The wringing of hands at the Capitol is nearly audible, that Minnesota’s politics of bipartisan comity and problem-solving are giving way to Washington-style attacks, hardened ideological trenches and sacrifice all for the sake of a TV camera and the next election.
If true, the situation will be no better with the loss of two retiring legislators known for legislative effectiveness and temperament — one an exurban Republican with a business background, the other a rural DFLer with a lengthy nursing and teaching résumé.
Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, has developed a reputation as a force in his caucus.
“You keep your head down, you only talk on things you know, you choose your words carefully and pick your time to be influential,” said Sanders, who was elected in 2008 in the face of a massive DFL majority. He quietly studied the most effective legislators, and before long, his nickname was “pack mule”; at one point he was running point on four bills in one day.
Serving in the minority and later in the majority, Sanders got bills passed, often on complex issues that required negotiating competing interests, like telecom and construction law.
Sanders is carrying legislation this year that would grant Minnesota a presidential primary, formally legalize fantasy sports and lay the groundwork for a professional soccer stadium in St. Paul. Nothing is certain, except that Sanders will be there at the endgame.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, was elected in 2006 and began her career with a high-profile win: banning smoking from indoor establishments.
From there, her work has often been unknown to the public because it affects the unseen and unheard: the mentally ill, people with disabilities, sick people who cannot pay their medical bills, abused children. These groups do not deliver votes, and they do not have high-powered lobbyists.
As chairwoman of the health policy committee, Sheran began every session with a series of informational hearings to help legislators understand the big public health issues and how potential legislation would match strategic goals.
“I use research to inform the committee and the public,” she said. And then lawmakers have to prove the effectiveness of their legislation: “Show us a relationship between the bill and the overall strategy for moving the entire [health and human services] system forward.
Despite geographic and partisan differences, both Sanders and Sheran are in agreement: The Legislature has changed, and not for the better.
Sanders said the value of governing has declined: “Folks have to understand that once you’re elected, you are there to govern. You’re not a party activist.” Passionate floor speeches were followed by good-natured cheer when Sanders first came to St. Paul, he said. No longer.
“It’s either you win, or I win. And there’s nothing in between,” Sheran said of the change.