Janice Rettman said she never gets a second for the motions she offers on the Ramsey County Board.
Ruth Grendahl gets praised for the way she unleashes her "zingers," and Gina Bauman has a friend who calls her before every City Council meeting just to buoy her spirits.
Each belongs to a tribe of public officials who regularly cast the lone dissenting vote on their respective county boards or city councils — the single member who constantly does battle with the rest of their colleagues.
Six of the lone dissenters — current and former officials from New Brighton to Chanhassen and from the northwest Hennepin County exurbs to Apple Valley — met recently to trade stories and engage in a rollicking discussion that left them at times laughing and often shocked by what they heard.
They agreed that an ingrained culture of consensus makes the "island" they occupy more stressful and also gives them leverage: The majority is eager for agreement and to avoid a public fuss.
"Part of the issue is Minnesota Nice," said Grendahl, a veteran of the Apple Valley City Council. "Everyone's supposed to get along."
Carver County Commissioner Tom Workman recalled a staffer telling him that every PowerPoint presentation was crafted to win his support.
"The work of 'The One,' " he said, "is to bend and hone things before they ever get to the board" and go before the public.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson agreed. "Some ridiculous things never get to the board at all," said Johnson, the lone Republican on the Hennepin board and a once and current candidate for governor.
Not a bobblehead
One of the great paradoxes of Minnesota politics, said longtime Carleton College political scientist Steve Schier, is the fractiousness at the state level ("We lead the nation in shutdowns") vs. the deeper yearning for calm consensus at the local level.
The latter, he said, can be summarized as "Can't we all get along, sail below the conflict and reach a happy result?"
The openly biting Bauman, a member of the New Brighton City Council, was in the news last year for suing her colleagues and winning, forcing the postponement of an election that a judge ruled improper. She spoke of her council colleagues as "bobbleheads," vacuously nodding yes to anything that city staffers put before them.
Grendahl, by contrast, noted that Apple Valley is a place where council members remain colleagues for decades. She gets along with them, she says, but differs at times on major issues such as a $3 million golf course clubhouse upgrade a few years ago.
Many dissenters view themselves as gutsy populists, willing to brave outsider status in a City Hall or county courthouse where incumbents grow increasingly cozy with the staff and become reluctant to ask the toughest questions. Such questions can be threatening to a lot of people in the same building who suddenly fear the loss of a paycheck.
Roseville City Council Member Tammy McGehee spent months researching whether the city really needed its own Police Department when the Sheriff's Office can do the job. Nothing happened, although Bauman thinks the question is a fair one for New Brighton as well.
Throwing a hip check
Dissenters feel a freeze-out when county boards that rotate the chairmanship — and the status and sometimes higher pay grade that go with it — skip over the commissioner who doesn't go along.
Rettman has never been chairwoman of the Ramsey board, despite having served on it for 20 years. But Board Chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt said that Rettman is not the only commissioner never to have been chair.
The degree of frostiness can be gauged, some say, by whether the majority will second their motions so their issue can at least get a discussion.
"I've never been refused a second," said Johnson, who acknowledged that he's mellowed since the days when he awarded "Golden Hydrants" to highlight what he considered egregious overspending. He praised the professionalism of his DFL colleagues, saying they've refrained from petty games even during his gubernatorial bids.
Rettman, a folksy Texas native who speaks of herself as representing all the little people who feel overlooked, plainly irks her colleagues, who give her digs on camera.
Reinhardt threw a hip check one day when she noted tartly that even people who vote against pay raises, as Rettman always does, end up accepting them.
On another occasion, faced with Rettman's disapproval, Reinhardt sighed with evident irritation and said that, "We have had several workshops on this," as if to say We've heard you off camera, we don't need to rehearse this again in this setting.
That's a common thought, said the dissenters who recently met with the Star Tribune, and one that bugs them.
Said Johnson: "One of the biggest problems in local government is this desire to work it all out behind the scenes" so that a united front can be forced through in public.
David Landes, a Mahtomedi product who edits the Swedish edition of the Local website, said it's one of the many parallels between Minnesota and a Nordic culture.
"Everyone agrees, everyone gets on board, before we go," he said. "The underbelly is, a lot is done below the board and that can create a kind of low-level corruption."
Televised council and board meetings, dissenters agree, can become political infomercials in which true dialogue gets repressed while elected officials use their time on camera to tout their accomplishments.
Said McGehee, who has made the same point during council meetings: "They break their arms patting themselves on the back."
Reinhardt said that workshops are public meetings and that Rettman always gets her chance to speak, even when commissioners are giving her the "Can we move on?" look.
Many dissenters agreed that there's a public out there that appreciates their role. Workman boasts of zero defeats in 11 elections, including legislative and Chanhassen City Council races. Grendahl, like Rettman, has 20 years on the job.
But they also said that being the lone dissenter can be daunting.
"People say it's easy voting no," Johnson said. "No, it's not. It's much easier to vote yes."