Is that a time long gone? Well, consider the stadium legislation.
Wherever Ember Reichgott Junge appeared Wednesday at the big National Charter Schools Conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center, a crowd gathered.
The former DFL state senator is a rock star among the nation's charter-schoolers. Deservedly so: She shepherded the first-in-the-nation state authority to create charter schools into the statute books in 1991, and has recently written a fine book, "Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story," about how it was done.
Conference attendees from states in which charter schools are scarce and struggling queued up to get their books autographed and ask her what they could learn from Minnesota. The state that initiated the charter-school movement now has about 150 of the publicly funded alternatives to conventional schools -- some thriving, some underperforming, many filling a niche that conventional schools couldn't.
I asked Reichgott Junge a slightly different question: How can we do it again?
I didn't mean how can Minnesota start more charter schools, though that's not a bad idea, especially if more teacher control and respect are part of the story.
Rather: How can state government again be as innovative in tackling big problems as it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s?
Chartering wasn't the only policy brainstorm that came to life then. That was the era of the postsecondary education option (1985), open enrollment (1988), job-spurring tax reform (1989), the Minnesota Family Investment Program (piloted in 1989), the MnSCU higher ed merger (1991), MinnesotaCare (1992) and probably more, about which readers will surely remind me.
Reichgott Junge had a discouraging answer:
"Chartering truly came from the political middle. The reason it could do that is we had moderate legislators in both parties. They banded together to pass it.
"The problem today is that we don't have a middle anymore. I don't think chartering could pass today, either in the Minnesota Legislature or the federal Congress, because there is no middle left."
Yes -- but: Minnesotans were witness only last month to a bipartisan coalition of legislators enacting two major bills, bonding and the Vikings stadium bill. It was a rare sight indeed at today's highly partisan Capitol. But it happened.
We who root for more of the same might do well to consider some other things the 1991 charter law story and the 2012 stadium story have in common. For instance:
• Impetus came from strong forces outside the Legislature. In 1991, that force in Minnesota was the Citizens League in general and its former executive director Ted Kolderie in particular. Nationally the chartered-school idea got a crucial push from the visionary head of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker.
This year, the stadium bill's vigorous backing by the state's corporate community and a timely push by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made a difference. So did a sense that the public cared about the outcome.
• Governors mattered. Rudy Perpich and Arne Carlson may have been rivals in the 1990 election, but they were both friends of education reform. Mark Dayton pushed so forcefully for the Vikings bill that it became "the governor's No. 1 priority" in GOP eyes. That was politically risky but crucial to the bill's success.
• Success required compromise. Reichgott Junge very reluctantly agreed in 1991 to a bill so watered down she did not believe it would lead to any charter schools being launched. She was shocked when within weeks her bill was hailed as a national breakthrough by the likes of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger. On the strength of national acclaim and the fact that a few schools were started that first year, she was able to push through amendments in subsequent years that made the result more to her liking.
Compromise was essential this year, too, right up to the session's final days, when team owners agreed to add $50 million to their contribution to the stadium project.
"Twenty years later, I'd say the most important thing I learned is that compromise is not defeat. It is a strength," Reichgott Junge said. "If others hadn't pushed me to compromise, charter schools never would have happened here."
The people who run political parties and pay for campaigns ought to understand the value of compromise better than average voters do. Sad to say, the evidence says that they don't. They seem to want to keep their pet lawmakers on a short leash.
So -- like most things that matter in a democracy -- it's up to the voters. If voters want Minnesota to get back its innovation mojo, they'll need to seek out and elect compromisers, then give them enough freedom to govern.
"If we want to make this state better, the best gift we can give legislators is permission to use their best judgment," Reichgott Junge said. She was a senator willing to tug at her own partisan leash, and Minnesota is better for it.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.