Sympathy for the Speaker: as congressional Republicans implode, former caucus leaders in Minnesota empathize

MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum: "I never thought I was elected to shut down government. You compromise and you get what you can get."

The inability of U.S. House Republicans to come up with a new leader looks like a historic case of political slapstick.

Yet, Minnesota politicians can’t help but have at least a degree of empathy as they watch the D.C. Republican pols tear each other apart. The simple fact is, be it Democrats or Republicans, getting along with the people on your own team is among the most delicate pieces of business in politics.

At least in recent Minnesota history, there haven’t been any insurrections quite so bloody as what’s happening in D.C. But as recently as this summer, a group of DFLers pushed to dump Senate majority leader Tom Bakk at the conclusion of the special session.

The would-be rebels were mostly made up of metro-area DFL senators who were angry at some of the deals that Bakk had made with Republicans, who make up the majority in the House. Most of the anger simmered around environmental issues.

“They took Tom to the woodshed,’’ said Steve Sviggum, a former GOP House Speaker. “He survived but my biggest concern is what he had to commit to the people on the left  in order to hold on to his position. I don’t think we’ll know the answer to that until sometime in the future.’’

Bakk isn’t the only one who has been “taken to the woodshed’‘ in the last couple of decades.  When former Senate majority leader Amy Koch had personal issues, she was taken out by a coup led by the self-righteous (and ambitious) of her own party. Irv Anderson, a DFL tyrant of the 1990s, was finally deposed by House DFLers. Dee Long, a DFL House Speaker, was the victim of a petty phone scandal not of her making. The list goes on and on. 

Not surprisingly, Bakk did not return a phone call to talk about his situation and if he sees a correlation between his caucus and the family feud going on in Washington. And his supporters, including Sen. Terri Bonoff, a moderate DFLer from Minnetonka, don’t seem interested in any more discussion of the internal workings of the caucus, either. The attitude seems to be what goes on in the family should stay in the family.

Overthrowing the institution 

Bonoff does say there’s a huge difference between what happens when there’s intra-party feuding in Minnesota and what is happening in Washington.

“I think what historically has happened here is that even extremists respect the institution and the history of the institution,’’ Bonoff said. “In Washington, the extremists are trying to overthrow the institution.’’ 

Until there is real re-districting in the country, a handful of former and current state politicians said, it’s hard to imagine there will be significant behavioral changes in Washington. The huge number of absolutely safe seats mean that people from the extremes of left and right will continue to be elected.

Those coming from safe seats only have to worry about being outflanked from the left or the right. 

“If you look at Minnesota,’’ said Sviggum, who was Speaker from 1998 to 2006, “there are 134 House districts. Of those, 80 are probably safe for either Republicans or Democrats. So what do you have? Phyllis Kahn (a DFL rep from Minneapolis since 1972) will never get beaten by a Republican. When she gets challenged, it’s from somebody who’s left of where she is.’’

The same thing happens to Republicans in safe seats. They don’t have to worry about DFLers, but they have to be very concerned about being targeted by the party activists if they aren’t  “conservative enough.’’

(Personal aside: There’s a hard-working, moderate Republican state representative from rural Minnesota who once said to me, “please, never call me a moderate in print. That would destroy me.” He was serious.)

In Washington, it is that handful of 30 or 40 extremists — in this case from the right — who have brought down House leadership and are threatening to shut down government. In almost all cases, they have no concern about having to go home and face consequences from voters.

“You simply can’t govern from either extreme,’’ said Sviggum. “I never thought I was elected to shut down government. You compromise and you get what you can get.’’

This is not always popular with party activists, Sviggum said. In his case, the biggest challenges he got were from talk radio hosts. “They’d say I was conservative, but I wasn’t conservative enough.’’

Internally, though, Sviggum’s years as Speaker were pretty tranquil within his own caucus. The one time teacher constantly did “preach team.’’ He said he’d tell his members, “You’re not going to get everything you want, but we want to work together so that everyone can have success.’’  

Hmmm. Wonder how that sort of down-home pep talk would play with the current tea party set? 

Leading a flock of pols at any level of government never has been easy. Only self-confident people, typically extroverted, run for office in the first place. These aren’t people who are used to being followers. Start mixing in some younger lawmakers — who don’t think they should have to wait years of seniority before your voice can be heard — and toss in talk radio and social media, and it’s difficult for anybody to be a leader. 

