In their prescient 2011 book “That Used to Be Us,” authors Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum cite a study that found “47 percent of adult Detroit residents, or about 200,000 people, are functionally illiterate — which means that nearly half the adults in the city can’t perform simple tasks such as reading an instruction book, reading labels on packages or machinery, or filling out a job application. … You can stimulate the Detroit economy all you want, but even if jobs come back, people who can’t read won’t be able to do them.”

A combination of policies, individuals, economics and interest groups is to blame for Detroit’s bankruptcy and similar, though as yet less dire, challenges facing many other American urban centers.

But a core truth is that nothing will forever postpone the day of reckoning if residents of a city don’t have the education and skills to be successful and productive members of the community. Building opportunities for success should be the focal point of this year’s Minneapolis mayoral campaign, an election in which every Minnesotan has a stake.

Right now, the future of our state’s largest city is very uncertain. New investments in the city, including the stadiums and surrounding downtown development, as well as the influx of educated and affluent residents attracted to urban living, create an exciting vitality.

A deeper look, though, reveals Detroit-like warning signs. Too many young people are coming of age in Minneapolis without the skills to obtain and keep a job. Graduating from high school in four years is a 50-50 proposition in the Minneapolis district. For Latino and black students, the odds are even longer; the four-year high school graduation rate is less than 40 percent among these students.

That’s part of the backdrop against which people should think about the efforts of Minneapolis Energy Options (MEO), a coalition of environmental and community activists. The group has been pushing the City Council to approve a referendum for this fall’s ballot, asking voters to decide whether the city should take over the infrastructure of Xcel Energy, the city’s electricity provider. MEO calls the takeover — known as “municipalization” — a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make cleaner, more affordable, and more local energy available to all in Minneapolis.”

At week’s end, it appeared that proponents of municipalization were backing away from the effort. That’s good news: Of all the economic solutions that will help Minneapolis avoid a Detroit-like fate, replacing Xcel with a city-owned power company doesn’t rank in the top 100.

In their defense, advocates of the Xcel takeover are right in calling for the design of a new energy future. Minnesota has the incentive — its wealth of natural resources and environmental assets — and the capacity — its technology talent — to be a leader in this arena.

But threatening Xcel with a hostile takeover is an unnecessary distraction. It is the strategic cousin to the Republican tactic of forcing Congress to take vote after vote on repealing Obamacare (something that will never happen while Obama holds a veto pen). Political theater at the expense of thoughtful policy is no more attractive from the political left than it is from the right. Too often, this political grandstanding focuses attention on peripheral issues or unrealistic promises.

Taxpayers should question how a city that can’t fix potholes can effectively acquire and manage an energy company. MEO promotes a greener future, but municipalization ignores the barriers of cost, practicality and state laws that stand in the way of a city takeover of Xcel.

An irony of this takeover effort is that Xcel is ahead of schedule on meeting state-imposed mandates for renewable energy. Further, Minnesota, and Minneapolis, has a competitive edge from electricity costs below the national average and has a distribution system that provides reliable service.

But here is the larger concern: Holding a referendum during this fall’s mayoral campaign would undermine discussion of issues that are far more urgent.

Mayoral candidates need to address how Minneapolis will become a city in which all residents are prepared for the future. Whether the new economy is green or some other color, it won’t help those who lack the education and skills to succeed. We need leadership to promote and deliver policies that will improve neighborhoods, school outcomes and economic vitality. For these pressing goals, municipalization is a distraction, not a solution.



Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.