Rep. Ryan Winkler may be a Harvard- and Minnesota-educated lawyer and four-term DFL legislator from Golden Valley, but he's also a guy from Bemidji who watched his hometown friends and extended family struggle as real median household income in Minnesota dropped 9.5 percent between 2001 and 2011.
That background has something to do with Winkler's decision to take his House Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs on the road this fall. It summoned local pols and businessfolk to hearings in eight Minnesota cities, Bemidji among them, to consider how best to make work pay more.
There's this, too: Winkler is historian enough to understand that growing income inequality is one of the biggest problems facing the state and nation, and idealistic (and ambitious) enough to believe that he and the Minnesota Legislature can do something about it.
Ambitious history-minded idealism is a magnetic blend for editorial writers. So is skepticism. These hearings were all about promoting and passing the minimum wage increase bill that stalled last session, right?
"A minimum-wage increase is one of the things that has to get done," Winkler replied last week. "But this is much bigger. This is the work of a generation, not of a legislative session. … The question that's before us is: Can America have a strong and vibrant middle class in the face of a competitive global economy?"
Asking a small, impermanent band of seven legislators to find ways to get to "yes" on that question can be chalked up to more of the aforementioned Winkler idealism and ambition. But were I to screen all seven, I predict that each select committee member would claim that he or she has a set of answers. Minority Republicans believe that lower taxes, particularly on "job creators," and less government regulation of businesses will spur the economy sufficiently to lift lower- and middle-class incomes. They're inclined to oppose a higher government-imposed wage floor, arguing that it will suppress hiring.
The DFL majority has no such qualms. It wants the wage floor raised. But that's what it said in the 2013 session, and it failed to deliver. Winkler's House bill sought $9.50 an hour by 2015, well above the current federal $7.25 an hour that most Minnesota employers pay and the pathetic $5.25 an hour state minimum for small employers that don't engage in interstate commerce.
The Senate bill's bid was $7.75 an hour. Compromise in the $8.50 range seemed possible until it wasn't, amid rumors that letting the bill die was the price for the handful of Republican votes needed to pass a small bonding bill. Higher paychecks for an estimated 300,000 Minnesotans were put on ice.
Appalled minimum-wage backers have been busy since then. Their "Raise the Wage!" coalition counts Gov. Mark Dayton as an ally and was visible and vocal in the liberal/labor/DFL corner of this year's Minnesota State Fair. They've made a higher minimum wage a political imperative for DFLers and nearly a foregone conclusion for us Capitol watchers — until we remember that we would have said as much one year ago.
For Winkler, a higher minimum wage is Job One on a longer agenda aimed at improving labor trend lines. He's interested in raising workplace standards, requiring more employers to offer sick leave, establishing an insurance-style cooperative for paid family leaves, and using state contract requirements to raise the wages and benefits that contractors pay.
The emergence of a potent minimum wage coalition in recent months makes those ideas seem more politically plausible than they were a few years ago. So does the rise of TakeAction Minnesota, which crowed last week about its role in Betsy Hodges' successful mayoral bid in the Nov. 5 Minneapolis election.
Calling itself a "people's network," TakeAction is sometimes tagged as socialist. But it stands for some pretty basic American ideas: People who want to work should be able to do so. People who work ought to be able to support themselves and their families. They ought to be able to afford health insurance. They ought to be able to vote without impediment.
TakeAction earns its liberal stripes when it makes clear that it means all people — ex-felons, single parents, country folk, inner-city dwellers, immigrants and people of color. And it maintains that where there are systemic barriers to work (and to work's just rewards), government has a duty to knock them down.
In seven years, TakeAction has grown from 1,000 to 14,000 individual members, 26 member organizations and an e-network of 45,000. Executive director Dan McGrath says that growth springs from a sense that the American dream escalator out of poverty is no longer reliably working. "Whether we are knocking on doors in the suburbs or in Duluth or Grand Rapids, the question of income inequality is at the center of what people want to talk about," McGrath said.
That would be Duluth, Grand Rapids — or Bemidji, Winkler would surely add. He pointed out that statewide, 40 percent of jobs today pay less than $14 an hour. In his home turf in northern Minnesota, that share is 75 percent, he said. A lot of people he knows there "work very hard and don't get very far," he said. He'd like to bring them a little hope.
"One of my rules is: Don't forget where you came from," Winkler said.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.