Vote this Tuesday to seize the present opportunity to solve this state’s chronic problems, not to soothe overwrought fear of change, I counseled Minnesotans in this space last week.
Then came more than a dozen mailed pipe bombs to prominent U.S. liberals and the murders of 11 elderly Jews in their own synagogue in Pittsburgh — both crimes apparently committed by men who had consumed large doses of fearmongering political rhetoric. Then came more attacks on a free press, more hostility toward asylum-seekers, and more zeal to strip citizenship from immigrants’ American-born children regardless of the U.S. Constitution — all by the president of the United States.
Permit an addendum to this campaign season’s closing argument. In light of last week’s news, I now submit that the good citizen-stewards of this fragile republic have one overarching duty in this election. They must use their votes to reject hate.
Events of the past 10 days have raised an alarm in me and, evidently, in many others about the nation’s current capacity to govern itself democratically and peaceably. An NPR/PBS/Marist poll last week found nearly 80 percent of voters worried that a harsh political divide is leading to violence and/or terrorism.
If more of that happens, history teaches, frightened people will turn to tyranny to seek protection. History also says that tyrants exact a terrible price for protection that does not last.
If voters this week reward politicians who demonize entire groups of people on account of their race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin or political creed, “it’s a green light for the next violent act,” agreed state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.
“We’re at an inflection point — maybe even a tipping point. If we don’t stand up now and push back hard and successfully, I’m worried how far down this hole we’ll go.”
I called Latz in the wake of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue for an update on his work to keep guns out of the hands of unfit people. The attorney and former chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee was a leader in last session’s unsuccessful efforts to require background checks of more gun purchasers and allow courts to deny guns to people deemed to be a hazard to themselves or others. Latz managed to enlist a pair of suburban Republican senators to his cause. But GOP/NRA resistance, particularly in the state House, doomed his efforts.
He intends to keep pressing for those changes in 2019. “There’s been a tremendous amount of grass-roots activism on reducing gun violence this year,” he said. He’s seen ordinary citizens overcome special-interest money on other issues and thinks it can happen again.
But I also wanted to ask this thoughtful lifelong public servant — a 55-year-old, Harvard-educated former assistant attorney general and city council member and a 16-year legislator — what it’s like to be a Jew in Donald Trump’s America.
“It feels a little bit like being under attack,” he said. During the last week in particular, anti-Semitism “feels closer.” Latz said he was still reeling from the fact that in 2018 America, elderly people walked into their own house of faith and were gunned down because of where they worshiped.
I almost chimed in to say that what had happened was un-American. But then I thought about centuries of African-American slavery, the maltreatment of Native Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans — and in this state, the 1862 expulsion of the Dakota, the abuse of German-Americans in World War I, and the lynching of three African-American circus workers in Duluth in 1920.
Undeniably, racial bigotry and violence are part of America’s story. But so is the striving of ordinary people to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence (“… all men are created equal …”) and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee (“… equal protection of the laws”).
The war between those narratives isn’t just in the history books. It’s in today’s headlines. It’s on Tuesday’s ballots.
When I caught up with Latz, he had just been at a news conference at which he had joined other gun-safety advocates in calling out Republican attorney general candidate Doug Wardlow for changing his tune on background checks. Wardlow had said in a KSTP-TV debate on Oct. 21 that he supported background checks for all gun purchasers. Within a week, he was saying just the opposite.
Latz has familial reason for interest in the attorney general’s race. His father, Robert Latz, a former state representative and the author of the 2007 book “Jews in Minnesota Politics,” was an unsuccessful DFL candidate for the office in 1966.
But there’s more to the son’s antipathy for Wardlow than guns and family history. Latz said he’s disturbed by the Republican candidate’s history of opposing same-sex marriage as a state legislator and working as legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Christian group that has defended businesses that refuse to serve gay people. Several of Wardlow’s former high school classmates say that as a student, he was cruel to a gay classmate who attempted suicide, a charge Wardlow denies.
“It seems entirely consistent, from youth to adulthood, that this is a core value of Wardlow’s,” Latz said. “To me, it’s abominable.”
Latz said he has no such qualms about the DFL attorney general candidate, Keith Ellison. As colleagues in the Minnesota House, they were allies in pressing the House Ethics Committee to sanction a Republican, Rep. Arlon Lindner from Corcoran, who had questioned whether gays and lesbians were persecuted by the Nazis and had sought the repeal of a state law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, saying he wanted to save America from becoming “another African continent.” (The Ethics Committee deadlocked in a party-line tie.)
Latz knows that Ellison’s long-ago link with the openly anti-Semitic Rev. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam makes some people nervous, even though Ellison publicly renounced the Nation of Islam a dozen years ago.
“I do not for a moment believe that Keith is anti-Semitic,” Latz said. “I think Keith and many others were once attracted to [Farrakhan’s] message of self-empowerment … . I’ve literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Keith, fighting prejudice and hate.”
The next chapter in America’s fight against prejudice and hate will be written this week. What the nation’s elected leaders say and do in this fight matters. What Minnesota’s best leaders — especially the clergy, of all faiths — said and did in response to the Tree of Life tragedy matters. What each citizen posts on social media or does to affirm the humanity of people of another color or tradition matters.
But as long as this democracy holds, what will matter more is what each voter says with the ballot choices he or she makes. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that at this moment, in this election, a vote against hate is also a vote to shore up American democracy.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.