Just what is the career profile of the Minnesota Legislature — from what walks of life have our lawmakers come? And how have their backgrounds changed over the years?
With another legislative session approaching next month, I set out to compare the résumés of our current crop of legislators with those of their counterparts in 1969. That was just a few years before annual sessions were begun and party designation for lawmakers was reinstated after a long hiatus.
In 1969, legislative candidates still ran as “liberals” or “conservatives” and caucused accordingly. Among the liberals that year were two future governors (Wendy Anderson and Rudy Perpich) and five future congressmen (Bill Frenzel, Arlen Stangeland, Alec Olson, Martin Sabo and Rick Nolan, who is currently back in Congress for a second go-round). Despite the DFL dominance among those future heavyweights, liberals overall were in a distinct minority in 1969. Conservatives held a nearly 2-1 advantage. Today, DFLers have comfortable margins of roughly a dozen seats in each house.
Beyond that notable shift of fortunes, the experiential makeup of the caucuses has also changed in important ways. Today, fully half of Republican members in the House and Senate — 44 of 88 — list themselves as working for or running a business. No other category comes remotely close. In 1969, 42 conservatives noted some sort of business background, but they made up only about one-third of the larger conservative caucus.
Among the liberals of nearly a half century ago, the occupational front-runner also was business. Of 71 members, 22 listed business experience. That was better than 30 percent of the liberal caucus, close to the same percentage as the conservatives at the time.
Only 14 DFLers (around 13 percent, compared with half of the GOP members) list private business experience today.
Among today’s Democrats, the leading category by far is educators. Slightly more than a quarter of today’s DFL caucus — 28 members — either have been or currently are educators.
Among Republicans today, there are nine active or retired educators, just more than 10 percent of the caucus. Teachers had less clout in the conservative caucus of 1969, when eight of them constituted about 6 percent of the whole. But, then, only seven teachers (10 percent) lined up with the liberals in 1969.
Lawyers have lost a lot of ground since 1969, at least among Republicans. Amazingly enough, there are no Republican attorneys in the current House and only three in the Senate. The 1969 conservative caucus included 38 attorneys.
The DFL caucus today contains 15 lawyers; the smaller liberal caucus of 1969 contained 13.
There wasn’t a single full-time “legislator” in either caucus in 1969. Today, the DFL has 10 and the GOP five.
What about the “F” and the “L” in DFL? In 1969, the liberal caucus included 12 farmers and 14 laborers or tradesmen, together making up 37 percent of the total.
The current crop of DFLers is almost bereft of FLers. Only four laborers and two farmers (5 percent) can be counted among its members.
Today’s Republicans can muster four farmers — a far cry from the conservatives’ 32 in 1969.
Beyond these major categories, the smatterings within each party caucus today are strikingly different, both from the other party and from its own past.
Scattered among the liberals in 1969 were a pair of dentists (two of the Perpich brothers), two doctors and two homemakers, a minister, a union rep, a stockbroker and a grad student (Martin Sabo). The conservatives countered with three newspapermen, two engineers, a police officer, a pharmacist, an economist/tree farmer and a pair of tradesmen.
Today the GOP has six “homemakers” and an engineer. It also can call upon two CPAs, a nonprofit volunteer, a child mental health worker, an environmental affairs officer and a “process consultant.”
Today’s DFLers have two “activists,” one “community organizer,” a pair of “policy analysts,” a grantsman, two with “nonprofit” experience, a foreign currency trader, a historical preservationist, an assistant fire chief and a “parent leader coordinator.”
What does it all mean? Of course, today’s Legislature is much more conventionally diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and race. That, to be sure, is a good thing. But are lawmakers as diverse as their 1969 counterparts in other important ways? One wonders.
What’s clear is that while each caucus in 1969 contained a good deal of occupational diversity, they were less different from one another in terms of job experience than are today’s Republicans and DFLers.
The sharp division today is between a DFL majority dominated by veterans of the public sector and a Republican minority dominated by men and women from the private sector. One party’s roster of legislators is heavily stacked with businessmen and businesswomen, while the other team of lawmakers is top-heavy with educators.
Is this lack of common background a good thing? It’s at least fair to wonder. Might it not have been a better arrangement when a fairly even number of educators could be found in each caucus, as was the case in 1969, and when both caucuses contained a significant, not to mention similar, percentage of business types?
It’s also fair to wonder how and why this shift came about, as well as what it might portend for the future. In the meantime, this much seems quite clear: If there once was a time when both caucuses featured a diverse array of people who primarily earned their living in the private sphere, that time is gone.
Today a bright line divides the two parties in both the House and the Senate, and there is little reason to wonder why it’s so difficult to find common ground today and why our legislators so often fail to arrive at genuine compromise and meaningful agreement.
Chuck Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.