Any Minnesotan who thought the #MeToo movement of late 2017 would be a temporary blip on the nation’s social radar has been disabused of that notion this year. State politicians are feeling both a continuing push for respectful treatment of women and a backlash from those who think that in at least one case, the push went too far.
The dust-up over whether U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan — DFL gubernatorial candidate Lori Swanson’s running mate — responded appropriately when one of his congressional staffers was accused of harassing female coworkers is the most recent sign that last year’s feminist power surge has not abated.
Nolan wasn’t spared, despite being a 74-year-old six-term congressman who postponed his planned retirement to run with a candidate aspiring to become Minnesota’s first woman governor. Critics pounced when news broke that one of his aides, Jim Swiderski, was given a kindly farewell party rather than a swift kick out the door when Nolan was apprised of how he treated women in the office. And that a few months later, Swiderski resurfaced as an aide to Nolan’s re-election campaign.
That storm is the latest sign of energized feminism in Minnesota politics this year — a year in which record numbers of women are running for office. Take the Minnesota House, where about a third of 134 seats have been occupied by women for the past two decades. As of this pre-primary date, women are running in 83 districts — 73 DFL, 36 Republican, one Libertarian.
Though the primary is still two weeks away and the general election is still more than three months distant, it’s already possible for a pundit to boldly predict that Minnesota will add at least one more woman to the state’s U.S. House delegation this year. (Look at the DFL lineup in the Fifth District.)
Another DFL lieutenant governor wannabe, state Rep. Erin Maye Quade, might not have risen to the top of gubernatorial candidate Erin Murphy’s running-mate list were it not for Maye Quade’s #MeToo debut. Maye Quade was outspoken last November in calling out the text-message version of wolf whistles she received from state Rep. Tony Cornish. He became former Rep. Cornish in a matter of weeks.
Then there’s the U.S. Senate race — the one that before the #MeToo eruption, nobody expected would be on the ballot this year. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith is battling to keep for two more years the seat she moved into in January after Al Franken took his leave.
The emotional residue of the episode that ended Franken’s Senate career is decidedly mixed. Franken departed, voluntarily but grudgingly, after the Senate’s leading Democrats let it be known that they’d had their fill of women’s complaints about him. Minnesota voters had no voice in the matter. That left plenty of them plenty angry, judging from the mail, calls and social-media blasts that gushed our way here at Minnesota Opinion HQ.
Gov. Mark Dayton tapped Smith, his lieutenant governor and former chief of staff, to succeed Franken. I thought the ire would die down soon thereafter. But as I reported on Smith’s easy first-ballot endorsement (74.5 percent) at the DFL convention June 1, Twitter reminded me how persistent such sentiment can be.
“I miss the guy I voted for, Al, who was wrongly railroaded,” one of several like-minded correspondents tweeted that evening.
Smith is competing with five other DFLers in the Aug. 14 primary. You’ve likely never heard of four of them. The fifth is Richard Painter, a Republican-cum-Democrat and law professor at the University of Minnesota who served the George W. Bush White House as its chief ethics lawyer. He has appeared frequently on national TV networks criticizing President Donald Trump. While he’s not as witty as Franken, Painter’s patter has a way of evoking memories of a Minnesota senator who easily attracted national attention as he skewered lying liars.
Smith isn’t that kind of politician. Bombast isn’t her long suit. Relationship-based leadership is. She started stumping through this state’s grass roots as a candidate for lieutenant governor more than four years ago and hasn’t much paused since.
“The knowledge I have of the people and the places in this state serves me so well as I take on this new role,” Smith told me last week. “The place that I come from is that I don’t have to have all the answers myself. But I have to be able to listen well enough and clearly enough to understand what Minnesotans’ answers are, and then bring those answers back to the Senate as the voice of this state.”
She prides herself in making connections with people who disagree with her. “I like to ask, ‘What’s the counter to this argument that I’m trying to make? How can I broaden this so it works for more people?’ I want to listen to all sides — which is not the same as always opting for the middle ground.”
Smith is aware that her desire to listen more and shout less makes her an atypical politician. But not necessarily an atypical female politician.
“Social science research shows that women’s leadership styles are different from men’s,” Smith said. “Women in general tend to be more collaborative. They listen more. And the result is that they get more stuff done.”
Allowing women to get stuff done. That’s the ultimate aim of the #MeToo movement, isn’t it? Ousting randy men from high places isn’t — or shouldn’t be —an end in itself. Rather, this most recent phase of the women’s movement is rooted in the belief that women deserve to be free of the paralyzing impediment of sexual harassment and abuse, so that they can exercise their leadership gifts more fully.
When they do, everyone benefits.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.