It’s a fine thing to reach age 90 strong in body, mind and spirit, and to celebrate that milestone with 400 of one’s friends. That’s what’s in store for former Gov. Al Quie tonight at a birthday dinner at the University of St. Thomas.
For a lifelong public servant, it may be an even better thing to turn 90 still making an impact on public affairs. Quie is. His endorsement of City Council member Don Samuels for mayor of Minneapolis was called to this journalist’s attention more than once in recent weeks, both by Samuels loyalists and citizens seeking guidance as they scan a 35-candidate mayoral field.
Why did a former Republican governor and former congressman from southeastern Minnesota — who now lives in Minnetonka and rides his horse a few times each week — choose up sides in the Minneapolis mayoral race?
Quie cites two reasons: the leadership qualities he sees in Samuels, and the worry he has about socioeconomic and educational gaps in the state’s largest city.
• About Samuels: “He’s a guy who’s willing to learn. He analyzes well. He doesn’t have too much pride, or worry about what somebody thinks about him. He’s got great integrity. All of those qualities of a good leader are right there.”
• About poverty and the achievement gap: “The big breakdown is in community formation. In order to develop community, you have to interact with other people. You have to make an effort at it. And you have to learn some things you didn’t know before from the interaction.
“Family should be where you learn about human interrelatedness. Some families need help with that, and it’s in everybody’s interest that they get that help. … The most important thing about Samuels is his understanding of family, and that it’s the first step toward community.”
It was the kind of answer I’ve come to expect from Quie. He values character. He analyzes problems by digging down to fundamentals.
He never underestimates the value of listening, the power of love and the human potential for redemptive transformation. He doesn’t let distinctions like jurisdictional boundaries or party labels (Quie remains a Republican, Samuels a DFLer) limit his range.
I wouldn’t dream of disputing anything he said — certainly not on the day of his 90th birthday bash. But permit an addendum: Decades ago, Quie acquired a sense of stewardship for this state. He may have left the governor’s office more than 30 years ago. But that habit of thought persists, as it does in the best of Minnesota “formers” — the ones who deserve to be called elder statesmen.
I think Quie injected himself in the Minneapolis mayoral race because he sees educational underachievement in the city as a moral crisis and an economic liability to the whole state. In the face of such threats, he can’t bear to be silent.
Evidently, a lot of Minneapolis voters share his concern. The city’s educational lag topped the Minneapolis voters’ worry list in a poll conducted for the Star Tribune on Sept. 8-10, beating out the old bugaboo, crime.
Retiring Mayor R.T. Rybak told MinnPost last week that his successor needs to make educational improvement a personal priority, even though the city charter gives the mayor no direct governing power over the schools. Though Rybak hasn’t publicly picked a favorite in the big mayoral race, he too praised Samuels: “He has created what is the boldest plan for addressing the achievement gap, and I know he has the guts to follow through.”
The Samuels plan includes more early childhood education; a mayoral push for better parenting; a longer school day and year; an innovation fund for competitive grants and forgiveable loans to schools that improve achievement; more professionalization of the teaching cadre, and more decentralized control of schools.
Quie praised Samuels’ ideas, then added, “Of course, I don’t expect anyone to be as radical as I am” about how to close the achievement gap.
A 90-year-old education radical would close large school buildings used for grades pre-K through 3 and open small classrooms for those children “in every place where adults spend their daytime hours. … Young children should be taught where their parents are.” What’s more, employers of parents would be required to design the workday so that parents and children could have lunch or a snack together.
More radical yet: “Teachers ought to live with the families of children that are in trouble, for six weeks during the school year. Just be there, interact with them.”
What about the 45-year-old teacher who has children of his own? “Then the troubled children could live with him, or he could bring his children with him to live with them. Those exchanges are great learning opportunities.”
It must be a fine thing, I thought, to turn 90 and feel free to call for a major shakeup in school design and teacher requirements, without having to defend those controversial ideas in an election campaign.
Then I remembered my first long interview with gubernatorial candidate Al Quie in 1978. He was known as an education reformer as ranking minority member of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee. His big campaign idea was smaller class sizes in grades K-3. But that was to be only the first step, he said then. He wanted young children to be schooled near their parents and teachers to have stronger relationships with their students.
When an elder statesman and education radical turns 90, his birthday gift is a fresh chance to pitch his favorite ideas at, say, a party for 400 friends. Or in a newspaper column.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.