At separate press conferences over the the course of two weeks, the two newly chosen leaders of the Minnesota Senate used a phrase that has fallen out of usage at the Capitol: the Purple Caucus.
The group is a loose organization of people who wanted to counter partisanship in politics, and both new leaders, GOP Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller and DFL Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, claimed founding membership.
“I’ll be going on my 12th year,” said Miller, a Republican from Winona, after being asked about his role as a co-chair of the bipartisan caucus. “One of my biggest frustrations is how negative and how divisive the political divide has gotten. It seems to have gotten worse every year that I have been here. I don’t think it has to be that way.”
A week later, López Franzen also brought up the Purple Caucus when asked about her legislative style. “I work very well with the new Majority Leader Jeremy Miller,” the Edina DFLer said. “We’re actually part of the Purple Caucus so that I hope that still has some relevance in what we’re trying to do here about bridging those gaps and those differences between our parties.”
So what exactly is the Purple Caucus?
According to the founder, former Sen. Roger Reinert, it was an idea that came — and mostly went — when he entered the state Senate in 2011 and left in 2017. As it turns out, it also wasn’t named for what most people think it was named for: the color wheel blending of the colors assigned the two major parties, red for Republicans and blue for Democrats.
“I’m military, still am a Navy Reservist,” Reinert, a two term DFLer from Duluth, explained, and was part of intelligence units formed with personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines dubbed Purple Units.
“They were different colors so we called them Purple Units,” he said. “No one gives each other crap like the branches of the military. But when it’s mission time, it’s game on. We set all that aside and focus on the mission.”
He said he brought the idea when he got to the Legislature. But it started slowly: when Reinert was in the House in 2008, he couldn’t find a GOP co-chair. “No one was interested, not surprisingly,” he said. “It was gonna bring some political risk-taking with it. I certainly got beat up from the left, ‘Why are you trying to work with them?’”
It wasn’t until Miller got to the Senate — the same year Reinert won his first term in that body — that there was a willing co-chair on the Republican side. Sitting next to each other in the Transportation Committee made the two realize they had a lot in common, despite having different party labels.
“I leaned over one day and said, ‘I have an idea,’ And to his credit, he jumped at it,” Reinert said.
In its heyday, the caucus reached close to two-dozen members and met regularly under a slogan of “Minnesotan First, Other Labels Second.”
“The number one thing we needed to do was create a space where senators could get to know each other, could develop relationships and develop trust,” he said. “Because without those things you can’t really do anything big.”
He said he recalled having lawmakers come to meetings that he looked at and thought “this is not a Purple Caucus person.”
“There were people who were not active but really wanted to talk about big things and that was a space where people wanted to be thoughtful about big solutions,” Reinert said.
In its second and third years, it would release legislative agendas, just like the major party caucuses, though all members also retained their membership with those more traditional caucuses.
One bill that gathered attention would have changed the state’s party primary elections to open primaries, with the top two vote-getters moving to the general election regardless of party. That system, used in states like Washington and California, can sometimes result in two finalists from the same party.
“Now, as just a citizen who is passionate about civics and small-d democracy, I’m very concerned about the drive to the edges of the political spectrum,” he said. “I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is that can counter that trend.”
One of those ideas was the primary election law change, with the idea that it could attract and elect more moderate lawmakers. But the states that have adopted open primaries did so via voter initiative, not through a Legislature elected using a closed primary system, and the open primary bills ended up going nowhere.
Reinert said he was unable to find a DFLer to take his place as co-chair of the Purple Caucus and the group seemed to fade away after he left the Legislature in 2017. In recent sessions, neither the House nor the Senate passes legislation from the center — or by putting together coalitions of Republicans and DFLers. While many bills pass with near unanimity, controversial issues usually revert to party-line or near-party-line votes.
Part of the message of the Purple Caucus has been taken up by a bipartisan Civility Caucus. But that group focuses on building relationships across party lines rather than on reaching agreement on issues or bills.
Miller and López Franzen’s comments were more about disagreeing agreeably than on reaching consensus on big issues. “There are disagreements on issues,” Miller said. “That’s the way democracy works. But I feel we can work through those disagreements in a respectful manner. And that’s what I expect to accomplish as the next Senate majority leader.”
López Franzen said she called Miller shortly after her selection. “We both have done many programs outside the Legislature that are really geared towards working collaboratively, regardless of our parties and our labels,” she said. “I think we’ll have a good working relationship. It’s a matter of whether his caucus is able to stand with him.”
Reinert said he was gratified to hear both López Franzen and Miller mentioned their membership in the Purple Caucus when they first met the press after the selections. “I heard both of them comment and frankly it was heartwarming. It was good to know that this thing that had died and gone away still had some legacy. It makes me excited because I know the quality of people they are.
“When it went away, I was a bit sad,” he said. “But now I see that it has an impact.”