Word comes that DFL bigwigs got privileged access to posh suites during games at the new publicly owned U.S. Bank Football Palace, and howls of outrage erupt. Predictable ones, I’ll add. Could there be a brouhaha more classically Minnesotan than Suitegate?
Minnesotans have an uncommon aversion to self-dealing by those in positions of responsibility in government — as people born and bred in Minnesota politics (and named Mondale and Kelm) ought to know.
It has ever been thus. What caused the rapid downfall of the old Farmer-Labor Party in the late 1930s? The error wasn’t excessive liberalism, as some believe, but excessive cronyism in Gov. Elmer Benson’s administration.
What caused Wendell Anderson’s star to come crashing down just four years after he carried all 87 counties as governor? Appointing himself to the U.S. Senate in 1976 was seen as self-dealing.
Remember Phonegate? Several legislators came under fire and one resigned in 1993 because they and their kin used a state-paid toll-free phone line to make personal calls. That same year, Rep. Dee Long stepped down as House speaker after she got caught playing golf while attending a conference at state expense.
The perks that raise Minnesotans’ ire can be that petty. In fact, the petty stuff seems prone to outsized reactions, perhaps because it’s often easy to understand.
As scandals go, Suitegate is so small that it wouldn’t make a blip on outrage meters in states like Illinois or New Jersey. But I bet it’s a talker in Elmore and Blackduck.
The story to date: Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), and Ted Mondale, its executive director, control access to 36 seats in two suites at all stadium events, purportedly to be used for stadium marketing purposes. The occupants of those seats at this year’s Vikings games have not been fully disclosed, but have included Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, City Council Member Jacob Frey and state Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans. Friends and family of MSFA board members were also said to be enjoying the suite life.
All of the aforenamed forked over $200 per seat after they became aware that a Star Tribune reporter was asking questions.
Meanwhile, the Bluestem Prairie blog has raised questions about whether Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt ran afoul of the gift-ban law when he occupied Star Tribune owner Glen Taylor’s suite, even though Daudt paid $176 for the privilege.
They’ll all be getting more questions soon. Legislative auditor Jim Nobles is on the case, calling the matter a “priority” concern. State Sen. Julie Rosen, the Fairmont Republican who sponsored the 2012 stadium bill, is calling for disclosure of the names of all who’ve enjoyed MSFA’s suite hospitality this year — and as the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee, she’s in a position to get what she seeks.
All that umbrage may discomfit those who whiled away a few hours in MSFA suites. I find the kerfuffle oddly reassuring. It’s a sign that Minnesotans still insist on a government that serves the common good.
Consider this description of Minnesota’s political culture: Minnesotans hold that “government is a positive force in the lives of citizens … . Corruption is not tolerated because government service is seen as public service, not as business.” Minnesota voters will “punish those engaged in political activity” that appears to be “focused on the interests of the individual officeholder or party.”
That was part of a 2000 article in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Its coauthor, Wyman Spano, says he’d say the same today.
“The tradition in Minnesota is that nobody gets a special deal. That tradition has held,” said Spano. “Fairness is still the ultimate argument at the Legislature.”
Spano would know. After a long career as a lobbyist, he founded the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program, now at Metropolitan State University. It prepares seekers of careers influencing public policy.
In other states, politics is often defined as “who gets what, when, where and how,” Spano said. In his program, “we say that politics is how we care for each other.” It’s a Minnesota-specific definition.
There’s a downside to Minnesotans’ willingness to pounce on the least sign of a politician taking more than his share, Spano added. When Minnesotans focus on the least signs, they can overlook larger systemic problems.
For example, he said, the gift ban that the Legislature imposed on itself after Phonegate allowed legislators to claim that they had fixed their ethics problem. “It allowed them to ignore the larger problem, which is campaign financing,” he said.
Knowing Minnesotans, I trust that any freeloading in MSFA suites will soon be a thing of the past, if it isn’t already. But U.S. Bank Stadium is a local emblem of a larger American problem with taxpayer largesse for politically potent private interests. In the Trump era that’s now dawning, vigilance against that kind of corruption will be much in order.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.