The book of Irv

Once upon a time, the Minnesota House was ruled by Irv Anderson, a good old-fashioned DFL political thumper  from International Falls. Anderson was the Speaker from 1993 to 1997.

“Irv’s style was very simple,’’ recalled former DFL House member Mindy Greiling. “You were either for him or against him. If he thought you were against him you were dead meat. You weren’t going to get any good committee assignments, any bills you wanted to bring forward weren’t going anywhere.’’ 

Few DFLers liked Anderson. But most of them feared him. And those who wanted to become committee chairs or have a voice would bend to Anderson’s wishes. But, as the power of women and the suburbs grew, Anderson’s ability to control with an iron fist slowly was weakened. Finally, an “anybody but Irv’’ campaign within the DFL caucus led to his demise in 1997.

“Funny thing about Irv,’’ said Greiling, “is that when you first met him, you thought to yourself, ‘he seems like a nice enough old man.’  But once you crossed him, even on what would seem like a small thing, that was it. You were finished in his mind.’’

Greiling said she’s thought a lot about Anderson and his style in recent weeks as she’s watched the saga play out in Washington.

“Boehner is a different cat completely than Irv,’’ Greiling said. “It seems to me like he’s done everything he can to placate that one group of extremists. But there’s nothing he can do. He can’t punish them. He can’t cajole them. There’s nothing he can do.’’ 

As a Democrat, Greiling said, she’d find all of this amusing, if the consequences weren’t so dire.

“When there’s a leadership battle going on, nothing can get done,’’ she said.

‘Dear Lord, I don’t want things to end today’

Dean Johnson, now a member of the board of regents, has seen political leadership from just about all points of view. He was a Senate minority leader as a Republican, and a Senate majority leader as a DFLer. He was too liberal for most Republican tastes, absurdly moderate in the minds of many DFLers.

As a DFL majority leader, he remembers looking at a schedule that would show him having a morning meeting with Iron Rangers followed by a meeting with women’s progressives. How does a leader handle these disparate groups he’s supposed to lead? 

“I would say a prayer,’’ said Johnson, who also is a Lutheran minister. “I would say, ‘Dear Lord, I don’t want things to end today.’’’ As a leader, Johnson said, “You’re always skating on thin ice.’’

What do you do? Sometimes, Johnson said, there’s nothing to do but leave things in the hands of your caucus and walk away.

“I can’t remember what the issue was, but at one time I was in difficulty with my caucus,’’ Johnson said. “I went to a caucus meeting and said, ‘I understand some of you are not happy. Here’s what we do. You talk things over. I’m leaving.’ I left, went to my office and was there for about 15 minutes and somebody came to my office and said, ‘Dean, come back.’ I said, ‘You sure?’  They said, ‘Yeah, it’s time to come back.’’’ 

Obviously that’s not been happening in D.C. 

Not forgiving or forgetting

Sviggum, a Republican, is frustrated by what he sees, frustrated by what politics has become. He seriously considered making a bid for the seat Rep. John Kline is leaving. But, in talking to friends from both sides of the aisle, he finally decided against it when he was told that House members spend more than 40 percent of their time raising money for the next campaign. “Dialing for dollars is not for me,’’ Sviggum said.

So he’ll look at the problems from a distance — and hope for the best. He’s upset that Democrats don’t take more heat for being un-compromising. “They’re a bunch of Nancy Pelosi-lites,’’ he muttered. “But the Republican Congress can’t worry about that. They need to get together and go forward with one voice.’’

That gets tougher by the day. A lot of hards words have been spoken within the GOP family. Forgiving and forgetting doesn’t come naturally to politicians. “In Minnesota,’’ Bonoff said, “people like to say that Iron Rangers never forget. But the truth is, neither do the rest of us.’’ 

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 10/16/2015 - 10:41 am.

    Funny headline

    What’s imploding is the RINO/Political Class/Donor Class stranglehold of the House. The “handful of 30 or 40 extremists” are conservative Republicans who have deep concerns about our $20 trillion debt and 90-something million out of work and where this will take us. A parallel to all this is the GOP presidential primary. Those leading the polls are non-politicians.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/16/2015 - 01:18 pm.

