This is the second part of “Reappraising ‘Minnesota: A State That Works’: More than 50 years of pendulum swings but a persistent center-left consensus.’ The first half of this story can be read here.
Megatrends since 1973
In addition to the transformation of Republicans into a far more conservative party, several other megatrends have dominated the state’s political scene since 1973. These include: a continued hankering for independents, outsiders, and third parties; the rise of women and people of color (see Part II for in-depth analysis of diversity and disparity) and more emphasis on issues surrounding social justice and a continuing demographic shift of population and power out of rural areas and into the Twin Cities and other regional centers (Part VII will explore the complexities of the rural-urban divide).
Minnesota voters in the first half of the 20th century made the Farmer-Labor Party one of the most successful third parties in U.S. history. That interest in alternatives to two-party systems continued but has often veered more toward the center. Moderate Republican Rep. John Anderson in 1980 and businessman Ross Perot in 1992, both running as independents, performed significantly better in Minnesota’s presidential contests than they did nationally. Perot’s strong and well-organized following in Minnesota evolved into a durable Independence Party that performed well enough to qualify for public financing and remained a force in state politics for 20 years, peaking with the shocking election of an outlandish pro wrestler (Ventura) to the governor’s office in 1998.
Even within the parties, outsiders with little or no experience in public office (such as businessman Rudy Boschwitz, college professor Paul Wellstone, and comedian Al Franken) succeeded by offering some version of “shaking things up.” Similarly, candidates who promise to deviate from the party line and “work across the aisles” or “get things done” also tend to do well. And as population shifted to Twin Cities suburbs, candidates began to put a higher premium than ever on practical pocketbook issues and the immediate needs of “soccer moms” and their children rather than glittering generalities.
Women’s rights and demands for justice from people of color received only passing mention by Time in 1973. Among the 201 legislators in the 1973-74 biennium, there were only five women (2% of the total) and two Black men (1% of the total). Women now comprise 38% of and people of color 17% of the Legislature, much closer to their respective percentages of the population. Most of the women and almost all of the members of color are DFLers, underscoring the widening gender and racial gaps in the electorate created by an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
Both of Minnesota’s U.S. senators are now women, and one of them, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is hands-down the state’s most popular elected official, with winning percentages averaging well over 60%, exceeding those of Anderson, Mondale and even Humphrey.
In general, over the past 50 years, women as a whole and especially white women have done better than people of color in seeking equitable representation and enacting policies that equalize opportunity and outcomes. (See Part II of this series). Conservatives tended to deny the severity of disparities and have obstructed both gender and racial equity measures or redistribution aimed at reducing inequality. DFLers often stood their ground with feminists but were reluctant to press racial justice as a primary theme, out of fear of alienating rural and suburban whites. In the Minnesota Legislature the 2022 election and aftermath produced a breakthrough, however, as legislators of color assumed top committee and leadership roles and those leaders more openly and emphatically brought a racial equity emphasis to programs and policies.
Beyond the megatrends and demographics, Minnesota’s politics and policies often have been shaped by the personalities on the stage. Voting for the person, not the party, is a rule many Minnesotans claim to follow. Success or failure for each of the state’s political leaders often can be explained by whether they were perceived as humble or arrogant, empathetic or out-of-touch, strong or weak, upbeat or negative. Minnesotans seem to particularly prize self-effacing humor, refreshing candor or showmanship, intelligence and reasonable willingness to compromise.
Each decade since the 1960s has had its own special character, and set of characters, and the following is an attempt to paint a broad-brush mural of the events and actors on the main stage.
1970s: Progressive heyday
The term “Minnesota Miracle” was first specifically applied to the 1971 fiscal reforms that led to higher taxes overall and equalization of school district revenues. But eventually the tag came to stand for a larger body of progressive laws and policies achieved from the late 1960s through 1978.
An appendix to former DFL state Sen. Tom Berg’s book about this period, “Minnesota’s Miracle,” lists almost 50 major pieces of legislation that had major impact, many of which attracted national attention and became models for other states. Few of these provisions would be considered liberal per se today, but they were at the time. They also enjoyed considerable bi-partisan support. Several originated with Gov. Harold Levander, a moderate Republican who preceded Anderson and served from 1967 to 1971.
