Business has been brisk at the Star Tribune Editorial Board’s history desk — and not only because this newspaper will reach a big milestone birthday in a few days.
This month also marks the 50th birthday of the Metropolitan Council, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the state Department of Human Rights. On June 1 comes the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the state sales tax — which would have happened in May 1967, but for the fact that the Legislature needed a special session and the override of a gubernatorial veto to put it into law.
That was a Republican — er, Conservative — Legislature, mind you, knocking down the veto of a Republican governor, Harold LeVander. (Minnesota’s Legislature operated without party designation for 60 years, from 1913 to 1973, but by the late 1960s, Conservative and Liberal were fairly synonymous with Republican and DFL.)
How times have changed. This year’s Republican-controlled Legislature is trying to turn the Met Council into an entity dominated by local government officials rather than one accountable to the state and appointed by the governor. The MPCA citizens board of which 1967 legislators were rightfully proud was scuttled by the 2015 Legislature. This year, environmentalists complained about a raft of bills that they said weakened the agency’s hand. The Department of Human Rights sank into near-invisibility this year.
And I can’t remember when I last combined the words Republican and tax increase into a single descriptive phrase.
That study in GOP contrasts was going to be my tale this week, along with an observation that Minnesota’s political parties are dynamic and malleable organizations. They’ve shifted before and can shift again to adapt to the will of the people. That makes democracy at its core an optimistic enterprise, worthy of good folks’ best efforts.
But last week, as each day’s news broke from Trumpland — and even legislators had trouble focusing on the state budget — a different year in Minnesota legislative annals kept popping into mind: 1974. The Watergate year.
It’s much too soon to claim that the drama over Russian involvement in the 2016 election that has unfolded in Washington will lead the Trump presidency to a Nixonian end. But with the appointment of a special counsel who means business, former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, the trend line last week turned in that direction.
What happens in state politics when a president stands convicted in the court of public opinion — and maybe a court of the more literal kind? In 1974, DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson won with a massive landslide, carrying all 87 counties. President Richard Nixon’s Republican Party lost 27 seats in the Minnesota House. DFLers started the 1975 session with the largest House majority for either party in the modern party designation era — 104-30.
Granted, with both Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in the U.S. Senate, DFLers were riding high in the early 1970s regardless of Nixon. But the fact that Capitol wags still refer to 1974 as the Watergate election says much about how far down the ballot a failed presidency’s stain can spread.
What’s a nervous Republican legislative majority to do as the Trump circus plays on? I’d recommend a consultation with Chuck Slocum. He was the wunderkind from Madelia installed as state GOP chair in 1975 at age 28 and charged with finding a way out of the hole into which the party had just fallen. His efforts were so successful that in 1978, the newly renamed Independent-Republican Party (i.e., independent of Nixon) won the governorship, two U.S. Senate seats and a tie in the Minnesota House, 67-67.
Slocum’s advice: If there’s chaos in Washington, keep it there. Put on an orderly show in St. Paul.
“Minnesotans still want to be different from Washington. They want this state to be well-governed,” Slocum said.
A budget impasse — which persists at this writing — is not desirable, Slocum said. But it need not be disastrous — not if voters perceive that Republicans are genuinely working with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton toward agreement.
“Tone is really important now” to maintaining voters’ trust, Slocum said. “ ‘This governor wants to work with the Legislature’ — that should be the assumption. That should be the message. Keep saying it is possible to find agreement.
“Minnesotans don’t like seeing each party trying to help itself at the other side’s expense. People are leery of that whole attitude. They’d rather hear politicians say that we’re not Washington. Minnesotans can do this. We can make government work.”
That good counsel may be more important now than it was during the Watergate era. The reason takes me back to 1967 — a very good year at the Legislature — and the string of fruitful years that followed. That was an era in which Minnesotans had little reason to doubt that both of its political parties valued government. Republicans in particular found able candidates and gave them the freedom to invent government-driven solutions to a fast-changing state’s problems. Ideological strictures and special-interest demands did not appear to get in the way of governing.
That has not been the statehouse story in St. Paul in recent years. Recurring gridlock has given Minnesotans reason to think that the same malady that has made Washington dysfunctional has infected state government too — that “all politicians are alike.”
But there’s still a chance for Minnesota’s politicians to be different. Republicans can still show that they can govern as well as they did in 1967 — so that even if Trump’s troubles persist, they can stand apart from him and avoid another 1974.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.