DFL roundtable: working as a team

Out of power, Southwest House members stick together to 'play a lot of defense'

If you cast your vote for one Minneapolis DFL state representative, you are pretty much voting for a team of city Democrats.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, District 62B, has served in the House since 1986, and she said the city delegation has never been tighter. "Informally, we divide the workload, and we do it very, very well," she said.

Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, District 60A, works on budget and bonding issues. Rep. Frank Hornstein, District 60B, works on transportation issues. Rep. Paul Thissen, District 63A works on airport issues. Rep. Neva Walker, District 61B, works on health and human services, and Wagenius works on environmental and energy issues.

"I don't have to have a depth of understanding of health and welfare issues because I can count on Neva, and I trust her," Wagenius said.

The Southwest Journal invited the DFLers with districts that include Southwest neighborhoods to an informal roundtable in the back room at Caribou Coffee, 815 W. 50th St., to talk about their successes, frustrations and strategies as members of the minority party.

(The Journal had also invited Rep. Karen Clark, District 61A, who cancelled at the last minute due to issues surrounding Indian burial mounds in Bloomington.)

The Roundtable offered a contrast to a similar Journal discussion with Republican House challengers in the Oct. 11 issue. Unlike the DFLers, the GOP challengers had neither collaborated with nor even knew each other. Mostly first-time candidates, they are running tight-budget, uphill campaigns with the help of friends, relatives and, in some cases, advice from Republican House incumbents.

While the Republicans bemoaned the DFL' s long-time dominance in city politics, the incumbent Democrats spoke of their frustrations serving in the Republican-controlled House.

"Minneapolis is being attacked on an almost daily basis," Walker said.

For many years, the DFL controlled the House and Minneapolis politicians chaired key committees and called the shots. Now in the minority, today's city Democratic representatives focus on rear-guard actions and offering alternative bills and budgets.

What came out most clearly during the 70-minute conversation is that city Democrats are focusing on reaching out across the aisle to forge the personal relationships needed to build support for city issues and move their agenda.

The representatives were quick to praise their colleagues' collaborative efforts. For instance, Kelliher pointed out Hornstein's efforts to work with Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, on bus rapid transit along the I-35W corridor, and Thissen's work with Rep. Doug Meslow, R-White Bear Lake on a bill to expedite action on allegations of campaign law violations, a bill that became law.

Loyal opposition

Ask House DFL incumbents about their recent accomplishments and they say part of their job is, in Hornstein's words, "playing a lot of defense."

Said Hornstein, "We have to prevent a lot of bad things from happening. One of the things that I got involved in was preventing this amendment to privatize Metro Transit."

The city delegation lost its share of battles, including an effort to block Local Government Aid (LGA) cuts as part a $4 billion-plus state deficit fix. (The city was certified to get $117.6 million in 2003; that got cut to $91.8 in 2003; and successive cuts have reduced city LGA to $80.4 million in 2005, or $37.3 million less than the original 2003 target.)

Each representative offered a few proud moments, not all of them legislative successes.

Kelliher, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, said she played a lead role in crafting the DFL's alternative (and unsuccessful) budget, which proposed a 5 percent LGA cut, significantly less than what the Republicans proposed. The plan would have increased state income taxes on high-end earners and made other adjustments.

(Kelliher's Republican opponent, Tom Gromacki, said he would have supported the LGA cuts as part of the budget fix.)

Kelliher has also worked on state borrowing plans, she said. Although the 2004 bonding bill stalled, she had success in previous years securing state borrowing for the Lake of the Isles restoration, the Guthrie Theater and the Minneapolis Community and Technical College library.

Thissen said even though he was a first-term legislator in a minority party, he was able to pass several bills, including one to curb abuses by tax preparers, who in some cases charged large fees for refund loans.

Hornstein talked about working to find common ground with suburban legislators to promote bus rapid transit on I-35W. Wagenius said she worked on draw attention to the underfunding of polluted-water cleanup.