A partial list: more bargaining rights for public employees, same-day voter registration and other laws that increased turnout, open-meeting laws for local government, higher minimum wage increases than other states, establishment of the Metropolitan Council to deal with Twin Cities pollution and sprawl, major new environmental protection laws, public financing of election campaigns, a state building code, more investments for affordable and public housing, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and more equal opportunities for girls in athletic programs, no-fault auto insurance, data privacy laws, smoking bans for indoor spaces, handgun controls and expanded entitlements for economic security and health-care for low-income families.
All this stuff created more equal opportunity and improved the state’s quality of life but also required higher taxes, especially on the more politically powerful individuals toward the upper end. Minnesota by the end of the 1970s was in the top 10 for income taxes per capita and since then perennially has been ranked among the most progressive state-local tax systems. Income taxes on the most advantaged households remain comparatively high, while property and sales taxes, bearing more on low- and middle-income households, remain low to average compared to other states.
The trio of Republicans who brought an end to the era, but not a wholesale reversal of its policies and programs, were generally moderate and not yet closely tied to the emerging conservative forces in the party under President Ronald Reagan. Dave Durenberger’s slogan, for instance, was “Minnesota’s Next Great Senator,” clearly conferring greatness on his very liberal predecessor, Hubert Humphrey. Durenberger was more liberal than his Democratic opponent, businessman Bob Short, on northern wilderness protections and other issues. Businessman Rudy Boschwitz, a folksy and upbeat entrepreneur (also plaid-shirted, never hurts) whose Plywood Minnesota stores helped remodel many a Minnesota basement, was a conservative to be sure, but hardly a red-meat demagogue. And Gov. Al Quie, who passed away near the age of 100 this summer, was the epitome of compassionate conservatism, often publicly criticizing the rightward turn of his party in later years.
1980s: Moderation and innovation
Quie’s big cuts in the state income tax and the recession of the 1980s resulted in an endless series of embarrassing shortfalls in revenue, also requiring big cuts in basic state services and in aid to schools and local governments. Eventually Quie allowed DFL majorities in the Legislature to enact tax increases and he declined to seek reelection.
Minnesota quickly veered back to the center-left in state government, beginning in 1982 with Perpich’s remarkable comeback. The eccentric and likeable Iron Ranger pulled off a stunning upset in a primary election against Attorney General Warren Spannaus. Somewhat more moderate than urban DFLers on social and environmental issues, Rudy Perpich fashioned a profile as a business-friendly Democrat. He came into office promising to get the state out of the top 10 rankings in all major tax categories. Allied mostly but sometimes at odds with DFL legislative majorities in both chambers for all but two of his eight years in office, Perpich distinguished himself as a creative fountain of fresh and sometimes wacky ideas and schemes. Above all, he was a tireless promoter of Minnesota on the national and international scene.
The national and state economy were relatively healthy, but Perpich had to deal with a farm crisis and the continuing decline of his Iron Range. Working with Senate DFL Majority Leader Roger Moe (and whose 22 years at the helm gave him significance equal to any governor), Perpich launched the Greater Minnesota Corporation, an ambitious effort to revitalize communities outside the Twin Cities metro area. He conducted frequent international trade missions and helped create a Center for Victims of Torture to serve refugees. His most enduring visible contribution was the creation of the Mall of America, defying skeptics to become the state’s number one visitor destination and a national retail megaplex.
All through the ‘80s, Minnesota stuck with Boschwitz and Durenberger in the U.S. Senate. Both had established their own niches and a personal rapport with Minnesotans; Boschwitz with his friendly demeanor and Durenberger as a serious and thoughtful wonk, strong on environmental protection and health-care policy.
1990s: A bit of an identity crisis
At one point toward the end of the 1990s, Minnesota was represented in the U.S. Senate by its most fiery radical member, Wellstone, and by one of its most consistently conservative voices, Sen. Rod Grams. Meanwhile, the governor’s office was occupied by a former pro wrestler who ridiculed both parties as rival street gangs and offered a combination of left and right policy positions (cutting income taxes and promoting gay rights and environmental protections). His predecessor, two-termer Gov. Arne Carlson, was a highly popular moderate, and so liberal that Republicans refused to endorse him when he ran for reelection and romped in 1994.
The decade began with one of the most sensational elections in state history, once again often capturing national attention. DFLers in a “what-the-hell” mood took a big gamble on hopeless underdog Wellstone, best known for getting arrested at protests, to run against Boschwitz. Moderate Carlson had been upended in the primary by an increasingly conservative Republican base that chose business executive Jon Grunseth. He appeared to be heading toward victory, until two young women alleged by affidavit that he had groped them in a swimming pool, several years before. Grunseth finally pulled out of the race and the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a decision that allowed Carlson to replace him on the ballot. Against all odds, the moderate Republican who had lost the primary and the passionate lefty professor triumphed, which on reflection should not have been a surprise for those who understood Minnesota’s basic political DNA.
