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Finding the center with That Darn Arne

Gov. Mark Dayton would be wise to review how former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson handled contentious issues when he served in the 1990s with DFLers controlling the Legislature.

Arne Carlson as state auditor in 1982.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

A bipartisan group that included four former governors gathered in August to salute the life of former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, who died on July 17 at age 83. Long interested in knowing and better understanding Minnesota’s governors, I had become friendly with governors without regard to their political persuasion, including Wendy in his later years.

Chuck Slocum

That same week, Gov. Mark Dayton said he would no longer seek a special session, after three months of haggling with the Republican House, calling it “futile” to try to resolve partisan disagreements over funding for the Southwest Light Rail (SWLR) project between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

I thought it was unfortunate that, despite an agreement between the House, Senate and Dayton on a significant tax relief bill and bonding legislation, some sort of workable compromise did not come together.

It is now clear that critical funding for SWLR can be achieved without further state legislative action. I hope Dayton can assemble lawmakers for a short special session to complete their important work prior to the Nov. 8 general election.

‘That Darn Arne’ is what DFLers called him

In so doing, Dayton would be wise to do some homework on how former Gov. Arne Helge Carlson, a Republican, handled such difficult, contentious issues when he served in the 1990s with DFLers controlling the Legislature.

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Republican Carlson, who defeated incumbent Rudy Perpich by 3 percent, was elected the 37th governor of Minnesota in 1990 in a wild and controversial campaign that saw him being named the nominee after the party’s primary winner, Jon Grunseth, dropped out due to a sensational media report of a 1981 nude swimming incident involving his step-daughter and her teenage friends.

Carlson, who actively campaigned for less than a month after Grunseth dropped out, described his first year in office as “the worst year of my life.” His popularity was in the 30 percent range when he took office. Four years later, after crafting an effective, middle-ground approach with the public and mainstream DFL and Republican policymakers, Carlson was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote in 1994.

Emphasized sound fiscal management

Minneapolis Council Member Carlson, for whom I block worked when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1967, always emphasized sound financial management, including in his later stints as a state House member, as state auditor as well as governor.

In short order, Carlson guided Minnesota to a solid budget surplus, shoring up the state’s financial reserves and restoring its coveted AAA bond rating. Nonpartisan groups judged Minnesota’s the healthiest economy in the nation, and Carlson was ranked as the most effective governor in other studies.

In so doing, the opinionated governor of Swedish descent could be a very tough cookie when DFLers tested him by sending legislation his way that he found too costly or ineffective. Carlson, over an eight-year term, cast a record 238 gubernatorial vetoes involving over a quarter billion dollars in savings for Minnesota taxpayers.

Carlson’s signature accomplishment was adoption of MinnesotaCare in October 1992, extending health care to nearly all Minnesotans. Within six years, the first-in-the-nation program was providing insurance to more than 102,000 low-income citizens.

Education a priority

A native of New York City, Carlson never forgot the opportunities a good education had provided him, and he made education a priority of his tenure as governor. In 1991, he approved a law that established the first charter schools in the country. In 1996, he supported groundbreaking school choice legislation, giving parents far more freedom in determining where their children went to school. Carlson also appreciated, protected and expanded his adopted state’s lakes, woods and natural spaces.

At age 81, Carlson is still a mainstream policy wonk and commentator, offering thoughtful, independent and pointed views on issues ranging from the U of M’s management to the Vikings’ new U.S. Bank Stadium.

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a Twin Cities management consulting organization. He can be contacted at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com 


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