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Do we reward Minnesota politicians who make deals?

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Gov. Tim Walz, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Gov. Tim Walz, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking during a press conference announcing the budget agreement.
It’s not a felony for an elected official to make a political compromise. Yet politicians in Washington, D.C., are infamous for keeping issues alive for the next election, instead of addressing them. In Minnesota, some of that hyper-partisanship was evident in the negotiations that preceded a budget deal.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged that reality on June 4 while speaking at the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists’ annual awards banquet in St. Paul. “It has become impossible to compromise in public right now,” Walz said bluntly.

The governor reached budget agreements with House DFL and Senate Republican leaders only after negotiating in secrecy for six days. During that period, the news media simply told Minnesota citizens that talks were continuing.

Before the zone of silence was established, Walz said the “dueling press conferences” held by legislative leaders meant that budget positions were becoming “more ingrained” and it was “becoming harder to compromise.”

Divided government is not a new phenomenon in Minnesota, and neither major political party has had a stranglehold on power. Since 1991, Minnesota has had two Republican governors (Arne Carlson and Tim Pawlenty), one independent (Jesse Ventura) and two Democrats (Mark Dayton and Walz). Control of the Legislature’s two houses changes so frequently that the pattern is a form of political whiplash. Republicans flipped the Minnesota Senate in 2016, DFLers took control of the House in 2018, and all 201 legislative seats will be on the ballot in 2020.

Avoiding rigid policy positions

During the difficult bargaining, Walz and DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman ultimately had to forge a palatable deal with Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. In his remarks to journalists, Walz said he was frustrated because on some issues Senate Republicans had “spent five months and had not moved one nickel off their positions.”

Liz Fedor
Liz Fedor
He described what he called a “rigid purity” on issues. “Every discussion we were having, especially before it went into those six days [of confidential talks], the only audience was the February caucus-goer,” Walz said. “That’s all they cared about.”

While Minnesota will hold a presidential primary in 2020, endorsements for legislative races are made by party activists. The precinct caucuses scheduled for Feb. 25 are the first stage of the process that leads to endorsements.

Although Walz did not receive the DFL endorsement for governor in 2018, he prevailed on the DFL primary ballot and won decisively in the general election.

The “rigid purity” that Walz speaks about is a phrase that could be used to characterize ideologues who are involved in Republican and Democratic politics.

Supporting leaders who govern

While Minnesota regularly produces high turnout in general elections, the percentage of people who take part in party caucuses and endorsing conventions is small. The most liberal and conservative activists often have an outsized impact on party activities.

Consequently, voters in the broad middle of the political spectrum are underrepresented until they vote in primary elections. Walz argues that the budget decisions made this year produced a “pretty good” result. That description fits a session that yielded incremental change. Even though he’s proud of the joint decisions that averted a government shutdown, he noted, “there were too many people that were worried to do it in public.”

Republicans control the Senate by a narrow 35-32 margin. Some incumbent Republicans may face primary opposition because more conservative activists think they didn’t hold firm on their positions. In the case of those primaries, voters will get to choose between candidates who voted for a compromise solution or ones who may be willing to close down the government.

Lessons from labor-management negotiations

When divided government works, the negotiators from different political parties are striving for the best deal possible. When I covered the airline industry for the Star Tribune, the most effective union leaders always understood the complexity of achieving the best deal.

When hard-fought negotiations succeeded — even when high fuel prices prompted wage concessions — Northwest Airlines management and union leaders started from a base of common financial facts and revenue projections. They found ways to forge respectful working relationships. They understood the leverage that each side held. They identified key priorities and made difficult and reasonable compromises.

Just as Gazelka needed to sell his budget deal to his caucus, union leaders had to round up votes to get tentative labor agreements approved. That work is difficult. But marshaling support for a compromise is what’s required of responsible leadership and preferable to walking away from bargaining because you can’t get everything you want.

In a polarized political environment and in a bitter labor-management dispute, it’s easy to lob verbal grenades and criticize negotiators on social media. But real leaders possess the mental toughness to withstand the attacks and focus on getting results.

In the seminal book, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” there’s some advice Minnesota politicians might want to heed before the next session. “The challenge is not to eliminate conflict but to transform it,” the authors wrote. “It is the way we deal with our differences — from destructive, adversarial battling to hard-headed, side-by-side problem solving.”

Liz Fedor is an editor at Twin Cities Business who previously covered business and politics for the Star Tribune and Grand Forks Herald.  

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