Carlson governed mostly from the middle and continued Perpich’s battle for parental school choice, often taking on the powerful teachers’ union. He was a stauncher advocate for gay rights than some DFLers. Carlson always sought to reduce spending increases, but eventually agreed to a local sales tax increase to balance a budget shortfall. His most enduring legacy might be the launch of Minnesota Care, a landmark program that provided affordable health insurance to low-income working families, recently expanded again by the 2023 Legislature.
In 1994, a wave election nationally for Republicans running on U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract for America,’’ Minnesota elected its most conservative senator in decades, former TV anchorman Rod Grams. It was no net loss for DFLers, since the seat had been held by Durenberger, but it was yet another shift to the right by Minnesota Republicans.
The decade ended as it began with a spectacular election upset, and another governor on the cover of Time. The victory by an outrageous and flamboyant wrestling villain who called himself “The Body” (later “The Mind”) was the talk of the nation for several years running. His policy record, however, reflected Minnesota values. He appointed a bi-partisan cabinet that is still considered one of the most capable and competent of all time. Ventura benefitted from huge surpluses and pushed through one-time rebates called “Jesse checks,” as well as permanent income tax cuts, which came back to haunt the next governor when a recession landed, and revenues dried up. But Ventura essentially preserved Minnesota’s progressive policies and institutions. His success also proved to be more than a blip and his party would remain strong enough in the next three elections to affect outcomes.
‘Aughties’ (00s): Red high tide, policy stalemates
Ventura’s decision not to seek re-election in 2002, combined with a 9/11 terrorist attack that had the effect of strengthening President George W. Bush and Republicans nationally, gave the Minnesota GOP its best year since 1978. Again, the death of a liberal hero figured in the drama. Wellstone died in a plane crash 11 days before the election and an unprepared Walter Mondale was drafted out of his role as senior statesman as a last-minute replacement on the ballot. Republicans took both the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate seat, electing relatively young and fresh faces in state Rep. Tim Pawlenty, and Norm Coleman, a former DFLer and former St. Paul mayor who had converted to the party before seeking the governor’s office and losing to Ventura in 1998. Republicans also came closer than ever to a trifecta, taking the Minnesota House and coming just a couple seats short in the Senate.
Pawlenty came across as bright and quick-witted, attuned to popular culture and authentically rooted in a blue-collar South St. Paul family that also had worked in the meatpacking business. Pawlenty was acutely conscious that he was operating in a liberal democratic state and carved out moderate exceptions to conservative policy dogma. He tagged homelessness as top priority and invested in light rail and mass transit systems. Most important, rather than deny climate science, Pawlenty set renewable energy goals that were among the most ambitious in the nation. Mostly he played the part of “Tightwad Tim” (pundits declared him the most fiscally conservative Minnesota governor since “Tightwad Ted” Christianson in the 1920s) and fought through two recessions by cutting or slowing state government funding in most areas. Pawlenty walked a tightrope between appeasing his ever more conservative base and seeming moderate enough for the general electorate. He compromised with DFLers, for instance, by raising taxes on tobacco to address a budget shortfall crisis, and he tried to label it a Health Impact Fee. These accommodations to Minnesota’s essential center-left consensus would cost him dearly when he ran for president in 2012. In 2018, state party primary voters, now fully under Trump’s spell, delivered a crushing blow and rejected him when he attempted a comeback for governor.
2010s to wow: Reverting to form
The shift back to a more reliably blue state arguably began with the unlikely candidacy and dogged persistence of Gov. Mark Dayton. Few Minnesota politicians did more to turn the tide than this wealthy heir to the Dayton/Target retail empire. (His father and four uncles were pictured in the 1973 Time article and were portrayed as models of progressive business leadership.) The younger and much more liberal, Dayton’s ambitions emerged in the 1980s, but he lost a run against Durenberger in 1982 and lost again in the 1998 DFL gubernatorial primary.