Walker, the state's first African American woman representative, counted among her legislative successes that she "survived" the biennium, saying reacting to racist statements, including comments by Rep. Arlon Linder, R-Corcoran, "took up too much of my time."

Walker also talked about learning the ropes on the Regulatory Services Committee and building partnerships with rural legislators. During a recent visit to Rep. Aaron Peterson's (DFL-Madison) district on the state's west edge, she said she'd been "learning about wind energy, telecommunication, soybean farming and goat farming."

Why not a Minneapolis Republican?

Walker does not have a serious challenge. Republican Andy Lindberg, a real estate agent who favors "looking for opportunities to get government out of people's lives," candidly said he has no chance to win the district. He is running to give like-minded people a chance to vote for someone else, he said.

Southwest neighborhoods elect DFL representatives by wide margins. In 2002, for instance, Thissen had the closest 2002 race, getting 3,400 more votes than his Republican challenger, a 19-percent margin. Kelliher won by 53 percentage points, and newcomer Hornstein ran unopposed.

Republican challengers say the city would benefit from having a city representative in the majority GOP camp to advocate for Minneapolis' issues. For instance, Amy Vrudny, Thissen's challenger, suggested she could help bridge the gap on issues such as airport noise.

Not surprisingly, the Democrats reject those arguments.

Thissen said he didn't believe Vrudny could influence airport noise decisions. House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have been very supportive of Northwest Airline's expansion requests and unresponsive to neighborhood noise complaints, he said.

"One person in their caucus saying, 'You can't do this to me,' isn't going to make any difference," he said.

Further, electing a Republican from the city simply to have a voice in the GOP caucus would concede votes on other important statewide environmental and social justice issues city residents care about, Thissen said.

Wagenius said she thought the Republican Party had historically run right-wing candidates in Minneapolis -- abandoning any chance of winning in areas such as the 13th Ward -- because Minneapolis made a good political target for other Republican candidates.

"It is a choice that leadership in the caucus has made, conveniently, not to have," she said.

Sigrid Hutcheson, an Independence Party candidate challenging Kelliher, said she could mediate to break the partisan two-party gridlock.

Kelliher said she has received mediation and negotiation training through the Bush Leadership Fellowship and has been working to take that role.

She grew up near Mankato and remembered the feeling that is "out there," Kelliher said: "That the big city doesn't care about you. Also, that the big city is a little scary.

"We know we have to reach out," she said. "We have been doing things to reach out to other members to invite them into the city of Minneapolis -- the Aquatennial, Holidazzle -- bringing them in, helping them have a positive experience in the city."

Kelliher is also working on a program to mirror the League of Minnesota Cities "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" program to get individual legislators to know each other better, she said.

High taxes?

Jeremy Estenson, a staff member for the Republican House caucus, is challenging Hornstein on the traditional Republican platform of small government-lower taxes.

He said a typical family of four in his district making $88,500 a year pays more than $20,000 a year in taxes, an amount he calls shocking.

(The figure includes federal and state income tax, Social Security tax, property tax, sales tax and others, such as business taxes passed on to households to cigarette tax and vehicle registration.)

Hornstein called Social Security a "bedrock" program the country has to fund. And he agrees that some taxes, such as the property tax, a regressive tax, are too high.

"It is not a question of whether taxes are too high," he said. "It is how to we capture revenue in a fair and equitable way -- and make wealthy individuals and large corporations pay their fair share, which they are not paying right now."

Wagenius said she wanted to make a tax-and-spend argument of a different sort. She is researching the health care costs of auto pollution to make a stronger case for increased transit spending.

Wagenius and others pushed for the conversion of the Riverside coal-burning power plant to natural gas, she said. Research showed that eliminating the fine particle pollution from that plant would save $58 million in health care costs.

Reducing freeway auto emissions could have a similar impact.

"For all of this talk about wanting to reduce health care costs, we have not looked at transit specifically," she said. That is one of the issues we are clarifying -- to let people understand the immense cost that you pay as a taxpayer and you pay on your insurance premium because we have so little transit in Minnesota."