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Why is politics in this state so serious?

Minnesota politicos need to loosen up. For the past few years, Minnesota politics has been lacking humor, jokes and stories.

Minnesota politicos need to loosen up.

The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy reminds us how politicians can often become “larger than life.” Kennedy was bigger than life, but not just because of the Kennedy name or legacy. In many ways, it was because of his humor, jokes and stories.

For the past few years, Minnesota politics has been lacking humor, jokes and stories. (We just elected a comedian, who isn’t allowed to be funny.) As we look at our current cast of political characters, it’s pretty milquetoast.

But there’s hope on the horizon. One recent newspaper column reported that state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, told a potential supporter at the State Fair that he was wearing union-made underwear. Finally, a quote in the 2010 governor’s race that makes us smile.

Rep. Tom Rukavina
Rep. Tom Rukavina

This evoked a theory I’ve worked on for years: that we are losing our “characters” — you know, the man or woman in our lives who is always good for a laugh or a story, appropriate or not. The drunk uncle at Christmas dinner or the quirky neighbor who plays jokes and tells stories.

In Minnesota politics, the names of Perpich, Rolvaag, Carlson and Ventura come to mind. We’ve had drunks, “rasslers,” grumps and “goofies” in the corner office at the Capitol. But not so these past seven years.

Formulaic jokes
Think about it. The funniest thing Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said while in office was something about how his wife liked fishing more than sex with him. And almost anyone who has heard one of the three formulaic jokes Pawlenty tells to kick off every speech will tell you they stopped being funny years ago.

Characters get stuff done, they break down partisan tension with humor and they build trust. This is a political asset we can’t afford lose.

Jesse Ventura
Jesse Ventura

Rukavina’s revelation isn’t the first time we’ve thought about a governor’s skivvies. Remember Gov. Jesse Ventura’s unfortunate comment that he didn’t wear underwear? For some voters was too much information. But if the 2010 governor’s race is going to be in full swing more than a year before the election, we should welcome Rukavina’s revealing comment as a little relief from all the campaign seriousness.

The next governor will have difficult issues to tackle, and Minnesota would do well if the winner had a little wit and humor to get us through the headaches.

Pawlenty isn’t the only example of Minnesota’s humorless politicians. Oh sure, you betcha, Sen Amy Klobuchar can deliver a joke about lefsa or Lutherans. But like Pawlenty, her jokes are too scripted to be authentically funny.

Sen. Al Franken can no doubt tell a joke, if he wasn’t working so damn hard to be serious. If we give it time, maybe he’ll let down the guard and crack a few one-liners. And while Rep. Michele Bachmann is a character, she’s become a caricature. Besides, no one ever thinks she’s funny.

As one surveys the field in the race for governor, Rukavina stands out. But he isn’t alone in his ability to turn a phrase or make someone chuckle or blush. I find most politicians have a sense of humor, but the realities of our hyper-sensitive You Tube world have made them less likely to crack a joke or tell a funny story.

Rep. Marty Seifert
Rep. Marty Seifert

Humor behind the scenes
GOP Rep. Marty Seifert is well-known for trying really hard to turn a funny quote at every turn, with some success. Seifert and Rukavina have lit up smiles on the state House floor for years. Rep. Tom Emmer is often a passionate and colorful debater on the House floor. As the father seven kids and coming from a Catholic family, he delivers old-fashioned and colorful humor behind the scenes. And Sen. Tom Bakk has shown signs that he has what it takes to keep us smiling.

But others in the field for governor — Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Rep. Paul Thissen, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, Rep. Matt Entenza, Rep. Paul Kohls, Rep. Bill Haas — are kind of boring. No offense, but they just don’t seem to be quick with a quip or colorful story.

Of the not-yet announced crop of candidates, Mayor R.T. Rybak is known for wearing two different socks. But he may have gone Pawlenty on us: I don’t remember the last time anyone noticed his socks or when he cracked a joke. (Across the river, Mayor Chris Coleman is a well-known smart ass, so much so his staff has fretted about putting him on Twitter, fearing what he might say off-the-cuff.)

So as the race for governor moves along, here’s hoping we get more colorful quotes, quips, jokes and stories to keep us from getting too serious.

The cure to hyper-partisanship could be a colorful next governor. Otherwise, for the foreseeable future, our collective undies will be in a bundle.