Rep. Mary Franson: It's a shame politicians avoid risks

  • Article by: MARY FRANSON
  • Updated: March 17, 2012 - 4:41 PM

We don't get leadership; we get mediocrity, but one sees how it happens.

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Rep. Mary Franson, left, and Sen. Mike Perry spoke on behalf of childcare providers and supporters during a rally Tuesday against what they called forced unionization.

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Recently, I have been the subject of numerous local and national media stories concerning my attempts to reform Minnesota's bloated and dependency-enabling welfare system.

One video I made had my critics claiming I compared food-stamp recipients to animals. No fair viewing of that video could support such nonsense.

But this is an election year, so the silly season has officially begun.

Since this manufactured "controversy" arose, however, I have had time to reflect on the nature of elected office and what it requires.

I'm a freshman, a first-term representative from Alexandria. I know what my constituents expect from me.

But I increasingly find, in office, an institutional pull toward the passive, the safe, the groupthink. To a certain extent, this is normal and proper.

We Republicans have a working majority in both legislative chambers, and we must act in a prudent and thoughtful manner. Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle act in essentially similar ways.

Yet what this fosters is all too often a lack of genuine leadership. Many reasons are found for inaction, for trimming back campaign promises and commitments.

Exciting and original ideas, to the extent that they are proffered from time to time, are usually weighted down with amendments that substantially gut or change their essence.

Never being brought up for consideration, of course, is the most common cause of death for bill's reflecting original legislative thinking. The public never reads their obituaries; the effect is to discourage original legislative thinking.

Even with proposals that are popular, governing majorities will find ways not to be brave, not to lead, if they fear that moving ahead will bring opposition money into the fight for reelection.

Naive I am not, but my experience in elected office thus far is hardly encouraging. The willingness to surrender to a mediocre status quo sometimes borders on the depressing.

Of course politics is the art of the possible, the art of compromise. But by too often starting with low expectations, we fail the public we like to think we serve.

This happens time and again on important issues that we talk about with seriousness in public, but offer, behind closed doors, nothing but timidity and the safest, most recent version of conventional thinking.

Big ideas are not welcomed in either party; the respective caucuses fight each other over a very narrow band of ideas. It recalls nothing so much as the futility of World War I trench warfare -- high costs for little gain.

I can't help but look east, to Wisconsin, where I see a Republican Party of courage and conviction.

One doesn't have to agree with any or all of what Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans have advanced in order to admire their sheer lack of wimpishness that is never belied in private by cowardice dressed up as political sobriety.

Nowhere in America are differences within the same political party greater than those between the Wisconsin and Minnesota Republican Parties.

Looking further east, Gov. Chris Christie has fairly electrified Republicans and independents around the nation. In New Jersey, the state he governs, principled arguments are made to advance genuinely courageous policy positions.

The public, never as stupid as portrayed by the media and others, have responded enthusiastically.

Are there any hints of this principled leadership in Minnesota? Leadership requires risk-taking. Nothing in this session suggests that an outbreak of it is coming soon.

This is a genuine pity. Republicans won both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature for the first time since the early 1970s. Do we have any accomplishments worthy of that historic achievement?

Or have we, through weak and ineffective leadership, let our constituents down? Being a pale imitation of the DFL -- which has not had a new political idea in more than half a century -- is not why I ran for office. It is most assuredly not why voters elected me.

There is still time, one supposes, for something important and novel to break through the deadening conformity of the House and Senate, something closer to the inspiring examples of Republicans in Wisconsin and New Jersey.

Certainly that is my hope.

What is needed is the courage to speak up -- even if you are viciously attacked and not one of your colleagues comes to your defense.

After all, I should know. If a freshman can do it, the long-timers should, too.

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Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, is a member of the Minnesota House.

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