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7 Minnesota political storylines from 2022 you might have forgotten (or maybe wish you had)

A lot happened in 2022, including a consequential election. But there was plenty of political drama leading up to it, too.

Cory Hepola speaking at a press conference in the Capitol Building: “I’m gonna go out and earn people’s votes. The moment has never been better than right now.”
Cory Hepola speaking at a press conference in the Capitol Building: “I’m gonna go out and earn people’s votes. The moment has never been better than right now.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The past year was pretty eventful, with a record state surplus, a long legislative session, a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights and an election with every Minnesota partisan office except the two U.S. senators on the ballot. 

At the same time, it was a year when that long session ended up with little accomplished and nearly all incumbents were reelected, including the only judge with an opponent.

A narrow state Senate majority by Republicans became a narrow state Senate majority by DFLers and the House stayed that way, thanks perhaps to that aforementioned court decision.

The year also was marked by events in state government and politics that seemed like a big deal when they were happening but soon faded. Here are seven:

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Redistricting: After the once-a-decade Census, state legislators have one job. Just one. They are to redraw the state’s political boundaries to assure that each has the same number of people – give or take a dozen or so. Yet not once, in 50-plus years, has the Minnesota Legislature managed to pull it off.

That the state Supreme Court would end up doing the work again had been known even before the Census results were known. Suits were filed, a special panel was created, hearings were held, plans were drawn up by the judges. But the maps couldn’t be released until the Legislature officially failed. 

Like in professional wrestling when the players know the results, the House and Senate had to look like the politicians were trying.

Not until the deadline for action hit, and not a moment longer, did the judicial panel unveil its maps.

Commissioner Wars: Minnesotans love to claim that however they do things is the best way in the whole world, even when it isn’t. No state gets more done by passing fewer bills than the Minnesota Legislature. No state compares in the perfection of the zipper merge. And how better to keep an eye on a governor’s administration than to never confirm his commissioners, instead holding their jobs over their heads for years in case there is any misstep that needs punishing.

Such was the life of a Tim Walz commissioner.

Two were removed by the GOP-controlled Senate. One resigned before the Senate could fire her as well. Others sweated out their terms while trying to manage the pandemic, run the state’s prisons and manage a rental assistance program used to help ease the impact of an eviction moratorium.

Those threats were even cited by Walz as reason for not convening a special session over the summer to pressure Senate Republicans to act on a session-ending budget and tax deal that wasn’t.

The forgotten $73 billion: The federal government conducted an economic experiment during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Could Congress and the president stifle the most-negative impacts of a recession triggered by economic shutdowns and quarantines if they spent enough money?

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Nearly $6 trillion was appropriated in three major bills – two signed by President Trump and one signed by President Biden. The first two were bipartisan, but all three spent money on dozens and dozens of programs from direct cash to individuals and businesses to replacement funding for schools, airlines and hospitals. Billions were spent on public health interventions and billions more were sent directly to state and local governments.

Did it work? Well, yeah. A deep contraction lasted less than one quarter (not long enough to even be termed a recession) and the economy has been in recovery since. Minnesota tax collections have not looked back and continue to outperform even the most-optimistic forecasts. The boom is even enough to overcome an expected recession that might have already started.

So how much of that money flowed to Minnesota, a state that makes up about 1.7% of the country’s population? According to an analysis by Minnesota Management and Budget, it was $72.7 billion. Of that total, $52.2 billion went directly to individuals and businesses via stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment compensation, rental assistance and business loans such as the Paycheck Protection Plan.

But it was mostly taken for granted. As state surpluses grew and grew and grew some more, politicians spoke of the hard work and resiliency of Minnesotans with much less attention paid to the financial impacts of federal cash that amounted to nearly $13,000 for each human in the state.

Gas tax holiday: There was a time when Democrats were scared to death of gasoline prices. They were especially scared to death of high prices on Halloween because that would have come a week before the general election.

That time was the spring when per gallon prices were in the $5 range. No other measure of inflation is as obvious to residents as the ticking of the total on the gas pump. That led to calls to suspend the state gas tax of 28.5 cents per gallon and the federal gas tax of 18.3 cents per gallon with the impact to road construction trust funds covered by some of that pandemic relief money.

But Republicans had no interest in helping out the Democrats and were already running TV ads blaming high prices on Biden and specific members of congress who happened to be in close reelection races like Angie Craig. Some urban Democrats didn’t want to take an action that would make driving cheaper and therefore more frequent.

The holiday idea died. But, as November approached, gas prices started to fall on their own and while inflation may have been a voting issue for some voters, it didn’t appear to be a determining factor in suburban districts that Democrats held.   

Cory Hepola’s campaign: He didn’t actually run for governor. That would have required filing for office, and the former TV and radio broadcaster didn’t actually file. He did raise some money, a little. And he did name a running mate. But even that milestone did not keep him from dropping out a week  later.

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Hepola was affiliated with onetime Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang of New York who was determined to create a third party somewhere between the political left and right. Democrats feared the effort was more likely to skim votes from their candidates than GOP candidates. Yang is still at it. Hepola is not.

There was a certain symmetry to the three-month campaign. Hepola said he ran as an antidote to toxic politics driven by Republicans and Democrats. When he dropped out, he blamed … toxic politics driven by Republicans and Democrats.

(Insta-quiz: name that lieutenant governor running mate – see bottom for answer).

Trump endorsements: Does anyone want to forget former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Scott Jensen and Kim Crockett more than Scott Jensen and Kim Crockett?

Endorsements that might have come in handy when the pair of GOP nominees were fighting for the endorsement of their party seemed a lot less welcome when they were given a few weeks before the election. Both had to fashion a response that sounded grateful to have been gifted a two-week old walleye.

Crockett, the GOP nominee for secretary of state, was a bit more effusive in her thanks than Jensen. “I appreciate this unexpected vote of confidence,” she said. But even that highlighted what turned out to be an unpopular position – claims that the 2020 election cheated Trump. Jensen was generic: “While we have not actively sought the endorsement of political leaders, we are grateful for those who have recognized our ability to lead and heal Minnesota.”

Historically bad analogies: There’s a rule in American politics, or life really. Don’t compare anything to the Holocaust except the Holocaust. No matter how aggrieved you think you are, it isn’t comparable to the persecution of an entire people in much of Europe and the murder of six million people, mostly Jews.

As with many rules of politics, Scott Jensen didn’t follow them. In an appearance before an anti-masking and vaccination group mid campaign, the GOP nominee compared the progression of public health measures to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

“If you look at the 1930s and you look at it carefully, we could see some things happening. Little things that people chose to push aside. ‘It’s going to be okay,’” Jensen said in a story broken by TC Jewfolk. “And then the little things grew into something bigger. Then there was a night called Kristallnacht. The night of the breaking glass. Then there was the book burning, and it kept growing and growing, and a guy named Hitler kept growing in power, and World War II came about. Well, in a way, I think that’s why you’re here today. You sense that something’s happening, and it’s growing little by little.”

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Jensen didn’t back away from his comparisons and his campaign likely suffered from his frequent focus on the pandemic rather than issues Republicans thought more helpful, such as public safety and inflation.

(Answer: Tamara Uselman)