Why Minneapolis is taking a licking at the State Capitol

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

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

OK, maybe it's not that extreme. Still, 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?

The Southwest Journal 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 a Republican party feud that we abetted.

Blame Them

Running against the city works

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.

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

"It plays well at home to beat up on Minneapolis," he said. "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 look at all the successes the metro area has and then they say, 'Our small town is shrinking' or 'Our county is losing population.' They tend to say to their public officials: 'How strong are you standing up to them?'"

Political parties hurt

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 said that after Minnesota law allowed members of the House and Senate to be designated by party after 1973, 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 of Lynnhurst, a 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."

Blame US

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. 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."

Sarah Janacek, a Republican lobbyist who lives in Lowry Hill, 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."

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

Rice's son Brian, a longtime lobbyist, disagrees. He said what happens is pure power politics without regard to the past.

"If you are going to get stuff done over there, you have to be tough as nails," Rice said. "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, 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?'"

Suburban Republican Sen. Mady Reiter, R-53, said, "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 arguing for the city's needs at the Capitol.

For example, Minneapolis DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn proposed a bill to pump more aid into the city's troubled pension funds. The mayor and City Council voted it down.

Kahn, who has represented the city at the Capitol since Richard Nixon was president, said current city officials 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 argue that Kahn's bill was flawed, 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.

Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-63A, who lives in Lynnhurst and backs Rybak, acknowledges the division and its harm.

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

Practically as Thissen spoke, the City Council passed a hotly debated initiative to ask the Legislature for permission to levy a half-cent local sales tax. As they voted for the motion, supporters acknowledged that no Minneapolis legislator had signed up to sponsor the bill.

Blame BOTH

Political polarization

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

No Minneapolis Republican has served in the legislature since 1982 and none have been councilmembers since 1997.

Lynnhurst Republican and former state Senate candidate Elsa Carpenter said that rather than hate Minneapolis, her party's legislators ignore it, "which maybe you think is worse than hate.

"But the point is, we [Republicans] 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 elected one Republican it would help.

Yet most Democrats, see that not only as rewarding your abuser, but conceding power. (The House is now split 68-66 in favor of Republicans; even a one-seat swing would make it a tie.)

Thissen doesn't buy the "at-least-one-Republican" theory.

"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, Republicans held a 10-3 City Council majority, Erdall said. What caused the great Republican extinction in Minneapolis?

Republican lobbyist Mary Ann Campo said some city 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 conservative GOP gubernatorial candidate Allen Quist. She said the changes in Minneapolis were part of the Republican Party's natural progression away from the moderate wing to the pro-life party of Ronald Reagan - and eventually, Minnesota's majority party.

That statewide success makes it less likely that the GOP will take the prescription some city Democrats offer: that Republicans could win here if it 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 people the 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 taxes you go out to Eagan, it is pretty different."

Republican Walter Rockenstein is a textbook example of the state GOP moving away from city success. Rockenstein represented Southwest's 11th Ward 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 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 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. 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 too 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. 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 impossible to draw the boundaries to preserve GOP 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."