Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

Minnesota wants a dog.

State lawmakers made the case for one the other week and they were persuasive: Dogs are great. Lots of other states have dogs. Minnesotans are very responsible and would take good care of their dog — just like in 1965, when the Legislature gave us a state fish.

So black Labradors romped around the Capitol rotunda last week in one of the most effective displays of lobbying St. Paul has ever seen.

“These dogs are good looking, they’re sleek, they’re sinewy, they’re fast, they’re strong,” said state Sen. David Tomassoni, laying out the strongest arguments for adding the black Lab to the list of official state symbols. Massachusetts has the Boston terrier. Wisconsin has a water spaniel. Now it’s Minnesota’s turn.

But some Minnesotans met the news of their proposed dog with skepticism. Why Labs? Why not pugs or poodles or rescue mutts or my dog or the sundogs that gleam in the sky on very cold days?

These slapfights break out at the Capitol every time Minnesota tries to pick an official state thing. The battle over the state mammal — white-tailed deer vs. Eastern timber wolf — has raged for four decades.

Every once in a while, someone pitches a different state mammal. The noble gopher. The thirteen-lined ground squirrel. A troupe of first-graders from Andover Elementary hit the Capitol a few years ago, clutching teddy bears and pleading the case for the black bear.

Those little lobbyists walked right into a legislative buzz saw.

“It got so political,” marveled their teacher Dana Coleman, whose students ran up against united front of indifferent lawmakers, uneasy hunters, leery state administrators and entrenched supporters of the deer, wolf and gopher lobbies.

The first-graders tried their best.

They testified before the state Senate, explaining what they’d learned by watching a mama bear and cubs on a bear cam up in Ely. It turns out there are very few lessons — from reading to science to how to get along on the playground — that can’t be improved by the addition of bears. You have three cubs and two leave the den; what fraction is left?

One day, as the class was discussing how bears climb trees for shelter during thunderstorms, Coleman mentioned that the tree — a Norway pine — is Minnesota’s state tree.

“What’s a state tree?” the students asked.

One question led to another and soon they were researching all the symbols Minnesota has chosen to show itself off at its best.

When they learned there was no state mammal, the bear campaign began.

Sympathetic lawmakers introduced bear bills in 2011 and again in 2012. The bills tanked — fluff, their critics called them.

But for Coleman, who retired in 2012 after 35 years in the classroom, and her students, those were great years.

“It was a wonderful lesson,” said Coleman, who now works at Hamline University, placing a new generation of student teachers in classrooms. “They got so much out of [the experience], they really did. It was the best.”

Her students, she said, “learned that as long as you use your voice, you have a chance.”

And if you use your voice and the answer is “no,’’ well, that’s a good lesson too.

“Not everything’s going to work, nor should it,” she said.

The Minnesota Legislature doesn’t crush every schoolchild’s dream. In 1988, a class of third-graders from South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton successfully lobbied to get blueberry muffins named Minnesota’s official muffin.

Rep. Mary Murphy wrote the bill, Gov. Rudy Perpich signed it and now we’re all stuck with blueberry as our official muffin, even though there are clearly other muffins out there that are more delicious.

This is Minnesota and the loon is our bird, the lady slipper is our flower and the walleye is our fish. Hockey is our sport, milk is our drink and Honeycrisp apples are, by law, our fruit.

There are plenty of other official-thing vacancies left to left fill once the Legislature picks out a dog. Over the years, lawmakers have unsuccessfully pitched Cold Spring as the official state beer, purple as the state color, leeches as Minnesota’s official parasite and the late, great harness racer Dan Patch as the state horse.

The greatest missed opportunity came in 1973, when some clever soul pitched the wood tick as the state animal. Put it next to the official state bird and you get Minnesota: The Loon-and-Tick state.

To see the full list of Minnesota’s official symbols, visit: leg.state.mn.us/leg/Symbols.

Symbols that didn’t make the cut are collected here: leg.state.mn.us/leg/unsym.