Us vs. Them: Why Minneapolis is taking a licking at the State Capitol

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March 14, 2005 // UPDATED 1:52 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Michael Metzger and Scott Russell
Michael Metzger and Scott Russell

Many Minneapolitans see themselves as a rainbow of culture and color. They are a monotonous monochrome. We reside in a quaint mix of bungalows, Tudors and St. Anne's, while they live in cookie-cutter houses surrounded by look-alike lawns. They eat at McDonald's; we dine at Caf Brenda. We thoughtfully vote blue, they reflexively vote red.

To some in the suburbs and beyond, Minneapolis is seen as the Bastion of Boondoggles - a brie-sucking, subsidy-loving, Bush-hating, crime-racked wasteland ruled by the two-party system of liberals and extreme liberal;, a place to be endured only if one wants to watch a Vikings game.

The stereotypes are silly but widely held. In any event, it seems that, somehow, the political discourse between Minneapolis and the rest of the state has broken down - with Minneapolis paying the price.

The state has cut city aid for education and local government, resulting in fewer Minneapolis cops and teachers and library hours. City leaders mutter about increasing the local sales tax to fund public safety, but that might be no solution at all. City officials fear that if they increase the local sales tax, state leaders will just cut local aid.

Is the city's fiscal bruising a sign of the times, or is it something we said?

Skyway News called dozens of legislators, city leaders and political insiders, both past and present, both from Minneapolis and outside Minneapolis, to ask their insight. Is there a schism? Is it new or long-standing?

The thoughts, theories and musings fall into three loose categories:

- The problem is not what we've done, but who we are;

- The problem is what we did - or their version thereof;

- The problem is as Republican party feud that we abetted.


Running against Minneapolis is good politics.

Some say that Minneapolis' image problems are nothing new. Republican outstate legislators say they take a political risk if their constituents think they are too cozy with the city. City Democrats see it is an excuse for divide-and-conquer.

Steve Sviggum, speaker of the House and a resident of rural Kenyon, said all rural candidates - Democrats and Republicans - run against the city.

"It is true that good politics in an outstate Minnesota, rural small-town farming community is not necessarily to support and be hand-in-hand with Minneapolis - the big boys in the city," said Sviggum, a Republican. "If you're going to take an average legislator and think of the city coming forward with a request, the city's going to want more money, and it's going to be for some liberal cause - that's what an average legislator is going to think."

DFL State Sen. Scott Dibble of Southwest Minneapolis has a different spin.

"It plays well at home to beat up on Minneapolis. And the political system is competitive and largely adversarial in a lot of ways," he said. "It's easy to play up those perceptions. It's easy to play up the politics of difference and division. It's destructive in the end."

One former DFL legislator from Greater Minnesota who asked to remain nameless said some former constituents feel "left out" and "left behind." They don't make a distinction between Minneapolis, inner-ring suburbs or the outer-ring suburbs, he said.

"They see how prosperous the Twin Cities are, it seems to them. They look at all the successes the metro area has and then they say, 'Our small town is shrinking' or 'Our county is losing population.' It confirms that they are being left behind," he said.

"They tend to say to their public officials: 'How strong are you standing up to them?'"

Political parties made things worse

Lyall Schwartzkopf was first elected to the Legislature from Minneapolis in 1962, so he remembers a time when that body was nonpartisan. That is, no one was elected as a DFLer or GOPer, though of course they privately and even publicly preferred one party.

Schwartzkopf, a Republican, has been around the political block. He's a former Minneapolis city clerk, city lobbyist, state legislator, city coordinator and former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. He was there after Minnesota law allowed members of the House and Senate to be designated by party after 1973, when the legislative landscape shifted.

"After that happened, the political parties really got involved. They were somewhat involved prior to that but not an awful lot.

"Once they really got involved, it was for blood. Because whoever controls the speaker, whoever controls the majority leader, controls the legislation. And it's gotten tougher and tougher and tougher since that time."

As power has shifted between parties and people have tallied the injustices real and perceived, collegiality appears the casualty.

Republican Dick Erdall, a Minneapolis City Councilmember from 1967 to 1973 and a former Council president, said he and members of his party used to be good friends with Democrats. "We didn't always vote together, but there was a willingness to compromise and a willingness to try to find solutions that everyone could buy," he said.

"It seems that a lot of legislators don't talk to each other any more. Some [Legislators] bemoan the fact that people aren't friends any more. A lot of them aren't."

Tom Berg, a Minneapolis DFL state representative in the 1970s, agrees. "We used to have wonderful parties [at the legislature]. There was much more socializing going on. Then we would get up on the House floor and fight pretty strong. Somehow it would come together. That is important. It seems to be missing.

"There is too much rigid ideology and not enough facing up to reality," he said.


Payback time

For much of the 1970s and 1980s, city Democrats had Capitol clout. At various times, Congressman Martin Sabo of Minneapolis was House speaker. Nick Coleman of St. Paul was the Senate majority leader. Minneapolis Democrats chaired key committees in the House and Senate.

