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Nancy Ohanian, Tribune Media Services

Business groups are snubbing DFLers

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • October 7, 2012 - 6:40 AM

Melisa Franzen says she's running for the Minnesota Senate in the Edina area as a "moderate probusiness Democrat." Her day job underscores the point. She's a government affairs attorney for Target Corp.

Yvonne Selcer makes the same claim in her DFL bid for the state House in Minnetonka/Eden Prairie. She grew up in the back office of her family's Winsted, Minn., telephone company, spent 12 years in various corporations as a sales manager, and displayed her fiscal-hawk feathers during two terms on the Hopkins School Board.

Franzen and Selcer say their positions line up well with those staked out by the business community. To wit:

They're both big boosters of the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line. They favor the prompt creation of Minnesota's own health insurance online purchasing exchange. They would have voted for the new Vikings stadium bill. They favor requiring sales tax to be collected on all online purchases -- a big issue with Target and Best Buy, major employers in their districts. So are General Mills and Carlson Co., with whose leaders they agree that the anti-same-sex-marriage amendment should be defeated.

That's why they thought they had a shot at winning the blessing of at least the Twin West Chamber of Commerce when they screened with its political action committee earlier this year.

It wasn't to be. The custodians of west-metro capitalism endorsed their opponents: Republicans Keith Downey over Franzen and Kirk Stensrud over Selcer. That's so even though Downey and Stensrud have not been exponents of the issue Twin West has hammered hard of late, Southwest light rail.

Selcer thinks she knows where she went wrong when she screened with the Twin West PAC. "When they asked me whether [state government] has a revenue problem or a spending problem or both, I said 'Both.'"

Good answer, I'd say. For 10 years, state government has been plagued with both slow-growing revenues and rising costs, particularly for health care. But her answers and Franzen's evidently didn't beat what Twin West screeners heard from Stensrud and Downey -- which I suspect featured some version of "no new taxes."

"We're always concerned about the level of taxation," said Twin West's government affairs director, former Plymouth mayor Judy Johnson. But her organization's interests are broader than that, she said, and endorsements are based on a range of issues.

She noted that the Twin West list of 17 endorsees includes three DFL incumbents -- Rep. Steve Simon of St. Louis Park, and Sens. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka and Ann Rest of New Hope. All are senior lawmakers with whom businessfolk have developed relationships of trust. Relationships were likely in Downey's and Stensrud's favor as well.

No DFL newcomer made the Twin West list. Three newbie Republicans did.

The list leaves House DFL minority leader Paul Thissen frustrated. "On transportation, education, higher ed, health care, Democrats have a lot in common with the business position," he said. His explanation: "The chambers and the Business Partnership have become an arm of the Republican Party."

Johnson denies the charge. "We don't take the party line. We take the probusiness line."

My take: Both the GOP and the state's business organizations have been affected by an increasing American tendency to value immediate financial gain over longer-term goals. That thinking elevates tax minimization to the top of business policy wish lists. It has transformed "no new taxes" from a nice goal to an inviolable rule for GOP politicians. It even helps explain the Great Recession and the national debt.

Heightened resistance to higher taxes makes it harder to improve the other things Minnesotans do together, things that Johnson says the business community still wants. Education, health care, infrastructure, even a fairness fix to the tax code get trumped by unwillingness to pay government one penny more.

That's trouble in a state that's banking on its human capital for its competitive edge -- and that habitually looks to its businesses to guide state policy. It will also be trouble for Twin West next session, regardless of which party has control at the Capitol. After endorsing a number of Southwest rail opponents, when Twin West comes calling to say that the line is its top priority, who will believe it?

But here's an ironic side note: In Eden Prairie's Senate District 48, GOP Sen. David Hann has Twin West endorsement. His DFL challenger, Laurie McKendry, says she's the bigger supporter of Southwest light rail.

Twin West put her phone number and Hann's on a mailed flyer urging citizens to "Ask the candidates: Do you support more jobs and less traffic?" McKendry has had a number of calls in response. When she explains her position, she said, she wins votes. Twin West is helping her in spite of its endorsement snub.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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