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Get ready to hear a lot more about the urban-rural divide from Minnesota politicians

Even as Democratic gubernatorial candidates push back on the idea that there’s a deep divide between urban and rural voters, their GOP counterparts have made it a main talking point of the their campaigns. 

Republican state Sen. Dave Osmek, a candidate for governor: “We need a fighter in St. Paul for Minnesota values. Not Minneapolis values, not St. Paul values, but Minnesota values.”

In the field of Republicans running to be Minnesota’s next governor, one candidate’s top issue is abolishing the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency for the Twin Cities. Another candidate promises to put a moratorium on funding for urban light rail projects, while yet another wants to defund so-called sanctuary cities like Minneapolis.

Going after Minnesota’s urban core is not an unfamiliar pitch from Republicans, who swept into control of the Legislature in 2016 by dominating in rural areas throughout Greater Minnesota. During the 2017 session, GOP lawmakers spent no small amount of effort trying to pass a slew of proposals that aimed directly at the state’s two largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul: everything from cutting back on their funding to blocking them from passing their own minimum wage and labor standards.

“Why am I running for governor?” Republican state Sen. Dave Osmek, a candidate for governor, said at a recent forum. “Because we need a fighter in St. Paul for Minnesota values. Not Minneapolis values, not St. Paul values, but Minnesota values.”

Such talk has also become increasingly common. As the wide-open 2018 race for the governor’s office heats up, the rhetoric about an urban-rural divide has become a main talking point for Republican candidates as they seek to woo the hard-line activists who decide the party’s endorsement, and it will also likely be a theme in any Republican general election campaign. When it comes to the 2018 campaign, in other words, the urban-rural divide is still alive and well.

Trains, Met Council and sanctuary cities

It’s not surprising that Osmek would be talking about these kinds of regional issues on the campaign trail: The second-term senator from Mound has made them a centerpiece of his efforts in the Legislature.

Osmek championed a bill last session to abolish the Metropolitan Council, the 17-member board appointed by the governor that has regional housing and transportation planning authority that can supersede local governments. Osmek believes the council should be eliminated and the powers redistributed to local officials, who are elected and can be voted down by citizens.

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He’s now talking about his plan at candidate forums across the state as he pivots to run for governor, and he’s said he’s been surprised at how many people are familiar with the issue. If they’re not, he’s found that eliminating the organization is an easy sell.

“They are definitely tuned into that issue, regardless of whether they are in Litchfield, Owatonna or Two Harbors,” he said. “They are looking at the rural issues, but also what affects the metropolitan area, because they are all connected in one way or another. For the ones who don’t understand it, once you explain it to them, they are appalled at what the Met Council has been doing and how they’ve been running roughshod over the counties.”

Osmek also led an effort last session to petition the federal government to block funding for the Southwest Light Rail Line, the controversial $1.86 billion transit project that has struggled to get lawmakers to fund the state’s portion of the cost. He said it’s an issue that resonates statewide.

“It’s just not the fact that they are trying to ram this light rail down our throats,” Osmek said. “People in Greater Minnesota know that one way or another they are paying for this boondoggle. They come into the metro and they see that their roads not being built. It impacts them directly.”

There are 11 total Republican candidates running for governor, including state Rep. Matt Dean, former county official Lance Johnson and a handful of activists. And Osmek is not the only candidate talking up urban-rural issues on the campaign trail. Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County Commissioner who ran for governor in 2014, has also said he would scrap the Metropolitan Council and put a moratorium on funding for light rail projects while he’s governor, and has instead advocated for more funding for bus lines.

Meanwhile, another gubernatorial candidate, former Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey, said cities like Minneapolis, which limit their cooperation with the federal government on some immigration laws, shouldn’t get state funding. “Public safety is the first duty of government,” he said. “To promote law and order and protect our communities, including our immigrants, we will enforce the law, de-fund sanctuary cities and respect and support those who enforce the law.”

Long simmering political divide

The debate about and between urban and rural areas in Minnesota isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. The urban-rural divide has been around in some form or another for decades, often materializing as the ongoing fight over Local Government Aid (aka LGA) — the funds the state provides directly to cities to help them pay for things like police, firefighters and street repair. At the Legislature, there’s often a push to cut back or redirect aid that goes to cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul or Duluth in order to send it to smaller cities and towns across the state.

