Knocking on doors: The 2012 report

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 - 4:00 PM

A common theme candidates are finding is frustration with a gridlocked state government.

"What are you hearing at the doors?" That's my standard question to legislative candidates whose October exercise regimen consists of walking, knocking and chatting with voters on doorsteps.

One frequent answer -- "jobs and the economy" -- is to be expected. The economic wounds of the Great Recession were deep and have not fully healed.

I'm more surprised by the intensity of the other most common response: "People are sick of the gridlock. They want state government to work."

"I hear more about that than anything else," said DFL Senate candidate Alice Johnson in north suburban District 37.

That may be in part because of something she highlights on her campaign flyer: "Former member, Minnesota House of Representatives."

She's not alone in touting that credential. "Formers" are in generous supply on this year's legislative ballots. Many are DFLers who got the boot in 2010. One, Edina House candidate Ron Erhardt, got the GOP's boot in 2008 for the sin of sponsoring a gas tax increase. He's running this time as a DFLer.

Johnson's service came earlier. It's been a dozen years since she left the state House voluntarily after seven terms. She married another former legislator, Minneapolis Rep. Richard Jefferson, and settled into what she thought would be politically placid early retirement.

But watching the 2011 session devolve into a 20-day government shutdown and the 2012 session's "lack of willingness to compromise" offended Johnson's pride in an institution to which she and her husband devoted a total of 26 years.

"It became very clear to me that it's impossible to meet our challenges if we can't sit down and talk to each other respectfully," she said. "That's my whole reason for running -- to try to get that back."

That message resonates with the prospective constituents she meets in her bid to unseat first-term GOP Sen. Pam Wolf, Johnson said. "They're right with me when I talk about this. They practically finish my sentences."

Her door-knock report came to mind as I waded into the unusually large and energized crowd that turned out for a Minnesota history book launch last week.

The book: "Minnesota's Miracle: Learning from the Government that Worked," by former Minneapolis DFL legislator and attorney Tom Berg.

That must be a grabby title. The audience at the HHH School spilled into a video-linked overflow room. The place was sprinkled with Berg's legislative contemporaries from the 1970s, the period he describes in the book.

Nostalgia and a desire for reunion may have accounted for their interest -- but Berg says there's more to it. "This isn't about nostalgia. This is about, 'We have a problem and we need to fix it.' History can help us see how best to move forward."

Berg's book recounts the changes that swept through state government while he served in the House. It was when his DFL Party took full control of state government for the first time; when women started winning elections in notable numbers; when the need to adequately educate the baby boom generation led to fairer school funding and higher education expansion; when rapid urbanization (and regular reapportionment) put metro issues squarely in the Legislature's lap.

From that era's comparative lawmaking effectiveness, Berg draws lessons for today's deadlock-prone Legislature. Many of his tips are intended for institutional consumption, to wit: Schedule more opportunities to talk informally across party lines. Seek more expert help with issues. Assign redistricting to a commission, so that it doesn't gum up the lawmaking works every 10 years.

But Berg also has a message for readers who don't hold election certificates: "Elected bodies ultimately reflect the populace." If Minnesotans want better government, they have to be better citizens, he said.

Civics education needs renewal, and not just for the young, he said. It ought to instill more awareness of the complexity of today's issues. It should guide people in gleaning relevant facts from today's information glut. It should show them how to find out who pays for campaigns, and explain why that matters.

It should teach the U.S. Constitution -- not just federalism, separation of powers and the Bill of Rights, but also the marvelous preamble that lays out a wider purpose for American government than some of today's constitutional traditionalists acknowledge.

Berg strikes me as an author who knows his audience. When Minnesotans have a shared problem, they habitually look to education for solutions. If voters' concern about state government dysfunction runs as deep as Johnson and other candidates say it does, I'd advise adult-ed planners to put more civics in their course catalogs.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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