      The GOP extremists must learn political reality

      The extreme tea party types have one goal – shut down the government if they do not get their way. They lack to political sense to understand the political process or were victims of public school math which explains their inability to count votes.

      They are also impressed with “Ted Cruz” who loved to grandstand in a filibuster which was doomed from the beginning to fail. He did, however, gain much recognition and needed campaign funds in failing.

      They also believe the Rush Limbaugh’s and Glenn Beck’s of the media who claim there is not difference between democrats and many republicans.

      They now want a candidate who has “principles” and will rally around The Donald. How can any sane individual talk about principles and campaign for the Donald? If any other candidate would have made similar insane comments as Ben Carson – they would have been disavowed long ago.

      These tea party types also have a huge number of counterparts among the Dems. No time to expose these frauds.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/16/2015 - 01:44 pm.

      Then What?

      What happens after the RINO/Political Class/Donor Class stranglehold of the House implodes (implodes?)? No one seriously thinks that the House members who share your views on the “deep concerns” you attribute to them have anything like a national base. Remember–the Tea Party has an approval rating around 15%, which is a third of the approval of the Islamofascist Kenyan usurper.

      “A parallel to all this is the GOP presidential primary. Those leading the polls are non-politicians.” Those leading the polls of Republicans, taken over a year before the election. While there are a number of loud voices who will trust someone because of what it says on his hat, I don’t see that as translating into success in a presidential election. Outsiders are not all they’re cracked up to be. Consider the Presidents who never held electoral office. All of them had plenty of government experience, either in civilian posts or the military. President Eisenhower–a consummate administrator, and a capable politician even in his Army days–is the only one who could be considered better than “possibly not as bad as we have come to think.”

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/16/2015 - 12:48 pm.

    False Equivilancy

    There is a load of false equivalency in the article. Sviggum bemoans Congressional Democrats being unwilling to compromise? With who? The GOP has a sizable majority and doesn’t need to compromise with Democrats, and they can’t even compromise with themselves, which Sviggum apparently can’t see.

    To suggest that the left of the Democratic party is even near as extreme as the Tea Party is ridiculous. Minnpost should be better than this “a pox on both their houses” sham journalism.

    • Submitted by Phil Dech on 10/16/2015 - 03:46 pm.

      Indeed, the few major pieces of legislation that Speaker Boehner has managed to get through were done with the help of some Dems that were willing to work across the aisle.

      To be fair though, Mr. Grow was quoting Mr. Sviggum, not endorsing his views.

  3. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 10/16/2015 - 02:09 pm.

    Irv Anderson 2.0?

    Mr. Grow I’m surprised you neglected some background. Yes Irv Anderson was Speaker for those two terms, but that was his second act in leadership. I recall him joking when he ascended to the speakership how he was “new and improved”, meaning calmer and more mellow in his style. His first go-around in leadership ended badly also as he could not even get elected to a commissioner position in Koochiching County in 1988(?). Then he managed a political comeback and was elected back to the House in 1990.

    (And in my personal and humble take, Dee Long was also a victim of sexism within the DFL House membership at the time. The so-called Phone Scandal was just the excuse used for that power play. Again, to this humble observer.)

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/16/2015 - 02:22 pm.

    You’ll pardon me

    …I hope, for not getting all dewy-eyed over John Boehner’s problems, which are, at least in part, of his own creation. If you’re gonna live by fire-breathing, right-wing radicals, then you may well die with them, too, and that seems to be what has happened to Mr. Boehner.

    If the “…conservative Republicans” Mr. Halonen refers to were truly concerned about the national debt and/or the “90-something million” out of work, they’d be not just willing, but *eager* to pass transportation and other public-works bills that would put quite a few of those millions back to work. Instead, those same radicals create legislative gridlock so that nothing gets done.

    In similar fashion, if those same right-wing radicals were genuinely concerned about the national debt, they would not threaten a government shut-down and default on that same debt, which would have world-wide economic consequences of catastrophic proportions, including here in the U.S. They are, then, zealots who are decidedly UNconcerned about either the national debt or people in this country who are out of work. Instead, they’re primarily focused on a false video of Planned Parenthood’s operations – a visual lie constructed specifically to sucker in gullible right-wingers – and a host of racist accusations, some subtle, some not-so-much, directed at the current President.