But the last DFL governor was Rudy Perpich, who lost reelection 15 years ago.

Mayor R.T. Rybak has reaped some of the whirlwind sown by DFLers who thought the party's good times would never end. "When I first came into office, I'd walk through the [Capitol] corridors and they'd tell me about things some Minneapolis legislators did to them when I was back in Cub Scouts," Rybak said. "I walked into a situation in which there was longtime, pent-up hostility toward Minneapolis, and then the Legislature turned dramatically right and Gov. Pawlenty came into office."

The mayor said the city-state relationship has improved, however, since he was elected in 2001.

Sarah Janacek, a Republican lobbyist and Minneapolis resident, said the House Republican majority remembers when Democrats ran things and "a ton of money flowed to Minneapolis," she said. "Everybody knows that the city of Minneapolis operates at the margin in terms of debt. There's just no willingness, given how much Minneapolis has gotten over the years, in doing anything special."

Bob Miller, who heads the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization project, said city DFLers such as Rep. Jim Rice and Sen. Carl Kroening had a lot of power and wielded it to aid the city.

"Members of the Republican minority resented it," Miller said. "[Rice and Kroening] were excellent for Minneapolis; don't get me wrong. They got Minneapolis a lot of stuff they would never have gotten otherwise."

But the past's highly desirable pork has morphed into baggage for present-day legislators, he said.

Brian Rice, Jim Rice's son and longtime lobbyist, disagrees that Minneapolis is getting a comeuppance for old grudges. He said it is pure power politics without regard to the past.

"The Legislature is not a place for the meek," he said. "If you are going to get stuff done over there, you have to be tough as nails. The rural guys are. It doesn't matter if it is Republicans or Democrats. If you come down and start fighting for something for rural Minnesota, it is like trying to separate a hungry pack of wolves from its kill."

Pork City

One popular outstate theme is that city kids get too many of the state's education dollars.

Rep. Greg Davids, a Republican who represents largely rural District 31B in southeastern Minnesota, said there's frustration among outstate legislators looking at the money going to Minneapolis schools.

"A Minneapolis student is worth $11,000 to $12,000 [annually] and a student in my district is worth $6,500," Davids said. "That certainly doesn't set a good tone. We're asking the questions, 'Why are your graduation rates so low with double the money we're getting and ours are so high?' It's kind of looked on, like, 'What are you guys doing here?' Let's get on board and let's get to work. You do start to question what are they doing with the dollars they do have."

Suburban Republican Sen. Mady Reiter, R-53, said Minneapolis and St. Paul schools don't have the "natural pipeline of money" they once did. "Legislators from Minneapolis and St. Paul have a little more trouble now because, in the suburbs, we've realized how shortchanged we've been on items such as education," he said.

City Democrats such as Sen. Wes Skoglund have long argued that Minneapolis needs more money because its students tend to be poorer, more diverse and have more special needs, including immigrant children who don't speak English as their first language. He bristles when people argue Minneapolis had been overpaid for education.

"From a very simplistic view, in a campaign brochure, it does work that way. People who don't think it through or do the math, think that way," said Skoglund, who also works as a substitute Special Education teacher. "There's an enormous difference between who we're educating and who they're educating."

Lack of local unity

Minneapolis legislators and city officials aren't always on the same page when it comes to making arguments for the city's wants and needs at the Capitol.

Case in point: The city and the Minneapolis school district have large underfunded pensions needing state help. State Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Nicollet Island proposed a pension bill to pump more aid into the city's closed police and fire funds. The mayor and City Council voted it down.

Kahn, who has represented the city at the Capitol since Richard Nixon was president, said the current City Council and mayor don't understand how the Legislature works.

"Count me as one of the people who's not impressed with the city of Minneapolis at the Legislature," she said. "They don't have any party differences where they work. They don't understand how difficult it is to work from a minority basis. They just think that you just say something and you get it done."

Rybak and the Council majority were not happy that Kahn fought for legislation they did not support. They said the closed pension funds had serious structural problems and thought Kahn's bill offered short-term gain while pushing the problem onto the future generations. Whether they can get a better bill through the Legislature remains to be seen.

Said Rybak, "We've made great progress with the legislative delegation, which has great members but has not always worked as one."

He added that "Phyllis Kahn has always been a bit of a rogue member of our delegation."

Thissen is a Rybak supporter but said that Minneapolis representatives aren't necessarily pulling on the same oar or in the same direction.

"It's not often, though, that we sit down and say, 'We need to take a unified position on this,'" he said.

A very recent example: the City Council passed a hotly debated initiative to ask the Legislature for permission to levy a half-cent local sales tax. In passing the motion, supporters acknowledged that no Minneapolis legislator had signed up to sponsor the bill.


Political polarization

Some, particularly Republicans, argue that Minneapolis suffers at the Legislature because it's a one-party town.

