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Dear winners: Congratulations! And now, remember you’re a public servant

Be wary of assuming you have the “will of the people” behind you, or that you fully understand that will.

REUTERS/Philip Andrews

(This is an open letter of congratulations and encouragement for all winners of elections in Minnesota on Nov. 4. It is informed by an analysis of broad public will, not just the likely 60 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots.)

Dear winners,

smith photo
Dane Smith

Congratulations on your undoubtedly well-deserved election, or re-election. Savor for a while this affirmation of esteem your community holds for you. You are by definition a leader whose position demands respect. And you deserve credit for stepping up to do this hard work and for taking the inevitable heat and criticism that come with public office.

Likely you and your opponent said some unfair things about each other, and it’s even more likely that outside interest groups said some nasty things in your behalf. You ought to send your opponents a note of regret for that, and appreciation for their sacrifice and willingness to step up too.

Now please try to stay humble. You are a leader but also a public servant. Be wary of assuming you have the “will of the people” behind you, or that you fully understand that will. A rather amazingly small percentage of the people you represent actually voted for you. Some people may have “spoken,” but not nearly enough of our most vulnerable people, and too small a percentage for you to claim a “mandate,” especially if you represent the  1/134th of the state’s population in a Minnesota House of Representatives district.

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Further, because you’ve won in a nonpresidential year, in which tens of millions fewer Americans and hundreds of thousands fewer Minnesotans vote, your level of support is quite thin. In 2010 compared with 2008, for instance, a whopping 800,000 fewer Minnesotans voted, roughly 60 percent compared to 80 percent. One thing you ought to do in 2015 is to provide new incentives to vote and to clear away the various obstacles our system puts in the way of participation. Research shows that people who vote are more productive and engaged citizens.

Because of this off-year slump, the winning base of support typically amounts to less than one-third of eligible voters and perhaps a fourth of the people in your jurisdiction. And a disproportionate number of those voters are whiter, more affluent, older and more conservative than the population as a whole. But you now have the responsibility of figuring out how to best serve the interests of all the people in your jurisdiction, including the children, the poor, the unsuccessful and disconnected, the ex-offenders, the immigrants and those who seldom vote or are ineligible to vote.

As you prepare to legislate and govern, your political party’s agenda and your personal philosophical ideology should be tempered and adjusted. The agendas of your affluent contributors and the interest groups who supported you will no doubt have influence. Difficult as this might be to explain to those fine people who may have directly or indirectly given you thousands of dollars, and who expect you to answer their email first, their agenda is not necessarily your agenda.

Here’s a case for what the larger percentage of Minnesotans and Americans want, generally and specifically. These are general goals and specific policies around which there is considerable agreement, from business and labor, philanthropies and foundations, mainstream religious leaders, civic improvement groups, and even conservatives and liberals. You can’t go wrong by focusing on these basics.


Less economic and racial inequality, less poverty, a stronger middle class, and an economy and a society that benefits a larger share of people — not tilted toward the 10 percent at the very top: A very recent national poll by the highly regarded Pew Research firm found that the gap between the rich and everyone else is now the top concern of people living in the United States. Economists increasingly agree that inequality is becoming a real drag on business growth.

Reducing the opportunity gaps for communities of color, women and people with disabilities: An exhaustive national report titled “Building an All-In Nation” shows that support for reducing racial inequality has never been higher. Minnesota is suffering from some of the largest racial gaps in the nation on education attainment, income and wealth, health outcomes, and practically every socio-economic indicator. Almost 70 percent of those polled in the national survey agreed, for instance, with the statement that “a bigger, more diverse work force will lead to economic growth.” More than half of every demographic subgroup, and even a third of white conservatives, support the idea of “a new equity agenda.”


Work-force training improvements, with a focus on racial equity, must become a leading priority. Business interests and justice activists are in alignment and in agreement that our communities of color, where almost all our population growth is occurring, must benefit from faster pathways to the higher-education credentials and skills that our private sector and our overall economy is demanding.

More and better early education availability at the beginning of the pipeline, through the expansion of public pre-kindergarten or parent-choice scholarships for high-quality programs, enjoys an overwhelming consensus. Full funding of the MinneMinds initiative should be at the top of the to-do list in 2015 and you should pursue other creative ways to help all our parents nurture their children and our future human capital in those crucial early years.

A major new transportation funding package, bipartisan and multi-sector support for which is large and growing: Minnesota will need an additional $20 billion investment over the next 20 years just to maintain the status quo for transportation and transit, and we’re $50 billion short of what is needed for a first-class 21st century system. You should join the 200 or so firms and business associations, and other civic groups, in the MoveMN coalition, who are pressing for a bold new transportation funding package.

Finally, when you take your oath of office in January, you might notice how simple and spare it is about discharging the duties of your office and supporting the constitutions of our nation and state. Those constitutions are filled with explicit and implicit obligations to serve the broader public good — not just to protect individual liberties or keep taxes arbitrarily low.

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution calls for our government to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The first words in the Minnesota Constitution declare that our state government “is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.”

So there it is. Public good. Do that, please. And again, congratulations!

Dane Smith is the president for Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on a broader and more inclusive prosperity for Minnesota.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at