Minnesotans are an optimistic lot. We can endure 50 days below zero one winter and tell ourselves at the onset of the next one: “This year it won’t be so bad.”

A political variant of that spirit was described by GOP candidate Jon Koznick of Lakeville’s District 58A to a subset of the Star Tribune Editorial Board. We asked: What are you hearing at the doors in your district?

“People want balance in their state government,” Koznick said. “One-party control isn’t good. Some Democrats, independents and definitely Republicans want balance in terms of our ideas, the broader idea base that we bring. All summer long, they’ve been talking about it.”

That’s a sentiment that might be deemed as optimistic as the expectation of a monthlong January thaw, given what Minnesota endured through the 22 years of statehouse division that ended only two years ago. But people who need fresh evidence to sustain their optimism settled in warmer climes long ago.

The notion that state government is better when its control is divided among political parties rests less on evidence than on two somewhat contradictory but deeply held American ideas. One is that politicians are too vile and corruption-prone to be trusted with too much power. The other is that when required to share power, they will do so nobly, with good result.

The nation’s founders apparently subscribed to both of those views as they crafted the American tripartite government structure with built-in checks and balances. Yes, the checks get rougher and the balances harder to strike when the legislative branch is internally divided or the Legislature and the executive branch are not on the same political page. But the compromises that result can be a thing of beauty — at least in theory.

In practice, here, lately? Not so much. In 10 successive elections from 1990 to 2010, voters sent divided governments to St. Paul. The patterns shifted with each of those elections, but control of the House, Senate and governor’s office was split between Republicans, DFLers and one Independence Party governor.

One might think that with all that opportunity to make divided government work, pragmatism would have won out over partisanship. Power-sharing habits would have been acquired.

That isn’t what happened. Rather than learning to compromise, governors and legislators learned how to partly shut down government, how to create recurring deficits, how to borrow money from school districts and take out a mortgage against future state revenues, and how to postpone pressing problems until confronted with a crisis — and sometimes keep delaying even then. They found inventively irresponsible ways — like borrowing against future tobacco lawsuit proceeds and proposing to insert partisan mischief into the state Constitution — to avoid doing anything that would disappoint their respective political bases.

When DFLers took control in the 2012 election, it seemed that voters had grown weary of all that. They wanted state government to work.

Whether it has worked to Minnesotans’ satisfaction in the past two years is the question that DFLers have placed before voters in this campaign. Their case that state government’s performance has improved on their watch is strong — though they’ve been greatly helped by the nation’s positive economic trend. The state’s fiscal house is back in order; the disinvestment in education and public safety has stopped; the minimum wage is up; more people have health insurance. DFLers also raised cigarette taxes and income taxes on the wealthy to get those things done.

They might have talked more about what they propose to do next. If they lose the House majority Tuesday, we professional second-guessers will amend “might” in that last sentence to “should.”

Republicans have countered by citing reasons for Minnesotans to be dissatisfied and by asking voters: Wouldn’t you rather have divided government? Koznick attests that in GOP-leaning Lakeville, voters would.

I asked David Hoden, an impressive DFL candidate in Maple Grove’s District 34B, how he responds when voters say they want divided government back. His thoughtful reply: Divided government will be back — if not in 2015, then eventually. The better question is which candidate is more inclined to make divided government work.

“My message is what my parents taught me: Not only work hard, but work together, and at the end of the day get the job done,” Hoden said.

“How can we extend the olive branch? How can we work at getting a real relationship started with people across the aisle? I think it’s with smart investments and forward thinking. Look at the big picture. Don’t be so concerned about today, but about tomorrow, five years from now, 10 years from now. So often in St. Paul, when government has been divided, they’ve put aside the hard decisions. I want to be there to ask, ‘Don’t you want to leave a better legacy?’ After all, this is about all of us, not just a few of us.”

If Minnesotans are optimistic enough about divided government to elect one on Tuesday, I hope they also elect a lot of candidates in both parties who think like Hoden.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.