After the long campaign ... governing

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2012 - 9:00 PM

Thankfully, the 60-year-old Citizens League is working to make things work.

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Downtown Minneapolis.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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"My, you Yanks do carry on forever with your presidential campaign!" a visiting Brit remarked -- and it was only August.

Take that as independent reassurance that you're not possessed of a stunted civic attention span just because you've taken to averting your eyes at the start of campaign commercials.

Even this political junkie journalist is growing weary of this year's repetitious, predictable, wheel-spinning politicking. (I'd toss in "interminable," but fortunately, this cycle ends by law on Nov. 6.)

"Americans focus too much on politics and not enough on governance," I said in reply to my British friend. We relish competition, but it takes consensus to govern. We love a clash of ideas, but governing requires combining ideas, then selling the new product to one's own skeptical allies.

We've become adept at throwing the bums out but not good at solving the problems that quickly turn elected officials into bums in the public eye.

It's that concern -- and one thing more -- that has me breaking into prime campaign time to note the 60th birthday of the Citizens League, to be observed with a bash Thursday evening at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis.

The Citizens League is Minnesota's homegrown counterweight to excessive emphasis on politics over governance. It's a nonpartisan venue for exploring new policy ideas, recommending solutions and forging bipartisan consensus.

The League was the petri dish from which the Metropolitan Council, Metro Transit and the Minnesota Miracle tax structure grew in the 1960s and '70s. More recently, it has been a prime mover for bus rapid transit on Interstate 35W and better access to mental health services.

It's at work today on the big stuff facing state government: How can the tax code be fairer and more competitive? How can more workers acquire 21st-century skills? How can health care be more efficient and more effective at the same time?

All of those questions need the answers that dedication to governance is likely to produce. This year's anniversary should be as much about raising the bar for the League's future as celebrating its past.

But the past will be inescapable Thursday night. The subtext for this event is a salute to a Minnesota public-policy giant, Verne C. Johnson -- the other reason for this column.

Johnson, the League's executive director during its 1958-67 heyday, a longtime General Mills executive and founder of the Civic Caucus, has entered home hospice care. He won't be present at the pavilion, but he hopes to watch via electronic hookup as his son Ron Johnson, CEO of J.C. Penney Co., delivers the keynote address.

When we chatted last week, Verne Johnson, 87, was as ambitious for the League as ever.

"We need a Citizens League that is leading on public policy change," Johnson said. (He said it in a way that demanded italics.) He urged today's 2,200 League members not to shrink from tough issues or to expect someone else to sell their recommendations to politicians.

Today's League is busy informing members, conducting surveys and convening forums and stakeholder meetings, Johnson said. While that work has value, it's not the same as hammering out recommendations and taking them to the Legislature.

When I asked what he would have today's League do, he had a ready list:

Find ways to improve education with technology. Today's e-tools can improve learning while reducing per-student costs, Johnson said. A push from the Citizens League could hasten the arrival of new methods in Minnesota classrooms.

Health care financing should pay for results, not procedures -- and while many voices are calling for that change, the Citizens League can recommend practical steps that work in the whole community's interests.

Minnesota's political process empowers extremists and special interests, and needs revision. Johnson would welcome a strong Citizens League call for ranked-choice voting, which he believes would inspire involvement by a larger swath of the citizenry and put more choices on the ballot.

"Don't curse the darkness. Light a candle," he said as I said goodbye.

My adaptation for today: Don't just complain about too much politics. Join the Citizens League. Go here to learn more.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

 

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