When the gavel sounds Tuesday to open the 2019 legislative session, Minnesota’s newly elected leaders will have a rare opportunity to lead the nation in governance.
Remarkably, the last election left Minnesota as the only state in the country with a divided legislature — a DFL House and a GOP Senate. As such, political leaders here have an opportunity to demonstrate that competing viewpoints don’t have to end in gridlock and shutdown.
That hasn’t always been the case in Washington, now amid its third partial shutdown in two years. It also hasn’t been so here, where last year’s standoff ended in the failure to adopt a needed supplemental budget bill.
We urge the new leaders to take the right lesson from the last election. Minnesotans like divided government, but they draw the line at constant warring that blocks the state from moving forward.
With all the issues facing Minnesota — and there are many — none may prove more critical than a clear and continued commitment to solutions that draw from both sides. That should be accompanied by a rejection of the inflammatory rhetoric and extreme positions so antithetical to good policy.
Fortunately, the state is off to an encouraging start with three leaders whose low-drama, work-the-problem styles lend themselves to a fresh approach at the Capitol. Gov.-elect Tim Walz, DFL House Speaker-elect Melissa Hortman and Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka started getting in touch with one another shortly after the election and, so far, appear willing not only to talk but also to listen.
Walz comes out of Congress, and has seen enough dysfunction there to make credible his insistence that he is serious about win-win negotiations. Achieving compromise, he told the Star Tribune Editorial Board as a candidate, means the other side has to get “something real.”
In a small preview of his coming inaugural address, he elaborated in an interview with an editorial writer late last week: “I’ve never been wedded to governance as a competitive event. It’s a process to come to the best conclusion for the state of Minnesota. I’m not interested in beating Republican senators. I’m interested in people who are serious about finding solutions.”
Incoming Minnesota House Speaker Hortman has spent years observing what goes right in that body and what sometimes goes horribly wrong, including as minority leader. She told an editorial writer that she wants to restore practices that foster meaningful discussion at all levels. That will be a needed departure from what increasingly was a command-and-control structure that left too many legislators out of the loop.
The lone leadership holdover from last year’s triumvirate is Gazelka, who communicated with but also clashed with outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton. The Senate majority leader said he wants to build bridges with incoming leaders. Gazelka told an editorial writer he was pleased, upon calling Walz after the election, to find that “he had already told people he was going to call me.”
Since then, the two have met with aides several times and talked on the phone. Gazelka and Hortman, along with spouses, recently met for dinner and continue to talk informally. Gazelka harked back to the legendary relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Those two fought hard for their positions. But, as Thomas O’Neill III wrote about his father and Reagan, “what both men deplored more than the other’s political philosophy was a stalemate, and a country ... so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward.”
Passion is necessary to drive ideas forward, but discipline and a measure of respect separate those who talk from those who get things done. Minnesotans can help change the culture by recognizing that compromise is a part of a healthy political dynamic. Walz said Minnesotans are already there. “People in this state are pragmatic, optimistic and hardworking. They’re not cruel or mean-spirited. Why should our politics be that way? Our politics should mirror the state’s values.”
No one should expect these principled, seasoned lawmakers to easily give on issues close to their hearts and dear to their constituents. But they are motivated by temperament, history and political reality to work together. Gazelka holds a one-vote majority in the Senate. Hortman represents a swing district that she says has given her a sharp appreciation for opposing viewpoints. Walz, too, walked a fine line to maintain his hold on a congressional seat in southern Minnesota that shifted from blue to red with his departure.
Democracy works best when all viewpoints are heard and debated, and when the best, most widely agreed-upon become legislation. Do lawmakers fall short of that? Yes, and often. But like the ideals expressed in the Constitution, it remains a worthy goal.