I’m writing this after having just watched the third (and thankfully last) of the 2016 presidential debates. As an elected leader, citizen and father, I am saddened and alarmed by the ugliness, crudity and divisiveness of our current politics.
We are better than this. We can turn the corner on cynicism and realize the promise of this great state of ours. In these unprecedented times, the next Legislature’s top priority must be to repair the divisions the last two years have created. Instead of tearing down the opposition, we should harness our Minnesota instinct to pull together and give more Minnesotans reason to be optimistic about their place in a better future.
Why has this ugly divisiveness emerged? Certainly, it arose in part from political rhetoric that marginalizes and demeans Americans based on their race, religion, gender and geography. Voters should demand that all candidates, regardless of party, stand up to and denounce such hateful rhetoric. It has no place in our politics. A good first step in addressing this would be to pass meaningful campaign-finance reform to shine a light on the millions in secretive spending that distorts our politics and make sure those who use such intolerant language for political advantage can be held publicly accountable.
We must also acknowledge that our divisions are rooted in something real. Too many of our neighbors have a hard time seeing themselves in the picture being painted of our future. Small towns see their young people leaving for schools or jobs and not returning. People of color and Native Americans continue to struggle under and against the weight of historical racism. Middle-aged men and women who played by the rules all their lives see their economic security pulled out from under them. Young people live in the shadows of a mountain of debt and an uncertain future.
The next Legislature’s job is to expand the frame of that picture of our future so everyone can find their place in it. We do that by creating an economy that works for all Minnesotans who are willing to work hard, not just the well-connected few.
That means offering serious solutions to the realities that squeeze family budgets — child care costs, college tuition, retirement savings, prescription drugs and health care premiums. Finger-pointing and partisan bickering won’t cut it. As an example, House Democrats put forward the first concrete proposal to provide immediate relief for Minnesotans who are facing large premium increases on the individual market. Our plan caps premiums at 10 percent of annual income — a practical solution that will help families now. We invite House Republicans to set aside political expediency and join us in problem-solving so we can get the job done.
Broadening the frame also means reimagining economic security for a future in which Minnesotans can no longer rely on one employer to provide a lifetime of benefits. It means policies like paid time off that allow all families to put food on the table and also to be there at the table for their kids. And it means acknowledging and seriously addressing racial and gender inequity in our communities.
Another aspect of this politics of division in Minnesota seems uniquely destructive: the cynical effort to push Minnesotans into corners of geographic suspicion and distrust. This is a big state, and legitimate regional disagreements and grievances exist among us. But those differences should be the start of the discussion, not the end. As a wise woman at a Willmar broadband forum told me: “People who have good high-speed internet should want those that don’t have it to get it, because the more people that are connected, the more valuable each person’s connection is.” So true! If legislators adopted that attitude when addressing our geographic differences, we’d all be better off for it.
But we cannot address these priorities unless we also fundamentally change the way legislators do business at the Capitol. The Minnesota House has not performed well over the last two years. If politics is about getting things done that matter to ordinary people, the Legislature has failed. Backroom deals and brinkmanship led to consecutive legislative sessions that ended in a rushed flurry of chaos. No tax bill, bonding bill, or comprehensive transportation bill. Just as we don’t accept it when employees or students don’t get their work done, we should not accept it from politicians, either.
More troubling, the lack of transparency shuts out the voices of ordinary Minnesotans, letting well-connected special interests get their way. How else could Republicans cut taxes for big tobacco and insurance companies and the wealthiest Minnesotans instead of providing tax relief for middle-class homeowners, or making further investments in our kids and their schools? We believe that including the voices of more Minnesotans will produce a better result for all Minnesotans. That’s our promise.
Republicans will tell you we can’t afford to put Democrats in charge of the House because too much will get done. They say Minnesotans should elect them to continue the gridlock of the last two years — what they call “balance.” That’s a pretty uninspiring vision.
Instead, let’s seize a brighter future that rejects the divisiveness and gridlock of the last two years and instead builds a Minnesota that calls upon, and generously rewards, the best within each of us. House Democrats are asking you for that chance on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is minority leader of the Minnesota House.