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A majority by even a single vote means everything in the Minnesota Legislature, which is why obscure House seats have attracted six-figure contributions. Being in the majority or the minority can be the major determinant in whether a legislator is a player or a back-bench critic.
Dave Bishop, tall, silver-haired, mercurial at times and never predictable, was the exception. He turned minority status into policymaking power during his tenure as a Republican House member from Rochester between 1983 and 2002. Now 84, he is finishing up work on a how-to guide for minority members called "Legislating Without a Gavel."
As the 2014 legislative session gets underway in the shadow of a fall election, Bishop offers hope for minority members — currently the Republicans, but subject to change by the voters in November's House elections — who want to make a difference. There also is hope for voters frustrated with the transfer of nationalized hyperpartisanship to state capitols.
Bishop's first rule for legislators: Prize your independence.
"I was a free force," Bishop said in a recent interview. "The Republicans were called 'Independent-Republicans' in those days, and I sure was."
The conflict between being an across-the-aisle cooperator and a member of a partisan minority was revealed to Bishop as he prepared an amendment to a DFL-backed bill in the House retiring room.
A colleague told him his job as a member of the Republican minority was to oppose the majority, not improve their bills — that was the way to win back power.
Bishop paid no heed to such distinctions during much of his career and guided major bills on sex offender notification, living wills, speed limits and other issues. He was a moderate Republican, meaning he supported abortion rights, was popular in his district and known for being more passionate about issues than about strict party loyalty.
"The intense caucus loyalty is terrible," he said in the interview. His chapter on the subject is titled "The Scourge of Partisanship."
Bishop's leadership on behalf of living wills was a five-year fight, often with anti-abortion lobbyists, during a period when he was in the majority and in the minority. He clearly enjoyed the battle. I can recall his barely suppressed glee when he responded to a proposed waiting period for abortions by proposing a similar waiting period for men seeking vasectomies.
"All I was trying to do was pull the tail of the powerful MCCL," he said, referring to Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state's anti-abortion lobby.
Partisan conflict is inevitable and necessary, particularly in an era when the electorate is so divided. Minnesota's battles over whether to raise taxes or cut deeper to fix deficits — or this year over the minimum wage and health care reform — are a window into each side's basic governing philosophies.
But Bishop writes that the conflict goes too far and "the public is losing tolerance for internal bickering among lawmakers." He suggests legislators can do more by sticking with the caucus on major battles and finding less politicized areas where cooperation is possible. He worked on such issues as transitional housing and public defense funding, issues that were out of the glare of the partisan battles.
Bishop describes how the partisan vs. practical conflict makes it difficult to separate every issue to "green" and "red" votes. In Bishop's first session in 1983, Rochester wanted authority to raise its sales tax for a flood-control project and civic center renovation. The DFL majority inserted the Rochester taxes into a catch-all bill that included a statewide tax increase adamantly opposed by the GOP caucus.
Bishop and another Rochester Republican, Rep. Don Frerichs, broke with their team to vote "green" on the entire tax bill, which was the price they had to pay for their local provisions. History repeated itself last year when Sen. Dave Senjem, R.-Rochester, had to buck his caucus and vote for a DFL income tax hike bill that included his city's "Destination Medical Center" development project.
Bishop is sending out his manuscript for review to old-timers like me, planning for publication this summer. He hopes the lessons he learned can be of use to the minorities of the future.
He writes that "legislating without a gavel" is a "tricky dance," requiring quick footwork and cooperation with a majority partner who may be less than willing at first. It may not be for everyone, because succeeding at the "dance" requires legislators to say "no" to friends and interest groups.
"When they do, they gain respect that they're independent," Bishop writes. "They show they have integrity."