But the urban-rural dynamic — or at least the way politicians talk about it — has grown more acute over the years, partially due to the state’s changing demographics. As the state’s cities swell with younger, more diverse voters who tend to lean left, large swaths of rural Minnesota have come to be dominated by older voters who tend to vote Republican.

The effects have mostly played out in Minnesota’s last two elections, with Republicans picking up nearly a dozen House and six Senate seats from rural areas. They did so with a message that often attacked things like funding for light rail lines or other Twin Cities-specific projects, or hitting on the theme that certain parts of the state were being “left behind.”

The message worked particularly well for Republicans in Minnesota last fall. Though Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the state in the presidential election, it was a narrow victory, and the GOP picked up enough seats to take full control of the state Legislature. In the session that followed, Democratic legislators were regularly at odds with Republicans over provisions to pre-empt Minneapolis and St. Paul from passing their own minimum-wage and paid sick-leave laws. Republicans also proposed cutting Minneapolis and St. Paul’s LGA funding and Minneapolis’ pension programs. There was also a major debate over how much funding to grant metro-area bus lines and light rail projects.

Many of those proposals fizzled due to the actions of Republicans’ most powerful opponent: DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. He pushed for more funding for transit projects, and late in session, he promised to veto any bill that included a pre-emption proposal for Minneapolis and St. Paul. In the end, only one pre-emption proposal made it through: Blocking cities from passing ordinances to ban plastic bags in grocery stores.

Urban-rural economic disparities

Dayton’s lonely defense against Republicans’ targeting of cities has Democratic groups worried. At a time when state and federal politics are more paralyzed than ever, cities have largely taken the lead when it comes to promoting and implementing progressive policy goals like increasing the minimum wage or changing workplace labor rules.

But proposals to pre-empt cities from doing so have cropped up in states across the nation. In Iowa, after several counties passed and changed ordinances to raise the minimum wage, legislators reversed those increases and froze the minimum wage at the federal level of $7.25 per hour. In 2015, the City of St. Louis passed an ordinance establishing a minimum wage that was higher than Missouri’s. Legislators reversed that increase during the 2017 session.

“This issue, which has been kind of a technical issues of local government powers in the past, it really is bubbling up now as a key fault line,” said Paul Sonn, general counsel for National Employment Law Project, which does research and supports progressive labor laws across the country. “It will be interesting to see how it plays in the 2018 election. One of the clearest places is likely Minnesota, because there was this high stakes battle last spring. Who wins the governor’s race will decide how things go in the future.”

There are six Democrats running for governor, including St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, DFL Reps. Tina Liebling, Paul Thissen and Erin Murphy, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and state auditor Rebecca Otto. Many have pushed back on the idea that there’s a deep divide between urban and rural voters; they aren’t necessarily talking about pre-emption and the Metropolitan Council on the campaign trail — and they’re not hearing much about it from voters either.

“It’s a very cynical attempt to divide us as Minnesotans for political advantage. It’s the worst of what politics are about,” said Coleman. “No one is bringing up the Met Council. That hasn’t come up in one conversation that I have had. What people are worried about is that there is economic vitality in cities across the state.”

Yet Thissen, who represents Minneapolis in the House, said some regional divides do exist, even if Democrats haven’t always been good at talking about them. “[In the campaign] we are having a very healthy discussion, one that gets beyond what has been a problem on the Democratic side, which is to paper over that these issues exist,” he said. “One thing we haven’t acknowledged enough is that where you live does shape how you live. There are huge economic disparities around the state.”

It was a major criticism of Democrats in the election last fall: They didn’t communicate clearly how they would improve the lives of families struggling to get by in rural parts of the state. Recognizing disparities in economic opportunity in between urban and rural areas — and having a good message to fix the problem — will be key for Democrats to talk about in the 2018 governor’s race, he said.

“It’s around economic opportunity,” Thissen said. “In every part of our state the economy is doing better, but remoteness comes with a cost, and we ought to be willing more to support people and institutions to live in remote areas.”