A few days before Minnesota’s two big political parties put up the placards, unfurled the bunting and blasted the patriotic music at this weekend’s simultaneous state conventions — DFLers in Rochester, Republicans in Duluth — I took in the Un-Convention.
That’s the label that seemed to fit what was officially billed as a “friend-raiser” for No Labels Minnesota, conducted in partnership with the Civic Caucus, both bipartisan grass-roots political organizations. One purpose of political conventions is to deepen the partisan fervor of attendees. This gathering’s mission was just the opposite. It was dedicated to the increasingly radical proposition that bipartisan governance of this state and nation is a desirable thing.
I expected to encounter a cozy nest of a few dozen idealists with little attachment to either party, given that party folk were busy last week prepping for their respective pep fests.
Instead, I found the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis buzzing with about 175 people, some of whose partisan pedigrees are not in question. Hello, former DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn and former Republican gubernatorial chief of staff Lyall Schwarzkopf. Greetings, former Republican Party state Chair Chuck Slocum and Bob Brown and former DFL Chair Mike Erlandson. Nice to see you, state Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie, and state Rep. Dario Anselmo, R-Edina.
No Labels Minnesota co-chair Chelle Stoner praised the courage of the elected officials in the crowd. In today’s political climate, she acknowledged, “There’s a risk in even attending a bipartisan political event. But there’s also a risk if we don’t.”
A sense that partisanship is now so extreme that it poses a risk to the republic may have spurred turnout at the Un-Convention. Minnesotans likely feel that sense more acutely than other Americans.
It’s in Minnesotans’ nature to want government to work. Since the earliest days of statehood, they’ve looked to both the state and federal governments as their allies, first for access to land, then for the education, infrastructure and civil order that their enterprises required. That may be why No Labels Minnesota, founded a few years after the national organization by the same name started in 2010, is among the nation’s most active chapters with a mailing list of 9,600.
But Minnesota is also seeing a contrary trend. In both parties, demands for tribal loyalty and ideological orthodoxy are on the rise. Candidates and elected officials who fail to exhibit both are increasingly vulnerable — or at least behave as if they are. Consider the reluctance of Republicans to criticize President Donald Trump, even when he makes policy moves they’ve long opposed. Or the willingness of DFL activists in the city of Minneapolis last year to replace longtime elected officials with newcomers whose views align more nearly with those of Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton.
Which trend is waxing and which is waning? At least one of this weekend’s conventions may provide a partial answer. The DFL’s Tim Walz-Erin Murphy-Rebecca Otto gubernatorial endorsement contest (to be decided after this page goes to press) should be revealing. Walz has been both praised and criticized within his party for ranking among the most bipartisan players in the U.S. House. Whether his record of working with Republicans turns out to be a plus or a minus with DFL delegates will say something about whether they are in a mood to fight with Republicans or govern with them.
“There’s just something about common ground that doesn’t fire people up,” Stoner acknowledged at the Un-Convention. Some Americans evidently have been persuaded that their lives can only be improved if their preferred party prevails and the other is driven into oblivion. They fail to see the potential for tyranny in that formula.
People who think otherwise need a rallying point and a strategy. Through its early years, the national No Labels organization has aimed to provide the former, with grass-roots growth but not much else to show for its effort.
Serious about strategy
More recently, No Labels has gotten serious about a strategy. It’s the prime mover behind the creation last year of the U.S. House’s Problem Solvers Caucus. Comprising 48 members — 24 Democrats, 24 Republicans — it set out to forge agreement on several of the most contentious issues of the day. Its members pledged that if 75 percent of them support a piece of legislation or a House procedural move, all 48 will go along.
The caucus drafted bipartisan bills addressing some of the most divisive issues in Washington — immigration, health care, infrastructure improvement, gun safety. Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ lead national strategist, told the Minnesota audience the sorry result: “None of these ever got a vote. None of these got so much as a hearing in a committee.” Each has been blocked by House Speaker Paul Ryan and his allies, Clancy said.
That’s why the caucus has turned its attention to changing the House rules that allow the concentration of power in the hands of the House speaker, who in turn is vulnerable to being deposed by small bands of dissidents in his or her own caucus. It’s calling that effort “The Speaker Project,” which it intends to publicize sufficiently to inform voters in contested U.S. House races.
Only one member of Minnesota’s delegation, retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, is among the 48 Problem Solvers. Only one congressional candidate, DFLer Dean Phillips in the Third District (the site of one of those contested races) has told No Labels Minnesota he would like to join the caucus if elected, Stoner said.
That number might increase if No Labels is successful with other parts of its strategy. It’s raising money to donate to moderate candidates, particularly in primary elections. And it’s working in targeted districts to drive up primary turnout, in the belief that if more people vote in primary elections, the hold that partisan extremists have on elected officials will be diluted.
Those strike me as plausible tactics for putting more political energy in the middle of the ideological spectrum, so that politicians are rewarded rather than punished for moving in that direction. They have more practical appeal than long-shot proposals to amend the Constitution to take control of redistricting away from legislatures or limit the flow of big money into campaigns.
But the Un-Convention is missing a bet if it does not consider an alliance with another bunch of reformers — the advocates for ranked-choice voting at FairVote Minnesota. Allowing voters to rank their choices in multicandidate and multiparty contests, then counting those choices to produce a consensus winner, may be the most potent idea around for rebuilding a bipartisan middle in American politics.
With ranked-choice voting well launched in Minneapolis and St. Paul and on its way in St. Louis Park, Minnesota is positioned to lead the nation in showing RCV’s game-changing potential. So is the state of Maine, where the first statewide RCV primary election is on tap on June 12.
I bet I wasn’t the only one at the Un-Convention who thought that No Labels and FairVote are natural allies. Nice to see you, FairVote Minnesota Executive Director Jeanne Massey.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.