If you thought the last two years were Minnesota’s most politically contentious, you haven’t seen anything yet.
The nasty campaign between Sen. Al Franken and former Sen. Norm Coleman, and the litigation and political-bomb throwing that continued until half-way through 2009, was nothing. It was just the warm up for 2010, which is setting up to be even more contentious and partisan.
Call it a battle royal. Like a crowded wrestling ring with many people fighting, keeping track of the action will be nearly impossible. The difference in this case, unlike professional wrestling, is that the results are not pre-scripted.
Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin’s ruling last week against Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotments to the budget and the governor’s decision to appeal starts the year out with an unanticipated new level of political contentiousness.
With the legislative session right around the corner and a crowded and contentious governor’s race already underway, this court battle frames up what is likely to be a year where little will be done to bring civility back to Minnesota politics. It’s more likely to look like the trash talk of the WWE.
Here’s why: The early caucuses (February) and conventions (April) mean the gubernatorial campaign — and the pointed attacks from each side that go with the campaign — will start in earnest early and be communicated outside the usual confines of the Capitol sooner than in the past.
Pawlenty does have the opportunity to significantly change Minnesota’s budget and spending to match, as he told Newsweek, his “mainstream” conservatism.
Starting with Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and followed by the two dominant voices in the House GOP caucus, Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert, there will be a lot of pressure to score political points over unallotment to further gubernatorial ambitions.
The DFL and GOP parties have evolved into permanent campaign mode because of the high stakes of the past two statewide elections and their need to fundraise and motivate their respective bases for the governor’s race.
Making an impression on the public will be more and more challenging, in part because of a the decline in local media, an increase in social media and a general disinterest in the race by “normal” people until August or September.
All of this means candidates will likely engage in more pointed dialog at an earlier time in the campaign than Minnesota has ever seen.
Until Gearin’s ruling, there was a sense that the backbiting between the governor’s office and the Legislature would be reined in until there was an earnest attempt to resolve last session’s unfinished business. That may have included restoring GAMC, reassessing the hold-back dollars to school districts and numerous other issues that should have been dealt with last year but were not.
Now, starting with partisan blogger attacks on Pawlenty and Gearin, the parties will continue to cling to fighting and easy political cheap shots.
This makes a productive session nearly impossible. Instead, as both sides fight over the “principle” of the issues, the public will observe more of the same stalemate that they have been treated to for the past two years.
Pawlenty is flexing his political muscle by digging in his heels for no-new-revenue solutions. DFLers continue to “listen” to the public, and will likely heighten accusations that Pawlenty is an absentee governor with national ambitions. Pawlenty will only cement his conservative street “cred”– and further frustrate the DFL.
But this creates an uncomfortable environment for the public. And lawmakers and state elected officials who are on the ballot this year will be frustrated by the posturing and partisanship that will leave their constituents fuming or disengaged.
Insiders, including the media and lobbyists who consternate and pontificate about these things regularly, were betting on a legislative session short on political fireworks. No dice now. It may be impossible that anything meaningful will happen, and it appears that the opportunity for compromise will be postponed until 2011.
A possible way out
The best hope for a relatively peaceful and less partisan resolution is that — similar to what happened Washington, D.C., last year — a moderate group of legislators not running for governor emerges to bring differing sides together for at least a short term solution, leaving the big job for a new governor and Legislature in 2011.
Who could bring them together?
In the Senate, it could be Republicans Geoff Michel, Julie Rosen and even Minority Leader David Senjem. For DFLers think about Sens. Dick Cohen, Kathy Sheran and Kathy Saltzman. On the House side, new Minority Leader Kurt Zellers could launch with a new attitude of earnest hard work rather than opposition by quote. And he should invite Mike Beard and Connie Doepke to join him. For the DFL in the House, the likes of Reps. Ann Lenczewski, Julie Bunn, Kent Eken and Larry Hosch could move the ball in a different direction.
The session starts Feb. 4, marking the opening bell of one of the biggest political battles Minnesota has ever seen, with the GOP in one corner and the DFL in the other.
The number of players throwing punches will be overwhelming, and the energy wasted on partisan barbs isn’t likely to be productive.
Let’s hope for a better type of battle.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has not confirmed that he will deliver his “State of the State” at the Feb. 4 Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Session Priorities event, as originally reported in Blois Olson’s post. According to the Chamber and the Governor’s Office, the idea is still under consideration.