The list of populist achievements in this year’s legislative session is long and impressive. Marriage equality. A new health care exchange free of insurance industry conflicts of interest. “Ban the box” legislation opening up access to employment for ex-offenders and moving us one step forward to closing the racial jobs gap. There will be fairer taxation, all-day kindergarten, and a stronger MinnesotaCare.
It’s a day-and-night difference from the last Legislature, whose Republican majorities refused to raise taxes and caused a state government shutdown. They placed the anti-marriage-equality and photo ID amendments on the ballot, and used Obamacare as a political football.
On Election Day 2012, both amendments were defeated and the DFL won the triple crown of state government by taking control of the state House and Senate.
As this session began, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders knew they would be judged on their ability to get things done. This, after all, is what one expects when electing single-party control. Still, it’s unusual to see this level of cooperation. Remember when Obama was first elected and Democrats controlled Congress? There was nowhere near this level of productivity. So what’s different?
Just like the winter’s snow that just wouldn’t melt, the grass-roots movement that defeated both amendments and elected the new legislative majorities lasted until May.
The campaigns that defeated both the anti-marriage and photo ID amendments were an awesome display of sophistication, scale and efficacy. But it was the volunteers and grass-roots organizations of these campaigns that set higher expectations for legislators and were willing to extend their engagement into issue advocacy at our State Capitol.
Most of the money spent by electoral campaigns buys hot air — TV, radio and Internet advertising. Most are negative attacks, and by the election most voters feel cynical and discouraged. The “vote no” campaigns produced positive, compelling ads, but they did something more. They invested heavily in grass-roots volunteers who they relied on to talk to voters, and eventually, to legislators.
As volunteers knocked on doors and made phone calls, they were asked to talk about more than the issue at hand. They were asked to talk about their values and vision for the kind of state they want to live in. Values like love, democracy and equality.
With so many real people involved, the political conversation changed, and so did the outcome of the election. As volunteers gathered up “no” votes, they raised expectations for what legislators should accomplish. The results were the stunning come-from-behind defeat of both amendments, new legislative majorities, and a changed political environment that went beyond more DFLers occupying additional seats in the Senate and House.
The people who gave their time to these campaigns also changed. Some volunteers were transformed into new community leaders, capable of organizing their own communities to advocate for their best interests. Most important, the confidence these people found in themselves and each other is what kept them going after Election Day. They developed new skills and understanding that can be applied toward any issue or cause. And apply them they did.
Not only was marriage equality realized, a feat that just two years earlier was little more than a distant hope, but all-day kindergarten was finally secured, a boon to parents and their children across the state. People made the difference in these victories, sending e-mails to their legislators, packing hearings, making sure their voices carried the day. The “ban the box” bill to improve the employment prospects for ex-offenders is the result of years of organizing work by the Second Chance Coalition.
The greatest challenge in American politics is sustaining the belief that change can actually happen. If what you seek is enduring social change, then how we campaign is just as important as what we campaign for. Last year’s electoral victories inspired a groundswell of grass-roots organizing this session, the results of which will be felt in our state for years to come. The ideals of participatory democracy came alive in ways we rarely see in politics today, because Minnesotans stood up and took charge of their own vision for what our state could be.
The values of love, democracy and equality are bigger than any legislative session or bill. There is much more to be done. As gay-rights advocates celebrate, little has been done to expand voting rights and improve our elections system. Raising the minimum wage to help working families lost. Racial disparities in health, education and employment are still the shame of our state. The power and influence of big business is at its height, while more and more people are left behind.
But now we know what a difference a movement of organized and inspired people can make.
Dan McGrath is executive director of TakeAction Minnesota.