Although he was an unapologetic soak-the-rich lefty and a self-declared traitor to his class, many party activists considered him uninspiring, quirky, and too rich and entitled. Running uphill the entire way in 2000, he self-financed a smart and focused U.S. Senate campaign, emerged from a crowded primary field, defeated Grams and restored DFL control of both seats for the first time in 22 years. After serving one term, by his own admission not one bathed in glory, Dayton chose not to seek reelection in 2006, when he was replaced by Klobuchar. But four years later, despite once again being declared dead by most experts, Dayton mounted another comeback. He won in a crowded DFL gubernatorial primary field by fewer than 7,000 votes and eked out a win in the general election by fewer than 9,000 votes, over a very conservative state Rep. Tom Emmer (who went on to win a seat in Congress in one of the state’s most conservative districts and now serves as House Majority Whip).
Dayton held things together for DFLers through the next eight years, only two of those with a DFL majority in both chambers. In that 2013-14 session, DFLers raised taxes on high incomes to balance the budget, restored funding to public schools and health programs, and legalized same-sex marriage. Dayton, a star hockey goalie as a youth, played that role as governor, blocking conservative efforts to slash state and local government, reverse environmental laws, and impose right-wing policies on abortion rights, gay rights and gun ownership.
As the rural-urban partisan divide widened, DFL primary voters vetoed party activists’ endorsement in 2018 and nominated Tim Walz, an authentically rural and progressive congressman from southern Minnesota, who pushed a “One Minnesota” theme (shamelessly sporting red-and-black checkered campaign apparel, plaid being the one true constant for successful Minnesota politicians). He won decisively, reducing the Republican margins in southern and rural parts of the state. Like Dayton, Walz was constrained during his first term by a Republican Senate as he dealt with both the pandemic and urban unrest following the murder of George Floyd.
Despite a furious mid-term counterattack in 2022 from Republicans warning of “a death march to socialism” (the actual language in a party campaign fundraising appeal), and despite predictions of a giant red tsunami, Walz won comfortably and DFLers took full control of the Legislature, albeit with narrow margins in both. Unlike the 1970s or at any time since, they had at their disposal a gargantuan budget surplus of $17.5 billion, which had accumulated because of previous stalemates. This amount was many times larger than surpluses in previous biennia, and enough to address pent-up demand for both one-time and continuing appropriations, and to afford major tax cuts too.
Defying conventional wisdom to proceed timidly and to not “overreach,” the DFL trifecta delivered almost every item on an ambitious priority agenda it laid out in January. After it was over, taking note once again of the national media’s designation of Minnesota as a liberal outlier, attention, DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin tweeted: “There is NO state in the country delivering a more progressive agenda than Minnesota. Period. End stop. Elections matter.”
The partial list included: a new entitlement to paid family leave and large increases in child-care subsidies, big hikes in funding for public schools and colleges, an audacious goal for a carbon-free economy by 2040 and funding incentives for conversion to renewable energy, major improvements in voting access that includes ex-felons and automatic registration for many others, restrictions on political donations from corporations, establishment of the state as a refuge for transgender people and for abortion access, increased funding for crime prevention and prosecution, legalization of cannabis possession and consumption, increases in local government aid to hold down property taxes and an overall progressive tax cut package that included one-time rebates, child care credits and exemptions for social security income for middle-income seniors.
2024 and beyond: Past is prologue
Liberal reformers throughout our state and national history often have paid an immediate political price for the disruption and upfront costs resulting from their egalitarian reforms. The arc of history may bend toward equality and a larger common pot for economic security, but it never runs in a straight line. Two steps forward and one back has been the norm. Politics junkies will be in a state of suspense until the 2024 election about how the electorate responds to so many steps forward by the 2023 trifecta.
Here’s a prediction, based on Shakespeare’s wisdom about the past being prologue. The pendulum will swing again. Republicans might recapture the state House in 2024 and are overdue to win at least some statewide offices later in the decade. But demographic changes that are reinforcing Minnesota’s existing political culture portend a continuing center-left consensus.
Further progress on the main existential challenges – climate change, inequalities and threats to democracy – may be slowed or temporarily reversed. But Minnesota will not regress to a place where free enterprise is free to damage the environment, where women have limited choices and people of color are effectively excluded, where the electorate denies the validity of elections, where people on the middle or bottom of the economic ladder or who have various disabilities and disadvantages have less economic security and health care.
A majority of Minnesota voters will continue to embrace values articulated throughout its history by abolitionists and suffragists, by Farmer-Labor Party organizers, by 1970s “Miracle” workers, and by today’s advocates for racial and gender and environmental justice. In the words of Paul Wellstone, one of our more unforgettable politicians, Minnesota politics will be about “improving people’s lives” and more specifically, lifting the fortunes of the “little fellers, not the Rockefellers.”
Next: Environmentalism as a constant priority