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Secretary of State Ritchie Q-A: ‘I have a long list of things I want to do before leaving’

His assessment: “I’m very comfortable with what we’ve accomplished and very comfortable with the decision to leave.”

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie: "I’m very comfortable with what we’ve accomplished and very comfortable with the decision to leave."
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

Nail-biter political races and ensuing recounts put Secretary of State Mark Ritchie in a spotlight that historically hasn’t shined on the office.

But given his high energy, his variety of interests, his passionate speaking style, it’s likely that Ritchie would have become better known than most of his predecessors even without the emotions surrounding Minnesota’s two high-profile recounts.

Ritchie, who announced last week that he will not seek a third term, has interests ranging from the spiritual to the Civil War to robotics in farming.

Though accused of being a DFL partisan by some Republicans bitter about the outcome of the Al Franken-Norm Coleman recount, it should be noted that in 2000, he was among a group of rural activists involved with Family Farmers National Alliance for Nader/LaDuke presidential effort.

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He’s been in the spotlight for other controversies, too.

Ritchie oversaw the 2010 gubernatorial recount that reaffirmed DFLer Mark Dayton’s small margin of victory over Republican Tom Emmer. And last year, the secretary of state came under strong criticism from Republicans over his opposition to the proposed voting-procedures constitutional amendment, which was defeated at the polls.  

He’s always been involved in quasi-political issues, but except for a period of time during the Perpich years when he worked in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture on farm crisis issues, most of his involvement has been outside the Democratic Party.

In 2004, he was involved with National Voice, a nonpartisan organization of church, community and business organizations dedicated to registering 5 million new voters. He’s also been involved in sustainable-ag issues and was co-founder, at Yale, of Global Environment and Trade, which was dedicated to studying the impact of international trade on the environment.

In the remaining 19 months of his term, Ritchie says he wants his office to work on pro-business issues in the state. Among other things, he wants Minnesotans to better understand what a fertile place the state is for start-up small businesses.

Typically, Ritchie was traveling in Greater Minnesota when MinnPost caught up with him for an early-morning telephone interview. Here’s an edited transcript:  

MinnPost: Why announce your decision to step down so early? 

Mark Ritchie: I have a long list of things I want to do before leaving. One thing I noticed is that once I had taken “campaigning for office” off my list, I had taken a huge job off my plate, and that leaves me much more time to focus on the big things I still want to get done.

But the primary reason for announcing now is that I’m aware of the nature of a statewide race and the very low-budget nature of it. I’m very aware that a young person — a person who might be obscure as I was — has a great deal to do to enter the race. First, of course, they need the time to discuss it with their family. And if they decide to go ahead, they must get on the road for months, introducing themselves to people around the state. You need at least a year and a half to do that. You’re not going to have money for television ads. You’re going to have to get in your car and drive.

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MP: What are those “big things” that you still want to accomplish?  They can’t be as “sexy” as elections and recounts, can they?

MR: I still have 19 months. There’s a big, long list of things we need to get done. I can tell you this, 24-7 access to business services from our office is pretty darn sexy if you live in a place like Warroad.

MP: What do business services have to do with the Secretary of State’s Office?

MR: When I took office, I was somewhat aware of the broad range of services done by our office. [Businesses register with the Secretary of State’s Office.] But I didn’t know that two-thirds of our staff was dedicated to business services, and I didn’t know that we were very primitive in terms of technology.

I learned very quickly we needed to bring ourselves into the 21st Century in terms of technology. We spent seven years bringing us to the 21st Century — to the point that we’re the best in the nation. To the 500,000 entrepreneurs in the state, they think those sorts of things are very sexy.

MP: But it wasn’t business services that inspired you to run for office. What was it that made you want to be secretary of state in the first place?

MR: For me, this was the place to be with the responsibility of promoting democracy. Minnesota is No. 1 in charity and in people volunteering and in voting. … The administration of an army of 30,000 election judges to promote free and fair elections — to see that elections are well run — is an important job.

It’s an incredible experience to see what the best voting system in the country looks like and then to understand how that’s a part of the civic engagement that leads to all those other things, like charitable giving and volunteering. …

MP: There are some who say that you have been a DFL partisan in operating elections. Your thought?

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MR: I didn’t enter this office with partisan issues on my mind, and I’m not leaving for any partisan issues on my mind, so I’m very comfortable with what we’ve accomplished and very comfortable with the decision to leave.

 MP: You can give a rip-roarin’ speech. Is that skill something you brought with you to office, or is it something you’ve learned on the job?

 MR: In office, you’re presented with opportunities to speak to both small and large groups. You get better as you get feedback. Experience makes you better. But in over 30 years in various things I’ve done, I’ve been required to speak in public.

I’ve been blessed with opportunities to talk to all types of different groups, including preaching in churches. [Georgia-born Ritchie has Southern Baptist, Methodist and, now, Unitarian Universalist spiritual roots.]

 MP: Public speaking is very difficult for many of us. How have you learned to be an effective speaker?

MR: I watch other speakers carefully, and I’ve seen some extraordinarily effective speakers. I try to study both their context and their delivery, things like their cadence. … I think it’s important to always speak from your heart. …

Commencement speeches can be the hardest. I was to give a commencement speech at the College of Continuing Education, and as I was sitting on the platform, I was looking at all these young, eager faces and this look must have come over my face, because the dean of the college, who was sitting next to me, asked, “Are you OK?”

I said, “I miss our baby girl.” [Rachel Gaschott Ritchie — the only child of Ritchie and his wife, Nancy Gaschott — was killed by drunk driver a decade ago, shortly before her 21st birthday.] The dean gave me a sweet hug. I knew this was opening my heart, and I gave a helluva speech. You can’t be afraid of situations that open your heart.

MP: What should your successor be aware of?

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MR: There’s a lot of late-night driving. When you go to farming areas in the state for meetings, they don’t start until after farmers have milked the cows. That means meetings don’t start until 8 o’clock — and then after the meetings, there’s cake and bars.

MP: What’s your preference, cake or bars?

MR: I’ve come to believe cake is cake. It has to be served to you on a plate and you stand around and eat it with a fork. But bars. …

There’ll be 20 or 30 feet of tables with all different kinds of bars. After the meeting, they’ll give you a bar in a plastic bag to fuel you on the drive home. … That aspect of food and community is a wonderful thing, and I think it’s coming back, even in urban areas.

MP: What comes after you leave office?

MR: I really don’t know. That’s too far out to really think about. I have a long list of things I want to do before I start thinking about that.