Minneapolis Republican and former State Senate candidate Elsa Carpenter said her party's legislators don't hate Minneapolis - they ignore it, "which maybe you think is worse than hate. But the point is, we don't have anybody sitting at any off the tables - in the School Board, the Park Board, the Library Board ... nor at the House, nor the Senate."

Carpenter, Sviggum and past and present Republican leaders say if the city just had one Republican member, it would help. Yet to most Democrats, that's not only rewarding one's abuser, but conceding even a single seat could determine who controls the Legislature. (The House is now split 68-66 in favor of Republicans; a one-seat swing would make it a tie.)

Minneapolis DFL Rep. Paul Thissen doesn't buy the "at-least-one-Republican" theory.

"I've heard that argument a lot, and I'm not sure that's the case. Just having one voice in a caucus of 67 people, where the leadership has made a point of focusing their opposition to Minneapolis, isn't going to make a significant difference," he said.

It wasn't always this way. Three decades ago, during Erdall's City Council career, Republicans held a 10-3 majority, he said. What caused the great Republican extinction in Minneapolis?

Republican lobbyist Mary Ann Campo said some Minneapolis Republican woes stem from intraparty battles. A sea of change occurred when Julie Morse organized the conservative's party takeover in the 1984.

As Campo remembers it, Morse started everyone arguing with each other and made the GOP unwelcoming. "Julie's style was scorched earth: burn, burn, burn, with no long-term plan with what to do after you burnt," Campo said. "It discouraged a lot of people from running."

Morse agrees the battle for the Minneapolis Republican Party left hard feelings. The party's old leadership was odd-man out. "The world belongs to people who show up. A lot of [conservative] people started showing up," she said.

Morse later married former State Representative and conservative GOP gubernatorial candidate Allen Quist. She said the changes in Minneapolis were part of the Republican Party's natural progression, as it shifted away from the moderate wing to the pro-life, family values party of Ronald Reagan - and eventually made Republicans the state's majority party.

The statewide success makes it less likely that the GOP will take a prescription some city Democrats offer: that Republicans could win if they would only run credible, moderate candidates.

Carpenter describes a sort of electoral death spiral for the Minneapolis GOP: the more one party dominates a political contest, the more the minority party tends to run maverick candidates, those with a political "death wish."

"The best is having two fairly even parties," she said. "Then both parties tend to have reasonable peoplethe truth is the state is becoming more Republican and more conservative. We live in the city, we live in the microcosm of 'Anti.' Anti-Bush, hate-Bush, hate-this, anti-cutting taxesyou go out to Eagan, it is pretty different."

Republican Walter Rockenstein is a textbook example of the state GOP moving away from city success. One of Minneapolis' old-school Republicans, Rockenstein represented the 11th Ward in southwest from 1974 to 1983. He ran unopposed in his last election, he said. He used to go to the Legislature and lobby his Republican colleagues such as Rep. Bill Dean, R-Minneapolis, legislators he knew from Edina or Richfield, or any Republican he could find.

He worked on the same issues that city leaders work on today - state aid, pensions and water quality.

He was a Minneapolis Republican voice that GOP leaders say is missing today. But whether a 2005 version of Rockenstein would make a difference today is unclear.

"I am not sure if I decided to run again for the City Council that I could get the party's endorsement," Rockenstein said. "I am not 'right' on any of the issues. I am pro-choice. I am against prayer in the schools. I am not a born-again Christian, even though I am the son of a Presbyterian minister and extremely active in my church. That is not good enough. You name the issue, I don't fit the pattern. I am not sure I'd want the party's endorsement if I did run."

Redistricting disputes

Campo also said Minneapolis Democratic redistricting plans diminished Republican power in the city on the City Council and in the Legislature.

The election map "was drawn for a purpose. It succeeded. I would tell you it succeeded to greatly," she said, noting the city now has no Republican representation.

For Campo, it's personal. She said was going to run for City Council in the 13th Ward after her unsuccessful State Senate race in 1990. The new ward map put her house two blocks into the 11th Ward, away from her political base.

Jeff Spartz, a former DFL Hennepin County commissioner familiar with the redistricting discussions, said there may have been some DFLers who wanted to hurt Republicans in redistricting. But "I would swear an oath that my friends and I did not have that intention. We realize the value of an effective minority."

He said Watergate and demographic changes had made it next to impossible to draw the boundaries to preserve Republican wards.

"By the time we realized there was a problem, it was too late," he said. "When the Republican Party was in jeopardy, there actually were discussions: is there a way to create four or five wards so you have that legitimate minority? No one could figure out how to do it."

Chuck Lutz, a DFL staff person on the 1981 redistricting commission, said the plan he worked on protected the five Republican incumbents. "When they chose not to seek reelection, their wards promptly turned to DFL."

The most recent Republican City Councilmember was Dennis Schulstad (12th Ward) who last served in 1997. Minneapolis' last Republican House member was Dean, who served from 1975 to 1982.