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Continued: Lori Sturdevant: New faces in DFL Party?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 27, 2012 - 7:33 PM

Both of Minnesota's major political parties are changeable creatures. Change is just more obvious in one than the other.

When Republicans were invaded by Tea Party insurgents in 2010 and Ron Paul libertarians in 2012, the GOP's new direction was unmistakable. Witness the wave of compromise-resistant GOP freshmen that washed up at the State Capitol in 2011, and the 33-7 split in the state's delegation to this year's Republican National Convention. That's 33 for Paul, 7 for Mitt Romney -- the fellow who won Minnesota's precinct caucuses in 2008.

Lurches like that are made possible by winner-take-all rules that reward those who can turn out a crowd at precinct caucuses.

Change comes more subtly in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Its proportional representation rules make wholesale takeovers difficult. Further, after its social conservatives defected to the GOP a generation ago, the DFL hasn't had a knock-down, soul-of-the-party fight. It's harder to detect the DFL's incremental shifts.

But change is afoot this year in the DFL, too -- or it will be, if a goodly share of the metro-area DFL legislative candidates I've met are winners on Nov. 6. And if I'm right and if they are, the guy who's likely to feel the chill wind of change is DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

The candidates I have in mind don't match the party's tax-and-spend reputation. They don't hold that the answer to every problem is a bigger state appropriation, or that the first response to a state deficit should be "tax the rich."

They're rooted in business, like District 49's Melisa Franzen and District 44A's Audrey Britton. They're past and present nonpartisan local officials, like District 48A's Yvonne Selcer, District 55's Kathy Busch and District 50's Melissa Halvorson Wiklund. They're data-driven empiricists, like District 39's Julie Bunn. They're profamily -- as that term was understood before it was coopted by the religious right -- like District 53's Susan Kent.

Like District 48's Laurie McKendry, they're running because they're disgusted with gridlock and think they can do better.

You might have noticed that all these potential agents of DFL change are suburban women. That may not be coincidental to my observation, allowed state Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, the lead candidate recruiter for the House DFL caucus.

"Women bring a real practicality to this work," she said. "They're interested in solving a problem, not winning an ideological argument."

Well, some political women are. Examples to the contrary spring readily to mind, especially in the vicinity of the Sixth Congressional District.

But I've observed that candidate recruiters tend to seek out their own kind. Murphy herself possesses many of the attributes I see in the new DFL candidates.

So does the most prominent DFLer on this year's ballot, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Her presence atop the ticket is defining for her party, and her example of successful bipartisan lawmaking is carefully noticed by DFL newbies.

Klobuchar could be the archetype of a new image for the DFL -- more fiscally conservative, more business-friendly, more rooted in the suburbs, more attuned to middle-class families, all styled in a pantsuit and sensible shoes.

The potential for DFL change meets its first test on Nov. 6. Losers aren't changemakers. If this year's moderate-minded cohort of legislative candidates winds up in the losers' column, plenty of old-school DFLers will claim that they lost because they weren't liberal enough. It will be the mirror image of the argument Republican conservatives pressed home after GOP losses in 2006 and 2008.

But winning won't be sufficient to set the DFL on a new course. It will only present that opportunity. The real test will come in the 2013 legislative session, and the telling tussle will be over tax policy.

State government appears to be headed for another deficit, albeit one more manageable than the last one. Dayton is widely expected to renew his campaign call for higher income taxes on the wealthy, though he may mix that idea with the elimination of income tax loopholes or sales tax exemptions.

Resistance to higher income taxes for top-end earners is guaranteed to come from the business community and Republicans. It's also expected from two senior DFL women (provided they are both back in office): Rep. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington and Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka.

Those two veterans are positioned to become den mothers to a new class of suburban DFL women who are predisposed to skepticism about higher income taxes for the rich.

Bonoff and Lenczewski are formidable lawmakers. Look for them to be fiercely protective of a den full of like-minded freshmen. Expect that they'll advise the new kids to do what's best for their districts and the state, and not concern themselves with pleasing the governor.

"We need to reinvent what it means to be a Democrat in today's times," Bonoff said last week. "We have to be visionary in what is going to propel us strongly into the future."

She was speaking to me, but I had the sense that she intended her words for the reader at 1006 Summit Av., St. Paul.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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