Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan didn’t have to explain why she went out of her way to tell those at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday that the incoming administration was open to listening to what business had to say.
In the lead up to the 2018 election, business organizations had not exactly been allies of the DFL or its governor candidate, Tim Walz. “That’s one of the reasons why, when I received this invitation I said, ‘Yes, absolutely,” Flanagan told attendees of the Women in Business Annual Legislator Luncheon.
“It is really, really important that when we talk about One Minnesota, we mean One Minnesota,” Flanagan said of the Walz administration. “And that we work across lines of difference in order to get things done. And the best ideas — contrary to what you heard for the last several months — can come from both sides of the aisle.”
Looking for cooperation
She delivered that message after an election in which business tried hard, and spent heavily, to help Republicans keep control of the state Legislature, even if those groups mostly stayed away from the governor’s race once former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was defeated in the GOP primary.
While DFL-affiliated groups outspent Republican counterparts five-to-one on the governor’s race, they were outspent almost two-to-one on legislative races. The pro-business Minnesota Jobs Coalition, for one, spent $709,000 in independent expenditures through the Oct. 22 reporting period, while a chamber-connected organization, the Pro Jobs Majority, spent $1.38 million. The Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, which is affiliated with the Minnesota Business Partnership, spent another $824,000.
If the purpose of all the money was to keep the state House in GOP hands, it didn’t work. Nearly all of the DFL candidates in contested districts won, despite the heavy spending against them. Which means that groups like the chamber must now shift from campaign mode into lobbying mode, trying to figure out a way to work with people they opposed not all that long ago.
On Tuesday, that shift included lunch.
“We look forward to working with you and the Walz administration during the upcoming session,” said Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy at the chamber, before introducing Flanagan.
While the incoming lieutenant governor expressed a willingness to listen to concerns about regulation and efficiency in government, she also set out what the Walz administration might want in return. Walz, she said, will push for a public option for the purchase of health care, something that was touted during the campaign as the MinnesotaCare buy-in. The move would allow those who earn too much to qualify for subsidized insurance to still purchase health insurance through the state system.
She said the administration will also look for ways to make child care more accessible and affordable. “Families absolutely need high-quality, affordable child care,” she said. “This is where, especially, with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, we need you to be our partners as we tackle this issue. It is your work force who require high-quality, reliable child care. This is one issue where it shouldn’t matter which party you come from but that we should be working together to fix this crisis.”
Flanagan also said the incoming administration will be looking at paid family and maternity leave, and again asked for business cooperation. “I know that here in Minnesota we have some of the best and brightest minds to figure out how we get this done and how we work together to be sure that our kids, our new infants, those who are adopted and brought into families have an opportunity to get a really solid start,” she said.
During a brief question period — what Flanagan joked was a “Native American Oprah sort of moment” — an owner of a medium-sized business said she was aligned with the social issues Flanagan spoke about but asked what would be done to improve the business climate that would be needed to fund them.
Flanagan said that as they look at social issues that affect the workforce — education, training, child care, paid family leave — the incoming administration wants to hear from business owners. “I don’t run a mid-sized business. I primarily come from the nonprofit community,” she said. “I know there are different issues you are facing. So I want to make sure we are partnering together and assembling groups of people to talk about that.”
The transition committee she is chairing will also be touring the state to hear from the public, she said.
‘I hope we can find some common ground’
In addition to business leaders, several legislators and legislators-elect also attended the lunch. One was the soon-to-be lawmaker Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, who defeated 10-year Minnesota House incumbent GOP Rep. Jenifer Loon to represent District 48B, in Eden Prairie.
Kotyza-Witthuhn victory encapsulated many of dynamics at play in the election. She won in a suburban district that had been held by the GOP but that had supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Her race was also an example of how and where business groups spent money to protect the GOP’s House majority.
While the chamber and its direct affiliates didn’t spend money on the race, other business interests did, including the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses, which spent $55,300 through Oct. 22 on negative campaigning against Kotyza-Witthuhn. Final reports due in January will likely show even more spending against her.
“I consider myself a businesswoman,” Kotyza-Witthuhn said after the luncheon. Yet she still found herself on the receiving end of campaign mailings saying, among other things, that she would raise taxes to pay for single-payer health care.
“As a first-time candidate, I was flabbergasted,” she said of the advertising deluge.
While she expected her race would “garner some attention,” it was more than she had thought. She said she countered those messages by campaigning door-to-door and speaking directly with voters.
Kotyza-Witthuhn also said she didn’t take the negative campaigns personally, understanding that it was aimed not as much at her as at maintaining GOP control of the House. “Many of the ads on both sides of the aisle, whether it was for me or against me, tended to be very cookie cutter,” she said. “I don’t know that it was necessarily writing me off as a candidate and that’s why I hope we can find some common ground.”
UPDATE: This article was edited to clarify the relationships between the largest business-related political committees and to state that the Minnesota Jobs Coalition is not directly connected to the state chamber.