At the Jefferson Center, we believe every citizen and community member has the capacity and wisdom to make informed decisions about issues affecting their lives. Too often, citizens are cut off, cut out, or simply too busy living their lives to dedicate the time and energy to meaningfully engage in the arduous process of politics and policy. In our effort to increase meaningful engagement in public policy conversations, we create forums and venues for individuals to interact genuinely with community leaders, public institutions, elected officials, and one another about issues that affect them.
We recently kicked off a collaboration with Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) professor Lena Jones and students in her State and Local Government course with the goal of creating meaningful opportunities for engaging with public policy and political candidates, and increasing awareness of the role of the secretary of state office in Minnesota.
A key component of this collaboration was Tuesday night’s Student-Led Minnesota Secretary of State Candidate Forum, where nearly 100 students and onlookers packed the multi-purpose room in MCTC’s Helland Center for a two-hour discussion of policies and issues related to the secretary of state with current candidates Bob Helland (Independence Party), Dan Severson (Republican), and Rep. Steve Simon (DFL). The forum was emceed by Jay Bad Heart Bull, president and CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) and moderated by Felicia Hamilton, chair of the MCTC Community Development Club. Questions for the candidates were developed and delivered entirely by students.
This event countered the perception that political campaigning can only entail mud-slinging and name-calling at the expense of substantive debate and deliberation about policy. But how? How did this interaction between students and the candidates provide a contrast to commonly held, cynical views of contemporary campaign discourse? Quite simply, the Student-Led Secretary of State Forum generated an in-depth, civil and substantive conversation about the candidates’ vision, goals, and strategies if they were elected on topics ranging from voting and voter registration technology, to business services administration, to voter outreach and education.
One particularly salient exchange occurred when each candidate was asked to explain whether or not he supports the re-enfranchisement of individuals with felony convictions. Rather than simply pivoting or deflecting, each candidate provided nuanced responses highlighting a number of philosophical and interpretive differences regarding the role of the secretary of state relative to legislative, constitutional, and judicial authority and in response to the broader Minnesotan electorate (for more detail on this exchange, check out an extended recap on our blog).
So what is unique about this exchange? Primarily, the level of depth and clarity that candidates supplied during this forum – candidates clearly outlined positions and limited responses to interpretations of current policy and potential changes they would support. Additionally, the notion that a public forum could actually result in a positive experience for everyone involved is nearly inconceivable. Take a step back and compare the headlines from MinnPost’s own recent coverage of this race (“Under the radar, Secretary of State race offers similar names — and big policy differences” compared to the U.S. Senate race (“A slow and sarcastic first McFadden-Franken debate,” “McFadden goes at Franken’s record in first debate”) and coverage of the 8th Congressional District (“Nolan and Mills tangle in Duluth debate”). There is a clear difference in both the substance and tone of the coverage. The secretary of state coverage emphasizes clear policy differences while coverage of the U.S. Senate and House races focus almost exclusively on the expectation of incivility and rancor from candidates in these events. We commend the secretary of state candidates for bucking the trend in order to provide voters with a clear understanding of where they stand on issues.
Pettiness, antagonism: It doesn’t have to be
Given these dynamics, it is not surprising that many people are turned off from politics, policy, and campaigns when we have so clearly internalized the notion that political exchanges are simply arenas for pettiness and antagonism. However, as this collaboration and others taking place regularly (see the work of the Citizens League, or the Civic Caucus for other local examples) demonstrate, this doesn’t have to be the case.
At the Jefferson Center, we are committed to improving the civic experience of community members and voters by providing opportunities for individuals to work together and make informed decisions about challenging, complicated, and divisive issues rather than begrudgingly accepting the notion that politics as usual is the only option. We invite you to join us in this effort.
Kyle Bozentko is the executive director of the Jefferson Center, a nonpartisan civic engagement and public policy organization in St. Paul aimed at strengthening democracy by advancing citizen-led solutions to public policy issues.
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