Lori Sturdevant
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Minnesota’s big day in the national spotlight is brought to you by … the Metropolitan Council?

OK, that’s a reach too far. But this isn’t: The same mid-20th-century awakening of regional identity and cooperation that gave birth to the Metropolitan Council 50 years ago also deserves credit for Minnesota’s acquisition of both a Major League Baseball and a National Football League franchise in 1961.

In fact, one can fairly claim that the Twin Cities regional story started with sports. A Harper’s Magazine article in 1969 titled “The Minnesota experiment: How to make a big city fit to live in” argued that “on the sports pages appeared the first sprouts of civic wisdom” in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

That story is worth telling on a day in which regionalism’s fruits are on vivid display — and in an election year in which one party’s candidates have been spotted wearing buttons with a slash through the words “Met Council.” Regionalism’s future and the Metropolitan Council’s role in it will be big themes in this year’s races for governor and the Legislature.

Council chair Alene Tchourumoff told a bit of the story in her State of the Region address at the council’s 50th anniversary bash on Jan. 25. There’s good reason that the Minnesota Twins’ logo depicts two jolly baseball players, Minnie and Paul, reaching across a river to shake hands, Tchourumoff said. It reflects the change in mind-set that was required to convince baseball’s moguls to move the Washington Senators to Minnesota.

The 1969 Harper’s article by journalist John Fischer accurately relates that for the first 100 or so years of their existence, Minneapolis and St. Paul were “implacable rivals.”

“This rivalry began to subside only when both of them were hit over the head, so to speak, with a baseball bat,” Fischer wrote. “Each, in an effort to get ahead of the other, tried to get a major-league baseball franchise. Both were rebuffed. To their chagrin, they realized that they could not get or support a big-league team in baseball — or football or hockey — unless they operated it jointly as a Twin Cities venture.”

The regional light bulb didn’t go on all at once. The Minute Men (this was before feminist consciousness-raising was a thing) was a sports recruitment and boosters’ group created in Minneapolis in 1954. It played a major role in convincing the NFL to give Minnesota an expansion franchise, going so far as to host Chicago Cardinals games (yes, the Cardinals were once a Chicago team) in Met Stadium in November 1959. A St. Paul chapter was founded in 1960, in time to welcome the Twins and the Vikings. The two clubs operated separately until — incredibly — 1995.

Tom Swain, who headed the St. Paul Convention Bureau in the 1950s, advised his close personal friend Sid Hartman at about the same time that the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team (which Sid not only covered for this newspaper but also helped manage) would draw more fans from St. Paul if it would change its name to the Minnesota Lakers. Sid scoffed; the poorly attended Lakers left for Los Angeles in 1960; and Swain watched in the ensuing years as every sports franchise and even the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra attached “Minnesota” to its name.

Similarly, problems with municipal jurisdictions (and municipal sewage) encroaching on their neighbors weren’t addressed in a single legislative stroke. State Sen. Elmer L. Andersen, a future Republican governor, first proposed a purely advisory Metropolitan Planning Commission in 1953; it wasn’t enacted until 1957.

Andersen scored something important when he secured property taxing authority for the commission. But it lacked the authority to, for example, tell one suburban city it could not put a landfill near another city’s school. It took the urban orientation of the 1967 Legislature — the first modern-era session, coming after a 1966 court-ordered redistricting that was a half-century overdue — to create a body that could “coordinate the planning and development of the metropolitan area comprising the counties of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington,” as the Metropolitan Council’s 1967 enabling legislation specified.

The Met Council grew into a highly effective, award-winning provider of public infrastructure and services — transit, wastewater treatment, airports, parks, regional planning. It also grew into (the metaphor is irresistible) a political football, kicked with increasing frequency and ferocity in recent years by Republican politicians and occasionally by a suburban DFLer or two. Their argument: It’s too big, it’s too powerful, and as a gubernatorially appointed body, it’s too lacking in accountability to the people it serves.

That argument was already predictable in 1969. “It is important that the council members eventually should be elected rather than appointed by the governor,” Fischer wrote. “Only then will it become a truly responsible — and responsive — instrument of government.”

That’s what this newspaper’s Editorial Board argued for at least half of the council’s first 50 years — until even election-loving journalists began to wonder whether more multimillion-dollar campaigns awash in special-interest money would truly produce an improvement in governance.

Most Republicans aren’t calling for an elected Met Council today. Rather, they’re threatening to “dismantle the Met Council and start over,” as gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson argues. Plans that replace gubernatorial appointees with locally elected or locally appointed members are afoot.

A former council chair and national policy consultant with a Republican pedigree — Curt Johnson, who served during Gov. Arne Carlson’s administration — believes some change to increase the voice of local governments in regional governance is now inevitable. “Local governments feel like they are second-class citizens in making regional decisions,” he said as part of a panel at the council’s 50th birthday party. That sense will build until it is somehow addressed, he predicted.

Those words from one of Johnson’s stature are bound to echo in this fall’s gubernatorial debate. Those who quote him ought not overlook what he said next: Any change “must preserve a regional perspective. That’s the thing that is distinctive about the council. That’s the thing without which you don’t have anything. That has to be preserved at all costs.”

Elected officials are constitutionally, morally and politically obliged to represent the people who elect them. Ask locally elected officials to serve on the Metropolitan Council, too, and regional thinking will always be secondary to them.

Regional thinking brought Minnesota its professional sports teams, protected its clean water, expanded its airport, built its transit system. Regional thinking has been essential to bringing the Super Bowl here. And regional thinking is too important to Minnesota’s future to fall into political disfavor.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.