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What if Tom Emmer had won the governor’s office?

One labor leader says Minnesota would be even “kookier” than Wisconsin. For sure, the GOP redistricting plan would be in place.

Would Minnesota have been like Wisconsin if Republican candidate Tom Emmer had won?

Editor’s note: With all of Minnesota’s political polarization since the 2010 elections, we decided to explore two possible “alternate realities” that could have occurred if relatively few voters had chosen “the other candidate.”  

First of two articles

Tuesday: What if the DFL had kept control of the Legislature?

On July 5, 2010, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer stepped out of the Eagle Street Grille in St. Paul talking about waiters making $100,000 a year.

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To this day, there are Republican activists who believe that wild statement about servers and the fact that Emmer kept it alive for almost two weeks – remember his raucous meeting with waiters at a suburban restaurant 10 days later? – was what cost Emmer the election in what otherwise was a Republican sweep through Minnesota.

As it was, Emmer lost to Mark Dayton, who was considered a weak candidate, by just 8,770 votes, or less than a half a percentage point.

How different would state be?

How different would Minnesota be today had Emmer won?

For starters:

• So-called right to work law and photo ID would have passed as statutes.

• Business taxes would have been cut more steeply.

• Local Government Aid, especially for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, would have taken much bigger hits.

• There would be no cooperation with the feds regarding health insurance for the poor.

• Defined pension benefits for state employees would have been under even stronger attack.

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• Dramatic school “reforms” would have passed, emphasizing elimination of teacher tenure.

• There would have been much larger cuts to Human Services spending.

• Tort reform, friendly to business, would have passed.

• And, of course, the Republicans redistricting plan produced by the Legislature last year, but vetoed by Dayton,  would have become the new look in Minnesota politics for the next 10 years.

In addition, a Republican governor would have surrounded himself with commissioners whose top priorities would have been to cut the size of government departments. Under Dayton, there have been cuts, but the goal has been to make them work better.

(Likely, such issues as public financing for a Vikings stadium and expanded gambling would have been stuck in pretty much the same we-don’t-want-to-deal-with-it muck they’re stuck in now.)

‘Kookier’ than Wisconsin?

Would Minnesota have been like Wisconsin?

“Even kookier,” said Bernie Hesse, political director of United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1189, and a constant presence at the Capitol. “In the Senate more than the House, you have so many true believers in their message. They have no historic memory, and they have no understanding of how to run stuff.”

Especially last year, radical legislation would have been flying through the Legislature and signed by a Republican governor such as Emmer. There would have been a “change-it-now, learn-the-consequences-later” attitude.

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Already this session, Hesse said, there are signs of more restraint as legislators look at the impact redistricting might have on their political futures. As the next election nears, there’s also the fear that over-reach could put the newfound GOP majorities in jeopardy.

There’s also a natural learning curve. Political newbies are discovering the truth in the old line that the Senate’s new majority leader, Dave Senjem, repeats often.

“The devil is in the details,” Senjem likes to say.

That the Republican Senate caucus replaced Amy Koch with Senjem (by a very narrow vote) and that Steve Sviguum replaced Michael Brodkorb shows how at least many in the GOP caucus want to move more cautiously than it moved a year ago..

It’s as if a great discovery has been made: Taking potshots from the back rows is easy when you’re in the minority. Governing is a lot tougher.

Even seemingly simple things that Republicans truly want – such as a requirement that voters have a photo ID – is proving to be more difficult to put into an amendment than it might seem.

There likely will be a proposed Voter ID amendment put on the ballot, but the reality is that the amendment will have to be supported by pages and pages of legislation: What documentation is going to be needed to apply for same-day registration?  How do we handle absentee ballots? Mail-in ballots? How do we deal with Granny, who hasn’t had a driver’s license in years and long ago lost her birth certificate, if she ever had one?  How much is all of this going to cost?

“I don’t know how any rural legislator could support this,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township.

It’s his belief that the simple GOP idea of a photo ID amendment would have a huge impact in rural areas, where there are more aging people per capita and more people who rely on such things as voting by mail.

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Rep. Downey disagrees

Not surprisingly, Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, disagrees with Hesse’s assessment that Minnesota would have been “kookier” than Wisconsin.

Downey is the GOP’s “reform guru.” A business consultant by trade, he is practiced in the art of understating the sort of changes that seem radical to many.

Downey does not think that a Republican governor with Republican-controlled legislative bodies would have over-reached.

“The House certainly has no interest in going after collective bargaining per se,” Downey said. “We just believe there are situations where there’s an inbalance between the private sector and the public sector.”

What does that mean?

On unions in general, Downey has this to say: “Why should anyone be forced to join a union. We’re not saying we oppose unions. It’s simply that people should have a choice, and if they choose not to join, they should not have to pay 85 percent of full union dues. We want to empower and free workers.”

That sounds like a “right to work” law, or, as Republicans now call it, “an employee free-choice” law.

On public employees, Downey says: “We need to ask the question: Are public employees over-compensated as compared to people in the private sector.  I don’t think any of us wants to do a full-frontal assault on public unions. We want to right-size employee compensation. We want to go after specifics.’’

The tone is different from that of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but the message is the same.

That doesn’t mean it’s fair to assume that Republicans with Emmer, or any Republican governor, would have pushed for their full dream agenda, or the agenda that Walker pushed through in Wisconsin.

Perhaps, had Republicans had full control of Minnesota government starting last session, the size of the responsibility might have reduced their appetite for instant, dramatic change. Almost certainly, someone less bombastic than Emmer — someone such as former Rep. Marty Seifert — might have urged some restraint.

But Republican legislators fundamentally believe that business and market competition are good and that government generally just gets in the way of prosperity for all.

Any conversation with House Speaker Kurt Zellers invariably involves him saying at some point, “Talk to people in the business community.”

Sometimes, it seems that Zellers and other Republican leaders talk to no one other than those who run businesses. That sort of “business, business business” chat stems from the beliefs that businesses, not government, create jobs and that jobs are good for everyone.

This generation of Republican legislators also seems to have a one-track mind on the subject of public education: There’s plenty of money being spent — roughly 40 per cent of the state budget — and still there are problems.

The problem must be classroom teachers and the teachers union, specifically union protection of senior teachers, they say.

Again, it’s the little asides people such as Zellers make that explain so much. Recently, for example, the House speaker was talking about the importance of GOP education proposals.

Teachers, Zellers said, should be judged on performance, “not how long your butt has been in a chair.” This assumes that there is a simple solution to complex problems: young teachers.

(Isn’t it likely that most of us, including most legislators, have been more profoundly affected by veteran teachers than by young teachers just learning their profession?)

Major impact clear

Despite not being able to create the new Minnesota they want, Republicans certainly have had major impact. In some cases, Dayton even has beaten Republicans to the punches they wanted to throw.

Dayton, for example, started the session last year with an executive order calling for simpler regulatory systems in Minnesota. Presumably, at least some of the governor’s zeal for cutting red tape was inspired by Republican campaign rhetoric.

The governor also agreed to some GOP education ideas. And, ultimately, Dayton was forced to accept a no-new-taxes approach to balance the state budget.

But for many of the Republican legislators, especially the gung-ho freshmen, their frustration is that they were 8,770 votes short of  getting so much more.