Everyone at this party has a choice of name tags: Ranger, Adopted Ranger, Honorary Ranger and Wannabe Ranger. Choose wisely.
The Grain Belt is flowing, and state Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, breaks into a rendition of “Mack the Knife” while a few people hit the dance floor at Mancini’s in St. Paul, a time capsule of high-backed booths and heavy pours.
This is the Legislature’s Ranger party on Tuesday night, a gathering every other spring of hundreds of lawmakers, staff and lobbyists from both parties, who cease their incessant arguing for a night and toast the virtues — and maybe even some of the vices — of the Iron Range.
Republicans and Democrats agree that bipartisan confabs lubricated with a bit of strong drink — once routine but now scarce — are badly needed around the Capitol in a time of fierce partisan polarization, years of dysfunction and dead-of-night legislative brinkmanship.
This night at Mancini’s, a favorite old haunt, seems like a step back in time.
“Getting to know everybody and camaraderie is very important at the Legislature. Over the years I’ve noticed that as the camaraderie goes away, the efficiency and the effectiveness goes away,” says Tomassoni.
State Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, concurs: “If you have a good relationship, you can work your way through any policy difference.”
Rarely has that assertion been more tested than in 2019, with the two parties seeming more ruby red and indigo blue every day, divided both by ideology and geography. At the Legislature this year, Democrats who control the House are poised to pass a gas tax of 20 cents per gallon to pay for roads and keep in place a health care provider tax. Republicans who control the Senate balk at both — leaving the two sides billions of dollars apart with just weeks to the end of the session.
Rangers are sometimes teased for thinking everything begins and ends with the Range, but when it comes to the stalemate at the State Capitol, they believe they have a point. Although long a bulwark of the DFL, Rangers are primarily regionalists, as much as partisans, and willing to work with anyone who will deal them in.
“Rangers fight hard but they’re not overly partisan,” says Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook. At his first Ranger party in 1995, ticket revenue wasn’t enough to cover the food or bar tab, so the Range legislators had to take out their wallets at the end of the night and pony up.
The economy of the Range — often at the mercy of violent swings in global steel prices — has recovered in recent years, in part due to the help of steel tariffs instituted by the Trump administration.
“We’re making every taconite pellet that we can. The challenge is that we’re doing it with 4,000 people instead of 16,000 people,” Bakk says, blaming the job losses on mechanization and outsourcing.
But demographic realities are also taking a toll.
“Like many rural areas, sometimes you send a kid off to college and they don’t come home,” Bakk says.
The 2020 Census likely will lead to more legislative seats in the Twin Cities and fewer in rural Minnesota areas like the Range, although not if Bakk has anything to say about it.
These changes are slimming the Range’s once outsized political influence around the Capitol. Heavy turnover among Range members of the House also has lessened the region’s influence.
Some people have noticed that the political decline of the Range seems to have coincided with recent years of inertia around the Capitol.
When Gov. Tim Walz shows up to pay his respects at the party, a small crowd forms to grab a selfie or bend his ear. Walz often says he wants the Capitol crowd to come together like this more often. No one can be disagreeable to a person if he knows a little something about his children, Walz is fond of saying.
Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher hangs up her coat and bumps into state Sen. Scott Newman, the GOP chairman of the transportation committee — and her nemesis in the gas tax fight.
“Sorry to have to tear apart your bill today, Senator,” Anderson Kelliher says.
“I expected that,” he laughs. “I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t!”
Anderson Kelliher, the former speaker of the Minnesota House, remembers being a 20-something lawmaker when the Ranger party was in an old liquor warehouse, watching former Gov. Rudy Perpich, the Range’s favorite son, dance a mean polka.
Anderson Kelliher and Newman embrace. “This is when we hug it out,” she says proudly.
Tommy Rukavina would have loved it. This year’s celebration carries special poignancy for many Rangers. Rukavina, who served a quarter century in the House, loved nothing more than an evening drink and laugh with the very same lawmakers with whom he fought bitterly during the day at the Capitol. He died in January.
If there was any money left over Tuesday night, they would put it in the Rukavina scholarship fund, Tomassoni says.
But Rukavina would be just as proud of a bar tab that runneth over.