Shortly after 9 a.m., the sound of “Amazing Grace” rose from the rotunda floor at the State Capitol and bounced off columns of gleaming marble, everything painstakingly refurbished to its original splendor. The song echoed down adjacent hallways, rising up to the vibrant mosaics in the building’s dome, which have suddenly come alive after years of neglect.
Democracy never looked or sounded so good.
Before long, legislators wearing their Sunday best hauled their kids by the hand and visitors took playful snapshots of each other in the shafts of winter sun that sifted through the building. New Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, paused by himself on a balcony for a moment just to look up and take it all in.
Perhaps he was thinking that this is what a healthy democratic institution can accomplish when it works, and works together. That was his tone at least, when he spoke to this newspaper recently.
The first day of the 2017 session of Minnesota Legislature was largely ceremonial, a day when the elected could relish the moment of their victory and celebrate the newly renovated Capitol with friends and family. They threw around terms such as “compromise” and “I’m willing to listen,” and a popular one Tuesday, “I’m all ears.”
But by the time Gov. Mark Dayton held his first news conference of the year, president-elect Donald Trump had already preempted him with an early morning tweet about Dayton’s admission that the Affordable Care Act was “no longer affordable.”
Dayton took the jab with whimsy and humor. “I don’t have any control over the president-elect’s tweets,” he riposted. “It’s proof positive that I’m not running for higher office again because I don’t tweet.”
Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, have spent much of the time between sessions snarling at each other. On Tuesday, however, he said they recently had lunch. It went fine, Dayton said. Just fine.
Few in the media were buying what the governor was selling. Most participants expect a bit of a brawl and perhaps another stalemate, like in 2011, when the state simply shut down over an inability to cooperate.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, one of the veterans, called this a “very challenging political moment; in some ways it’s uncharted territory. I’m girding for some of the things we’ve seen before.”
Hornstein has been in the minority before, when Dayton was governor and both houses were dominated by Republicans. “That didn’t end well,” Hornstein said, pointing to the shutdown. “I don’t want gridlock, but the precedent is that it could happen.”
Hornstein is worried about increased attacks on minority groups, and growing corporate money influence. “Ideas about privatization are running rampant around here,” he said. That means on health care, “we have to make sure the process is not run by insurance companies.”
He’s heard talk of privatizing anything that moves, including “prisons, schools, transportation.”
Another veteran legislator, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, took the day in stride. He predicted a soft and cordial opening of the Legislature because all the children and families were there, watching.
Guess what, Tony. They are always watching, but you people often forget that.
Rep. Laurie Pryor admitted she got a little bit teary-eyed during her inauguration, after her first run for office. “Today, it’s really cool,” said Pryor, a DFLer who will represent parts of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.
Pryor started her big day with breakfast with her extended family, which includes son-in-law Cam Winton, a Republican who ran for Minneapolis mayor as an independent.
Pryor said the contentious national elections caused her concern during her race, but “it did strengthen my feeling that I was running for the right office, where you go door-to-door and meet people face-to-face,” she said. Her goal in a first term is to develop relationships and “whenever possible, take the constructive track.”
A newcomer, Rep. Dario Anselmo, R-Edina, was there with his family, clearly wide-eyed over the gravity of the moment. Is it daunting to finally take office?
“It is a little bit,” said Anselmo, who addressed the Legislature while speaking for downtown area businesses (he once owned the Fine Line).
“It’s different being here and knowing that people expect me to help them. My job is to be reasonable and responsible and reach out to moderate Democrats and Republicans, because both groups are out there.”
Anselmo’s kids took off down the sparkling hall to watch his inauguration. As they ascended the stairs to the gallery in this regal building, it was a reminder that the work of the state can at times border the magnificent.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin