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Secretary of state forum gave a refreshing take on campaign politics and civil discourse

Kyle Bozentko

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.

Bob Helland
Bob Helland

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.

Nuanced responses

Dan Severson
Dan Severson

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

Steve Simon
Steve Simon

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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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/10/2014 - 05:26 pm.

    sort of

    When Severson claimed that there were over 6,200 cases of fraud, did anyone call him on it? If someone is going to tell flat-out lies and no one speaks up (or is allowed to speak up) having a civil discourse really doesn’t do much good.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 10/11/2014 - 02:10 pm.

      Of course no one called him out on it, Dan.

      While the national media is worthless, local media is even worse. It’s one of the reasons I gave up on Almanac. After sitting through yet another situation where someone like Anette Meeks or Ben Golnick regurgitates easily disputed GOP talking points while Eskola adjusts his scarf and challenges nothing, I’ve given up on traditional media reporting. That’s why all of the ex-Stribers that know their stuff are over here at Minnpost…and thank God for that.

      • Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/11/2014 - 09:32 pm.

        Recall of Mr. Severson’s Statement & My Own

        My opponent, Mr. Severson, did not claim that there were 6,200 cases of fraud, necessarily, rather he uses two examples – a lack of voucher sheets and the inability to obtain postal verification – as “vulnerabilities in the system”. While Mr. Severson and I may not agree on the direction we should take in Minnesota’s Office of Secretary of State, I do believe it’s important to accurately represent his position in contrast to mine. Our secretary of state needs to be cognizant of vulnerabilities and thoroughly understand and investigate (aka audit) the system to ensure integrity. My focus is to use my experience in state government fraud detection and prevention to ensure we have quality technology systems, interagency partnerships and capable personnel to execute this principal responsibility. I respect challenges to the election system and will duly investigate substantiated claims.

        You can see his actual statements on this video provided by MCTC (about 2:30 starting), alongside my own and Rep. Simon’s for this specific subject.

        You can see all the forum videos on my website along with other unedited and unbiased messages of all three major party candidates. I believe it’s important to represent them fairly in contrast and comparison to me. Let me know what you think.

        ~Bob Helland
        for Minnesota Secretary of State

        • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/13/2014 - 08:28 am.


          Do you know where I got the information about Severson’s claim of 6,200 cases of voter fraud? From the Jefferson Center’s blog summary of the debate. So either you are wrong, or the Jefferson Center is not improving the discourse, but is instead lying about a candidate’s statements.

          • Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/13/2014 - 04:48 pm.

            I’ve provided the direct clip so you can best inform your choice

            … for who represents your priorities in election conduct and broadly in this executive office.

            While media and non-media representatives tend to interpret events and statements and may sometimes get them “wrong”, I don’t believe there is any malicious intent or lying at work here by the Jefferson Center. The only sure way for you to know would be to review the unedited and unbiased source material in full context and see what is being discussed in this race. I am happy to say that by me being there, I have changed the tone and content of the debate to more accurately reflect the role of the office as opposed to contrary political philosophies. This is not a legislative position, but an executive officer of the state.

            It is understandable from the statements made regarding the 6,200 individuals how a listener may interpret them as an accusation of “fraud” in elections rather than “potential for fraud”, which would be more appropriate, but I give my opponent the benefit of the doubt and respect his opinion that certain election activities may represent “vulnerabilities in the system” (verbatim).


            I am no stranger to misrepresentations or worse, omissions, in news reports so I think we all play a role in changing the conversation to be most civil, cordial, accurate and relevant.

            • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/14/2014 - 04:52 pm.

              You are part of the problem

              I would say the Jefferson Center got it right.

              Whether Severson is talking about fraud or “potential for fraud” regarding 6,200 votes, the source where he got that number has been thoroughly discreditied. Severson is going around making allegations that are just outright false. And by respecting and giving the benefit of the doubt to his false statements, you are lowering the discourse, not raising it. You are part of the problem, not the solution.

  2. Submitted by barb davis on 10/11/2014 - 06:26 am.

    Secretary of State forum Gives Me Hope

    Thanks for reporting on this great step toward fixing our campaign efforts. We MUST change our approach and return substance and civility to the process. Kudos to MCTC, the candidates and the students. Let’s repeat this throughout a prescribed campaign period for all races. We need to go back to being an informed voter and good listener to candidates who can articulate what they intent to do to address and improve real issues – both new and incumbent. A great first step to use this format for Secretary of State – the position that has the influence to change our election process.
    I am also supportive of a format that includes fact checking and challenges the comments of the candidate – at the time the statement is made! Thanks for the coverage!

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