When Tom Berg was elected to the state Legislature in 1970, he beat out an incumbent Republican lawmaker who had represented the Minneapolis district for five terms.
Berg and his wife knocked on thousands of doors in southwest Minneapolis during his campaign. He was 30 when he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and his victory was a shock to many in the area who typically voted Republican — a political atmosphere in stark contrast to the DFL-dominated southwest Minneapolis of today.
Berg, a longtime Kenwood resident, is out with a new book, “Minnesota’s Miracle: Learning from the Government That Worked,” reflecting on his time in the Legislature during a decade that saw major reforms to state government. It was an era when Minnesota gained national attention for being a successful state and then Gov. Wendell Anderson graced the cover of Time Magazine with the headline: “The good life in Minnesota.”
“We were young, aggressive and reasonably smart and adept at things,” Berg said during a recent interview. “We were able to make the case for change — that the way it’s going isn’t working anymore.”
Berg was reelected for a second term in 1972 — a watershed year for the DFL party when it took control of the Legislature and executive branch for the first time in Minnesota history.
The issues of the day were in many ways similar to those dominating headlines today. The country was in the midst of a prolonged war, environmental problems and economic concerns were at the forefront of political discussions, and feminists waged battles for women’s rights.
“In my view there’s tremendous similarities between the times,” Berg said.
The Legislature, however, was a very different place in the early 1970s than it is it today. It met every other year, legislators had to share support staff and there were no computers. Still, in Berg’s view, it was a time of great progress and camaraderie.
Berg regularly met with a group of other young DFLers who had common goals to share ideas. The group included Martin Sabo who was already a veteran lawmaker at that time. Sabo was first elected in 1960 at the age of 22.
“It was a group of young folks who were strong believers that government could work,” he said. “We weren’t afraid to stick our nose into a fight, but we worked with the Republicans — and there were some Republicans we could work with.”
The Legislature made major changes in the 1970s that have had a lasting impact on state government. State fiscal policies were changed to try to even the playing field for low-income areas that relied on steep property tax levies to fund local government and schools. The changes became known as the “Minnesota Miracle.” Business leaders also worked with lawmakers in the 1970s to reorganize government and make it more efficient.
Berg consulted with many of his former colleagues on his new book. He hopes lessons from the past will inspire people to get more involved in their communities.
He proposes several ideas in “Minnesota’s Miracle” to improve the political scene that has turned more nasty and divisive than when he was in office. He advocates for a new course in the state’s schools that would improve civic literacy, and would like to see lawmakers of different political stripes have more social contact with one another.
“I want to improve the political discourse,” he said. “We need to go beyond government by bumper sticker. It’s just more complicated than that.”