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What it means: Minnesota politicians assess Massachusetts vote

DFLer John Marty and Republican Allen Quist had remarkably similar assessments about what happened in Massachusetts when Republican Scott Brown won a game-changing special election: The underlying issue was trust in government.

On the left-right spectrum on which we typically measure political candidates, you can’t get much farther apart than DFLer John Marty and Republican Allen Quist.

Yet, this morning these two had remarkably similar assessments about what happened in Massachusetts Tuesday night when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

To both Marty, who is running for DFL endorsement for governor, and Quist, a candidate for the Republican endorsement for the chance to run against incumbent Rep. Tim Walz, the issue was only in part health care. The underlying issue was trust in government.

“Last year, people voted for change,” said Marty, whose gubernatorial campaign is centered on a universal health-care program for Minnesota. “But what they have seen is that big money still is in charge. There are Wall Street bailouts and with health care, the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies are still in charge. … The perception is that Washington still is not listening to them.”

Sen. John Marty
Sen. John Marty

Quist, an opponent of the health-care overhaul that’s been grinding through the Washington process, was almost an echo.

“What is hurting Democratic leaders the most is the perception that they don’t care about what the public thinks,” Quist said. “People get to Washington and they get caught up in their own private world.”

The two even cited President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, in explaining the impact of the Massachusetts election.

Quist, and others in his party, sees this as the beginning of great opportunity for a Republican comeback.

“I hear talk of Republicans picking up 30 seats [in the House],” Quist said. “I believe that’s way understated. If the election were to be held today, it wouldn’t be 30 seats. It would be two to three times that.”

‘Bill is dead’
He also believes that Brown over Coakley also spells the death knell for health-care reform as it’s currently constituted in the House and Senate.

“I think the health care bill is dead,” said Quist. “The smart thing for Democrats to say is, ‘OK, we got the message. We’re going to work on other things.”’

Marty is concerned that his Democratic colleagues will read the political tea leaves as Quist is reading them and flee away from a fundamental need, universal health care, which is directly tied to the economic well-being of millions of Americans.

“Government is not doing a good job of this,” Marty said. “But the Republicans are even worse at it than the Democrats. I don’t see any Republican plan.”

Quist, it should be noted, disputes that. He believes reform should include such things as tort reform, and changes in the tax code that would allow individuals to make private health-insurance payments 100 percent deductible. “When Obama takes office, who does he appoint as his chief of staff?” said Marty. “Rahm Emanuel. When he was in the Congress, he was one of the biggest fundraisers in Washington. It leads to that perception that money talks.”

Quist pointed to Emanuel in a different context.

“I believe he once said that crises are opportunities to do great things,” said Quist. “His definition of great things are probably different than mine. I’m hoping that all the furor creates genuine change. There is inertia out there to do great things.”

One last thing that Marty and Quist agree on: What happened in Massachusetts will have impact on all levels of races in Minnesota and across the nation.

Allen Quist
Allen Quist

Marty, on the other hand, believes that reform has to mean a universal health care system, much as we have universal fire and police protection. He gets angry every time he talks about the obstacles individuals face in dealing with private insurers. He believes Democrats need to trust their instincts and come up with a much more sweeping change than currently is being considered.

Ultimately, he said, Massachusetts only proves what most pols long have recognized. Politics isn’t about “left” or “right.”

“Most people don’t vote ideology,” Marty said. “Paul Wellstone used to say that. You have 15 percent at each of the extremes who vote ideology, the rest vote on what’s center to their lives.”

At one point in Minnesota, Marty said, Minnesota was represented by Sens. Wellstone, Rod Grams and Gov. Jesse Ventura.

“There’s no common ideology there,” said Marty. “People believed that those were politicians who were listening to them.”

Leaders aren’t listening
There are lessons for Democrats in Massachusetts, Marty said. Right now the lesson is that people don’t think leaders in Washington are listening.

“Government is not evil, government is not good, it’s us,” Marty said. “But there’s the sense that it’s been turned over to special interests.”

Republicans see it slightly differently. They believe the message from Massachusetts is that their day is coming again soon — from state legislatures all the way to D.C.

Rep. Michele Bachmann released a happy-days-are-here-again statement.

“It didn’t take the American people long to see through the extreme liberal agenda of President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress,” she said. “We saw Americans’ frustration start in the form of tea-party protests in states from coast to coast. It continued with the town halls throughout last summer. But we saw it come into full focus yesterday in conservative Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. … The American people have spoken, and the momentum is clearly at the backs of conservatives heading into the 2010 elections.”

Tony Sutton, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party, was similarly excited.

“Scott Brown’s historic victory is the clearest signal yet that 2010 will be a great year for Republicans,” he said in a statement. “In the bluest of blue states, Brown’s strong opposition to government run health care and out of control spending resonated with independents, Republicans and many Democrats fed up with the broken status quo in Washington. In November, it is time to restore fiscal responsibility in this country by voting out all the big spending Democrats in Washington.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.