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Democrats made a big bet on themselves

Will Stancil, a scholar of housing and education discrimination at the University of Minnesota Law School, compared it to a state version of the New Deal.

Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville and colleagues celebrate the passage of the marijuana legalization bill Friday, April 28. The bill passed on a vote of 34-33. Photo by A.J. Olmscheid/Senate Media Services.

by J. Patrick Coolican, Minnesota Reformer

There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.

This insight has been attributed to figures as varied as Marx, Lenin and Steve Bannon, and I heard it from a shrewd lobbyist at the Capitol last week.

Whatever the provenance, this is what we’ve experienced around the Minnesota Legislature this year.

Many Minnesotans experienced something similar in May and June of 2020, but the change didn’t reach the Legislature until this year, when Democrats ignored the slimness of their majorities and enacted nearly all of their agenda in about 100 days.

In the coming years, we will spend more money on schools and universities, roads, housing, transit, health care and social services. In some cases, a lot more.

Undocumented people will be able to sign up for public health insurance, and get a driver’s license.

Incarcerated people will be able to vote as soon as they’re released.

Marijuana will be legal, and drug paraphernalia too, even if it has residue on it.

The right to abortion and other forms of reproductive and gender affirming health care are now codified in law.

If you have a baby, you’ll be able to get paid time off to nurture the child during those important first months of life.

If you make below the median income, the state will provide a tax credit to help defray the cost of raising children.

You’ll be guaranteed sick time if you work at a job for a sufficient period.

For those who believe government can be an important catalyst for human flourishing — put a man on the moon, develop the COVID-19 vaccine and all that — this has been an exhilarating session.

Will Stancil, a scholar of housing and education discrimination at the University of Minnesota Law School, compared it to a state version of the New Deal.

The historical analogue is 1973, when the late Gov. Wendell Anderson raised the income tax significantly and sent the money to school districts, shifting education funding away from property taxpayers, among other reforms. This helped launch the Minnesota we know today, boasting of the highest quality of life in the Midwest by many metrics, though not shared equally.

How did it happen?

Republicans, who just a year ago assumed they’d be in control of the Legislature and even had a shot at a trifecta, are shell-shocked, understandably. Many influential Minnesota Republicans came of age in the era of Republican House majorities, with one of their own in Tim Pawlenty as governor. Even if their edges were sometimes sanded down — relatively high taxes and spending remained — Republicans competed here, and their fingerprints could be seen in the relative moderation of abortion and gun laws, among a dozen other areas of public life.

What Republicans should realize, however, is that what’s happened these past few months was germinating for years, a decade or more perhaps. In other words, the quote above of uncertain origin — that nothing happens for decades until it suddenly does — is not quite true. The foundation was being laid, if out of sight.

It’s a similar story to the 2022 election — effective, well-funded grassroots organizing.

“Organizing has been the heartbeat,” said JaNae’ Bates, communications director for ISAIAH, a progressive ecumenical group. “This has been a historic legislative session, but one we’ve been building toward for a decade.”

ISAIAH had 5,000 people visit the Capitol on one day or another this year. How do they know? “Oh, we track everything,” Bates told me. Consider the network effect of those 5,000, all trained to get their family, friends and neighbors to make calls and send emails.

Now add in effective labor unions and specialty groups like Kids Count on Us for child care, We Choose Us on voting rights, Unidos, environmental organizations and housing advocates.

Given a 34-33 Senate, many around the Capitol — myself included — assumed that influential monied interests would prevent sweeping change. Everyone saw a half dozen or so potential Joe Manchins. Apparently behind the scenes it wasn’t always pretty, with sources telling us they spent a fair amount of time holding each other hostage, but the final numbers on the scoreboard tell the story.

Consider, by contrast, New York state, which also features a Democratic trifecta, but is continually bogged down in internecine conflict and dysfunction.

Name the issue, however, and Minnesota Democrats chose progress, be it on major issues like taxes and spending and abortion, or less heralded policies like a cap on interest rates for payday lenders, which will likely limit the industry’s growth.

To be sure, for all the power of the outside groups pressuring lawmakers, the composition of the Legislature matters, and it’s radically different than just a few years ago.

In 2015, you could count on one hand the number of Black, Indigenous and people of color sitting in the 134-member Minnesota House, even as the state was rapidly diversifying. Their numbers were too small for their own caucus.

The House People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, formed in 2017, now has 20 members, while the Senate has 10.

“I was the first BIPOC person in my district to hold the seat, and what I’d say to young people … (is that) ‘I’m coming in to knock the door off the hinges to ensure that I won’t be the last,” said POCI co-chair Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, on Monday.

With POCI Caucus leadership this year, the DFL prioritized closing some of the worst racial gaps in the nation when it comes to income, housing, health and education.

Many of the new members come out of the world of organizing. In Frazier’s case, the teachers’ union.

The DFL trifecta of 2013-14, by contrast, comprised very different caucuses. Although they did a lot — legalizing gay marriage and adding a fourth income tax tier, for instance — they also took a pass on a number of more contentious issues, with an eye on protecting their majorities, which relied on a still-robust rural contingent.

Many of those rural DFL members lost in 2014. What they lost in rural areas in 2014, however, they won in the suburbs in 2018. And, thus, two decades after the rest of the country — Minnesotans tend to take their time — the Democrats became more urban and suburban, young, diverse and ideologically coherent.

How and why did the Minnesota DFL move to the left, from a white working class, socially moderate party to one of the most hard-charging progressive state parties in the country?

Consider the past 20 years: The George W. Bush administration took us into war in Iraq, which was poorly conceived and disastrously executed. It eroded American influence and credibility while leading to a human rights catastrophe.

In 2008, the collapse of the great casino called Wall Street followed decades of deregulation, when Republicans and some credulous Democrats decided we no longer needed rules that had been in place since the Great Depression. And who got bailed out when the whole thing collapsed?

The subsequent recovery — designed by centrist economists like Larry Summers — left the country’s economic order largely in place. Which is to say, more than 10 million American children living in poverty.

A series of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black men highlighted what Black and Indigenous folks long knew — that “protect and serve” were too often just words while the reality on the street was at times far more brutal.

And then came Donald Trump. Republicans selected a wannabe authoritarian, and then when all signs pointed to his menace, they stuck by him.

All this was happening while the largest cohort in American history was coming of age. They also had no memory and likely scant education in the stagflation that cost President Jimmy Carter a second term; the rising crime that accompanied heroin and crack epidemics in the ’70s and ’80s; or the brutal use of homophobia as a political weapon.

Which is to say, no experience with inflation, rising crime and the culture war contributing to two terms of Ronald Reagan and another for his vice president.

So what you get is a governing coalition that is younger, more urban and suburban, more diverse and more ideologically certain.

The big bet

What I’m getting at here is that Democrats came into the session ready to bet on themselves and their policies.

There’s been very little hedging or reluctance around political or for that matter economic consequences.

They’re betting that a Scandinavian model, in which we pay higher taxes but are guaranteed benefits like education, health care, transit and paid leave, will nudge people to be healthier, better educated, more productive. The programs will lead to human flourishing: People will want to move here and stay here and have babies. Minnesota forever.

It’s a big bet. And even if properly conceived, it can go very wrong.

If we’re pouring $1 billion into housing, and more than $2 billion of new money into schools, and raising sales taxes for roads, it all needs to work. We should have more affordable housing, more children should be proficient in reading and math, and fewer potholes.

In other words: The work has just begun.

Minnesota Reformer is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Patrick Coolican for questions: Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.