    I agree with Mr. Halonen that there are some parallels here with the GOP presidential field. Indeed, those leading the polls are non-politicians. They’re also completely clueless about how government works, and seem prepared to ignore the majority of the population in favor of their ideological allies in the minority. Let’s also not forget that the current poll leader on the GOP side is blatantly racist, and has nothing in common with the average Republican who works for wages.

  5. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 10/16/2015 - 02:25 pm.

    The supposed parallel between the house conservatives and the presidential primary is a weak one; the conservatives in the house can get elected (and reelected) on a “I’ll destroy Washington as we know it” record because their districts are so ideologically similar– partly through how we have opted to sort ourselves, partly through gerrymandering.

    But in only a few places can a statewide election be won with this approach (Ted Cruz is lucky to be from one of those places).

    As for a national election– forget it. If the GOP primary/caucus voters nominate one of these non-politicians, they’ll find that out the hard way. Just because there are 30-40 districts where this is a winning message, does not mean that it translates nationwide.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 10/16/2015 - 09:09 pm.

      I Wonder

      I could see quite a few disgruntled young Democrats and Moderates voting for a Republican candidate who was fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal and had star power… (aka Jesse)

      One of my Liberal commenters just left me this link. I found it fascinating and very open minded. Just remember that you need to read the whole thing to understand how both our parties contribute to the dysfunction of our policies and their creation.

  6. Submitted by Bill Willy on 10/17/2015 - 03:05 pm.

    A man of wealth and taste

    The title of this piece reminded me of the Rolling Stones song, “Sympathy for the Devil.” And while it would be hard for anyone to be further away than me from being “supportive” of the people that took him down, after reading this early 2011 article the other day, that aspect of their (beyond bizarre) approach to things seems completely understandable:

    “The Crying Shame of John Boehner

    “He’s a lazy, double-talking shill for corporate interests. So how’s he going to fare with the Tea Party?

    “John Boehner is the ultimate Beltway hack, a man whose unmatched and self-serving skill at political survival has made him, after two decades in Washington, the hairy blue mold on the American congressional sandwich. The biographer who somewhere down the line tackles the question of Boehner’s legacy will do well to simply throw out any references to party affiliation, because the thing that has made Boehner who he is — the thing that has finally lifted him to the apex of legislative power in America — has almost nothing to do with his being a Republican.

    “The Democrats have plenty of creatures like Boehner. But in the new Speaker of the House, the Republicans own the perfect archetype — the quintessential example of the kind of glad-handing, double-talking, K Street toady who has dominated the politics of both parties for decades. In sports, we talk about athletes who are the ‘total package,’ and that term comes close to describing Boehner’s talent for perpetuating our corrupt and debt-addled status quo: He’s a five-tool insider who can lie, cheat, steal, play golf, change his mind on command and do anything else his lobbyist buddies and campaign contributors require of him to get the job done.”

    And much more…

  7. Submitted by Steven James Beto on 10/19/2015 - 07:02 am.

    Accounts and Accountability

    So the Pope came, you finally got a conscience and you wanted out. Is that the deal? Well, you helped to create this pig sty, Boehner, and you might be the only man that can turn things around. Rescind your resignation, sit your butt down and get to work. It’s time to be the hero that until now you have only pretended to be.

  8. Submitted by Geo. Greene on 10/19/2015 - 12:10 pm.

    I have little sympathy.

    The GOP has consistently moved ever rightward over many decades and that shift has been accelerating. Without any correction, that kind of shift inevitably leads to extremists demanding ever more “purity” from their colleagues until no one is pure enough.

    I have little sympathy for GOP leadership. The move rightward was consciously engineered beginning in earnest with Newt Gingrich. He cut off any inter-party dialog and made Congress a zero sum game. By being extreme the GOP dragged the middle rightward; maybe not all the way to the extreme, but enough to hold power. This risky tactic has now gotten away from them. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they created the extremists who are now throwing them out. It is now debatable whether the country is governable at all given the abusive use of the filibuster, the inability for Speaker Boehner to control the House and the pouty recklessness of government shutdowns.

    The hatred of government used to simply work as a distraction to keep people from focusing on the excesses and dangers of greed and the concentration of wealth. The ever more extreme GOP now has to deal with the reality that what was once a political trick has gotten away from them -extremists control the government and the the government now may, in fact, be ungovernable. That’s pretty much the the goal of the extremists everywhere.

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