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Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here. This article was written by John C. "Chuck" Chalberg of Bloomington.


Just who are our legislators? And who were they? Such questions led me to undertake a brief historical tour. The result is a rhetorical snapshot of the composition of two Minnesota legislatures: our current edition and its counterpart following the election of 1970 when legislators caucused as liberals or conservatives, rather than DFLers and Republicans.

Some of the following numbers will be more surprising than others. And some won't be surprising at all. But there are important differences, both between then and now and between the two caucuses — especially now.

No specific names will be mentioned, save for noting that the 1971 session contained no less than five future or former congressmen, liberals Bruce Vento, Alec Olson and Martin Sabo, conservatives Arlan Stangeland and Tom Hagedorn, as well as a future governor, Arne Carlson.

The most glaring difference between then and now should not be at all surprising. The entire complement of legislators in 1971 was white and male, save for a Native American who caucused with the conservatives and a lone liberal woman whose designated "occupation" was "housewife."

The current Legislature is much more racially diverse, especially on the DFL side of the aisle. No surprise there. The DFL majority is now also majority female in the House (38-32) and Senate (19-15). The corresponding numbers for the GOP are 16-48 in the House and 3-30 in the Senate.

There is a gap of a different sort on a somewhat related tabulation, namely the total number of offspring. The real gap is between then and now. In 1971, discounting the five legislators who were elected as nonpartisans, 102 conservatives had had 390 children, while 93 liberals totaled 339, or 3.8 per member vs. 3.6. Not a huge difference at all.

The corresponding numbers for our current Legislature are smaller and the gap is larger. One hundred and four DFLers have a total of 176 offspring, or below two per member. Ninety seven GOP members are parents of 259, or 2.8 per member. The Republican number is aided by a member with 12, followed another with 10, another with eight, five with six and eight with five. The best any DFLer can do is one with six and three with five.

To some extent this discrepancy might be a function of age. But the age difference is actually quite small. In the 1971 session there were six liberals under 30, while the conservatives had only two. In the most recent session each party had four members who were not yet 30.

Between the ages of 31 and 40 there is a slight difference between liberals (25) and conservatives (18) in 1971, and no difference between DFLers and Republicans (each with 21) currently. The numbers for each subsequent 10-year swath are also very similar, both then and now, as well as between the two parties.

Religious affiliation, or lack thereof, reveals slightly greater differences. Lutherans outnumbered Catholics 59 to 47 in 1971. Today Catholics top Lutherans, but in much smaller numbers (22-16). The numbers for other Protestant denominations have shrunk as well. There were 18 in 1971, but only 11 today. On the other hand, there was a lone Jewish member in 1971, but there are seven today.

Those members choosing not to list any religion affiliation, whether out of indifference or privacy, have risen significantly. Twenty-seven members of each caucus declined to list a religious denomination in 1971. The corresponding numbers for current members is significantly higher. Seventy-two DFLers did not fill in that blank, while 51 GOPers did the same.

Perhaps the most compelling contrasts, both between the two parties and the two eras, concern education, employment and military service.

In 1971, there were 22 conservative House members and eight senators who had completed only a high school education. A handful of those 30 did attend college, but most simply ended their formal education with high school. Twenty-one liberal House members and nine senators fell into the same category.

Conservative House and Senate members totaled 39 B.A. or B.S. degrees, while 30 liberals followed suite. These numbers are quite different when applied to the two parties today. Eighty-four current House and Senate DFLers have a B.A. or B.S., while the Republican total is 57.

Legislators with an M.A. tell a somewhat different story. In the 1971 session five liberals and five conservatives held that degree. Currently, it's 16 DFLers and four Republicans.

Shifting directly to occupations, lawyers led the way in the 1971 session. The conservative caucus was 30 attorneys strong, with the liberal caucus numbering 21. Fast-forward to 2023 and the numbers are dramatically different. The DFL weighs in with 21 again, but there are only four GOP lawyer lawmakers.

A rundown of other occupations reveals some important differences between then and now, as well as between the two parties now. Once again combining the two houses, the 1971 liberal caucus included 19 farmers and seven skilled tradesmen. In addition, there were 15 educators, while another 21 were involved in a business of some type. There were also two dentists and two doctors, as well as a judge, a banker, a rector, a grad student, a union representative and a veterinarian.

The 1971 conservative caucus topped the liberals with 29 farmers, plus one skilled tradesman. Thirty conservative legislators were involved in a business of some sort. There were also five educators, three policemen, a banker, an engineer, a CPA, a veterinarian, a pilot and a consultant. In sum, the differences between the two caucuses were relatively minor.

Not so today. The DFL legislative contingent today has neither a single farmer nor a single skilled tradesman. The GOP numbers 10 farmers plus two tradesmen (a carpenter and an electrician).

The numbers in the small single digits are nearly as revealing. The DFL roster includes four full time "legislators," three listed as "government," three more consultants, three nonprofiteers, two doctors, a paramedic, a director of health safety, a "health care philanthropist," a housing advocate, a community organizer, a policy analyst and a policy director, a volunteer coordinator, a community relations officer, a "gender justice" advocate, a library specialist, a writer and a leadership coach.

The GOP counters with no full-time legislators, but it does offer a "legislative consultant." There are eight educators and seven retirees, as well as three "homemakers," three policemen, plus another involved in cybersecurity. Among the very small single digits are two engineers and two chiropractors, a church administrator and a pastor, a pilot, wildlife biologist, a videographer, an auctioneer and a lone nonprofiteer.

One more area of significant difference concerns military service, both then and now, as well as between the two parties. The 1971 Legislature contained 43 conservative House members and 17 senators who were veterans. Liberal legislators included 22 lower house and 19 upper house veterans.

The corresponding numbers today are a total of 13 GOP veterans in both houses. The DFL has a lone female veteran in the Senate and a lone male veteran in the House.

This snapshot might or might not explain policy positions or actions. But it could lead to a wider understanding of what diversity should also mean. It might also lead the DFL to consider rebranding itself as the DGL, with the G for government and the L for lawyers and legislators. Lastly, in a brief departure from the no-names promise, this snapshot surely does help explain why the total number of Johnsons, Andersons, Hansons, Carlsons and Olsons dropped from 22 in 1971 to a mere eight today.

John C. "Chuck" Chalberg writes from Bloomington.