What is a Minnesotan?

An innocuous question, but the word morphs into a rhetorical device often invoked by legislators during floor sessions, committee hearings and on the campaign trail.

There's Minnesota Nice, the catchall term for stereotypes about Minnesotans as courteous, understated and averse to confrontation. But what do legislators mean when they invoke the mythical Minnesotan? Lawmakers in California or Nevada — where this reporter hails from — don't typically invoke Californians and Nevadans as a way to make a point, perhaps because in these western states, residents often are transplants.

Some Minnesota legislators say it depends what part of the state one hails from.

"In my area of the state, a common Minnesotan is hardworking," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton. "They value family very, very much. They're churchgoing for the most part, and very involved in their children's lives … [and] they spend very thriftily."

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, offered a lighthearted jab, saying that the average Minnesotan is "far above the U.S. average." Said Mariani: "It all really depends on who's making the statement. ... We use it to make ourselves sound like we're the true voices for the true Minnesotans, if you will."

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is among those who frequently refer to Minnesotans, especially during passionate floor debates.

"The average Minnesotan is someone who is modest, expects to be disappointed, but in reality they're super proud of the state they live in," Thissen said. He added that the state's harsh winters add to the state's collective identity." It can be a tough place to live because of the weather and those types of things, so it kind of binds you together."

Perhaps a slight variation on the term, members of both parties have framed arguments and policy positions during this legislative session in ways to appeal to "middle-class Minnesotans."

When House Republicans last week, for instance, unveiled a $2 billion tax cut plan, the headline read: "Middle-class Minnesotans are priority in GOP tax relief bill."

DFLers have challenged the GOP's characterization, saying the cuts to middle-class Minnesotans were small and temporary and eclipsed by permanent cuts for business.

But even the definition of middle-class is muddled — just ask last year's Republican candidate for governor, Jeff Johnson. The Hennepin County commissioner during a debate was stumped when asked how he would define middle class, answering: "I have no clue how I would define that."

Though Democrats pummeled Johnson for his response, he wasn't alone. Public opinion polling shows that answers to the same question vary widely, and most believe their own income bracket to be middle class.

Economists, sociologists and political scientists have not defined what it means to be middle class. That's because disparities in cost of living in different regions and cities make it difficult to pinpoint income brackets.