4:28 PM

Minnesota Capitol lovers: There's a double treat available for you on Wednesday. Two public showings are planned of a fine new documentary about the people who built Minnesota's "People's Palace." Its name: "Who Built Our Capitol?"

The showings are at noon at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Room 2-207, and at 7 p.m. at the CSPS (Czech-Slovak) Hall, 383 Michigan St., St. Paul.

If you'd rather soak up this new telling of the Capitol's story online, you can do that, too. The video is available for viewing at www.whobuiltourcapitol.org. It's the handiwork of the Labor Education Service of the University of Minnesota and project director Randy Croce. They deserve praise for making their work so widely available.

I'm an unabashed Capitol buff, having worked in its bowels intermittently for 35 years and having written "Elmer's Tour," a booklet about the place featuring the late Gov. Elmer L. Andersen. I thought I knew a lot about the building's origin. This documentary showed me that I still have much to learn.

Before watching it, I would have answered the question its title poses with one name, "Cass Gilbert." Until now, the famous architect has been getting the lion's share of the credit for every last Capitol detail.

He shouldn't, this documentary project argues. Gilbert's overall design was much embellished by the decisions of skilled craftsmen employed on the project -- some of them coming to Minnesota for the express purpose of working on the Capitol. Many of them were immigrants from Europe -- Italy, Bohemia, Sweden. Some were African-Americans escaping Jim Crow discrimination elsewhere in the United States, searching for a place where their talent would matter more than their color.

Their stories, including the testimony of the descendants of several of them, remind me of two important facts about Minnesota. One is that much good has come from this state's willingness to welcome immigrants and quickly turn strangers into Minnesotans. The other is this is still a very young state. We aren't far removed from its builders -- and we have more building to do.

Speaker Searle kept the wheels on

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 6, 2014 - 5:09 PM

When voters in the 1978 election sent a state House evenly divided, 67-67, to St. Paul, Minnesota could have lost a crucial legislative year to partisan division, dissension and disorder.

It didn't, and for that, much credit is owed to state Rep. Rod Searle of Waseca, who died Sunday at age 93. He led his caucus in negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with the DFL, then kept the wheels on state government as a fair-minded speaker for one tumultuous year, 1979.

A year later, the DFL was back in power, 68-66, and able to elect a speaker of its own. It might be seen as a compliment to Searle that instead of their own 1979 caucus leader, the brash Irv Anderson, a rump caucus of DFLers allied themselves with like-minded Republicans to elect a DFL speaker with a gentlemanly temperament more like Searle's, Fred Norton. Norton's election may have been the most stunning display of bipartisan cooperation in the state House in the last 40 years.

Searle served 24 years in the Legislature and played a strong hand on K-12 funding, higher education and natural resources policy. He went on to serve on several higher education governing boards and play an active role at Minnesota State University-Mankato, his alma mater. 

But his career's pinnacle, and his greatest contribution to Minnesota, came after the 1978 election produced an unprecedented and seemingly unworkable result. Who was in charge of the House in the case of a tie? Searle and Anderson cut a deal that neither side liked, but both could live with: the Republicans got the speakership and were chairs of subdivisions of the powerful money committees, on which they had a one-vote majority; DFLers chaired the full money committees, on which they had a one-vote majority, and the rules committee. 

The deal might have collapsed, but for the respect legislators on both sides of the aisle had for Searle. A native of New Jersey, educated at Rutgers before coming to Minnesota, Searle was as Gov. Mark Dayton described him Sunday -- "a principled leader, a dedicated public servant, and a true gentleman." He was the man Minnesota needed in 1979. If the voters ever send 67 Republicans and 67 DFLers to the state House again -- and they could -- I hope Minnesota has leaders on hand just like him.

Minneapolis, feminist hotspot

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: January 3, 2014 - 10:59 AM

For a good 135 years or so, men occupied all the top leadership spots in Minneapolis city government. Eventually that gender imbalance rankled. Women asked, begged and finally demanded seats at the tables of power. A breakthrough came in a brief period from the late 1990s until 2001, when the mayor, council president and superintendents of both the schools and parks were all female, and feminists rejoiced.

As of this week, it has happened again. The inauguration of Mayor Betsy Hodges and the fact that leading contenders for the City Council presidency are Barb Johnson and Elizabeth Glidden means that City Hall is again in feminine hands. Women are also again in charge at the city's school district (Bernadeia Johnson) and parks (Jayne Miller). This time, even the top cop, police Chief Janee Harteau, and the city attorney, Susan Segal, are on the list.

What's notable to me is that this all-female sweep has not been much noted. I didn't bump into a single gender-related pitch for votes in the mayoral race last fall. No reader has sent me a note either praising or disparaging the change. (Someone did note that women are well represented in the leadership of the Destination Medical Center project in Rochester, and wondered why DMC looks so different from most private businesses and Congress in that regard. I'd say Congress and corporations should be so lucky as to be led by the likes of Tina Smith and Patricia Simmons.)

It's not yet so in all of Minnesota. But in Minneapolis, the sight of women in government leadership positions is no longer an oddity. For the city's feminist activists who pried open doors of opportunity for women only a few decades ago, that non-news may be some of the best news of the new year. And for women aspiring to crack glass ceilings in other settings, there's inspiration to be found in Minneapolis.


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