The Noor-Kahn race and the definition of representation

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2014 - 6:48 PM

Politics and legislating both matter, but let’s not forget which gets things done.

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Minnesota legislative challenger Mohamud Noor.

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“It’s time for a representative rather than a legislator,” Minneapolis school board member Mohamud Noor said when he came calling to explain his DFL primary bid to unseat state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a 21-termer who has attained legendary status in both the state House and the Minnesota women’s movement.

More than a week has passed since Noor’s Editorial Board visit, and I’m still mulling that line.

It’s a close cousin to other campaign chestnuts Minnesotans know by heart. There’s the claim that a longtime incumbent has “lost touch with the district” or, in the case of a long-serving member of Congress, has “gone Washington” to constituents’ detriment. Four years ago, that claim helped end the 18-term career of the late U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, depriving this state of coveted clout in federal transportation matters.

There’s the scorn heaped on “career politicians,” most notably this season by GOP gubernatorial contender Scott Honour. Honour and the Republican-endorsed U.S. Senate candidate, Mike McFadden, are both part of a wave of well-heeled, hard-right businessfolk whose names have lately shown up on Republican primary ballots around the country. (They’re convinced that government should be “run more like a business” — another old saw, for another day.)

Then, too, there’s the slogan that the late Senate Majority Leader Nicholas Coleman (father of Mayor Chris) called Minnesota’s most durable and effective: “Time for a change.” Coleman has been gone for 33 years, but his lessons still ring true.

The effectiveness of Noor’s version — “a representative, not a legislator" — will be put to the test in the Aug. 12 primary. But it’s already stuck in my head because of the nuance it carries and the comment it seems to make about what citizens value in this democracy.

The nuance is that Kahn is insufficiently representative of District 60B. It’s a district that includes the University of Minnesota campus, old St. Anthony, Prospect Park and Cedar-Riverside, the landing point for thousands of refugees from Somalia.

Kahn has worked closely with the Somali community, securing funding for expansion of the neighborhood’s Brian Coyle Community Center and advocating for a city redistricting plan that increased the election prospects for a Somali-American member of the Minneapolis City Council. It’s no coincidence that new council member Abdi Warsame is backing Kahn over Noor this summer.

But, plainly, she is not a Somali immigrant. She’s a New York-born, Yale-educated, Ph.D. biophysicist whose career hit a gender-bias speed bump at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s. It diverted her into politics.

Noor’s line acknowledges Kahn’s skill as a legislator. Her credits range from the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act to the protections for pregnant workers in the 2014 Women’s Economic Security Act. There’s so much in between that Kahn was designated a Public Official of the Year in 2009 by Governing Magazine, a distinction no other Minnesota legislator has won.

But Noor seems to be suggesting that being good at enacting legislation isn’t good enough — and maybe isn’t so important. What voters should value is a sort of kinship — staying close to one’s constituents and speaking for those constituents in St. Paul. It’s more about politics than it is about governance.

And that struck me as an inversion of something I hope is still taught in Minnesota junior high civics classes: Politics is supposed to be the means to the governance end. It ought not be an end in itself. America’s fixation on politics over governance is a big contributor to dysfunction in Congress.

One of the reasons Minnesotans have seen relatively less gridlock in St. Paul (though some nasty shutdowns come to mind) is that the Legislature is populated by very able legislators, on both sides of the aisle.

Kahn is one. Another, Republican Rep. Jim Abeler, is prominently mentioned in today’s editorial about the GOP U.S. Senate primary race.

One more is three-term state Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie. She, too, faces a primary challenge this year. Ironically, that challenge arose because on one issue — the legalization of same-sex marriage in May 2013 — Loon played the representative role. She voted in concert with the 60 percent majority of her constituents who voted against a constitutional same-sex-marriage ban in the 2012 election.

I asked Loon whether she sees a difference between being a representative and a legislator.

“Campaigning is one thing, and governing is another,” she said. An elected official has to attend to both to be successful. “When your community speaks, you need to listen. And you need to be able to describe your vision, where you want to go.

“But people also need to understand that this can be a painstakingly slow process.” Constituents may have wonderful ideas, but in the Minnesota House, “unless you can get 67 other people to agree with you, it’s just another idea that’s out there. Getting other legislators to come along is a big part of the job.” That part of the job involves developing expertise and building relationships inside the Capitol.

It’s part of the job that non-incumbent legislative candidates may not understand or appreciate — but voters should.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lori.sturdevant@startribune.com.

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