DFL may go big, and that wouldn’t be bad

Published on January 18, 2023

I’ve been listening for one word — “overreach” — in the early days of the all-DFL production that opened last week at the State Capitol.

Use it in a sentence, you kindly ask? Here you go: “DFLers had better be careful not to overreach on spending (or taxes, or guns, or marijuana) lest voters conclude they are extreme and dump them in the next election.”

That’s a version of a warning I heard frequently 10 years ago, the last time DFLers ran the House, Senate and governor’s office.

This year? If it’s being said, it hasn’t registered with me. Rather, I’ve heard more lawmaking ambition than has come from DFLers in decades.

It may be that DFLers who remember the 2013 session — several of whom are in charge today — have concluded that legislative self-restraint isn’t necessarily a virtue. Naturally, I’ve got a story about that:

In 2013, DFLers took the Capitol reins just after Minnesota’s 2012 voters had rejected a Republican invitation to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. Calls were rising to guarantee marriage equality in state statute.

Some DFL leaders weren’t sure about acting on that issue so quickly. Incoming House Speaker Paul Thissen was believed by those of us in the Capitol basement to be among the foot-draggers.

As the session’s end neared, the pro-equality crowds and chants in the Capitol intensified. A strong bill advanced through the requisite committees. Whatever hesitation the speaker may have harbored melted away. And on a beautiful May day on the Capitol’s front steps, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill that made Minnesota the 12th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

Fast forward to April 2018. I paid Thissen an office visit as he was packing his personal effects for a move across the mall to the Judicial Building, where he would soon be sworn in as a Minnesota Supreme Court associate justice. It’s the post he holds today.

Still on his wall was a large framed photo of the sunny, celebratory scene outside the Capitol on May 14, 2013. It depicted one his proudest moments as House speaker, he told me.

Overreach? By purely partisan measure, maybe it was. House DFLers lost the House majority in the 2014 election and stayed in the minority for four years. The marriage issue likely was a factor in widening a rural-urban partisan divide that, regrettably, has grown wider since then.

Yet as Thissen’s prized photo tacitly attested, some policy moves are right and good and worth making, even if they come at a political price. That’s the spirit I detected in the comments this newspaper reported from Rep. Cedrick Frazier of New Hope, a rising House DFL star:

“The last time we had the trifecta, there were some things left on the table. … Now is the time to take care of those.”

What things? Regular readers of these pages likely have a list memorized. Paid family and medical leave, universal preschool, climate protection, red-flag gun restrictions, reproductive rights protection, a state Equal Rights Amendment, automatic voter registration — all have been stuck in partisan gridlock for a decade or more. All are worthy proposals that should move this year.

I’m rooting for one other long-sought change: ranked-choice voting (RCV). (I’m guessing Frazier had that in mind too. He’s the RCV bill’s sponsor in the House.)

It’s been 25 years since Minnesota RCV backers first told me about the advantages of ranking candidates and sorting ballots until a majority winner emerges. It’s a way to eliminate low-turnout primaries and promote majority rule, while encouraging the democratic dynamism of third parties and ad hoc coalitions.

When this state elected a governor in 1998 with only 37% of the vote, I became intrigued with RCV. When, more than a decade ago, Minneapolis and St. Paul proved that RCV is constitutional, workable and popular, I was sold.

And when Maine and Alaska showed that RCV works well in state elections, I thought: Why can’t Minnesota be next?

It can be in 2024, if the 2023 Legislature recognizes that RCV is not overreach. It’s an enhancement to democratic self-governance that’s well suited to “the state that votes.”

Lori Sturdevant

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and the co-author of the 2020 book “Turnout: Making Minnesota the State That Votes,” by Joan Anderson Growe. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

Originally published in the Star Tribune
Published on January 7, 2023

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