Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Minnesota Impacts National Politics

As a middle-sized state, Minnesota sends only eight members to the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, the state escaped losing one of those seats only by a few thousand persons counted in the recent 2010 census.

As sometimes happens, however, the state’s politicians seems to have an outsized importance in Washington, DC, and across the nation.

One noteworthy measure of this is that the state has two significant politicians in the running for the GOP nomination for president in 2012. (No other state has as many). One of them, recently retired Governor Tim Pawlenty, is already acknowledged to be one of the most serious contenders; and the other, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, has been gobbling up national attention as the “Tea Party:” candidate while she chalks up noticeable numbers in recent polls, and in fundraising cash in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But other members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, especially Republicans, are having impact on national public policy.

Most notable of these is the new dean of the state GOP delegation, Congressman John Kline of the 2nd District, a suburban and rural area to the north and east of the Twin Cities. Kline, a retired Marine colonel who carried the nuclear “football” for Presidents Carter and Reagan, has established himself as one of the heavy hitters in Washington. As the new chairman of the Education and Veterans Affairs house committee, he is the new power player dealing with the national education crisis. In a short time, he has already signaled that he will bring new ideas to the table, and be a force to be reckoned with. Kline brings a personal “likability” quality combined with strong intelligence and self-discipline, to the job, although it took him three tries to win the job in 2002. After the GOP lost the house in 2008, Mr. Kline continued to rise quickly in his caucus leadership, finally being named chair of the same committee previously led by the new speaker, John Boehner. With a personal integrity to match his “likability,” Kline is held in very high respect on both sides of the aisle, even as he maintains a solid conservative outlook on legislation (long before it became fashionable, he declared he would not promote earmarks in his district. Democrats thought he made a blunder, but in the next election found out otherwise).

Colin Peterson is the new dean of the Democratic (called the Democratic- Farmer-Labor Party or DFL) delegation from Minnesota, and although he is no longer chairman of the important agriculture committee, he is the ranking minority member with a conservative voting record (he was one of only two Democratic committee chairman who voted against Obamacare) Mr, Peterson represents what otherwise would be a GOP district and is likely to continue being one of the most conservative Democratic members in the U.S. house,
as well as maintaining some influence there.

Of course, Minnesota (like most of the other states) will now see some key changes in its congressional boundaries as a result of reapportionment. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in the 6th District, may see one of the largest changes her district’s borders. Bachmann, a former tax attorney and mother of 17 (5 natural children, 12 adopted), is easily the most outlandish (though not necessarily the most controversial) Minnesota member of Congress. She early embraced the so-called “Tea Party” and has now become one of its most popular spokespersons as she crosses the nation in a purported campaign for president. (She is causing Mr. Pawlenty nightmares in Iowa.) Next year, however, she will almost certainly have to return to her congressional race, unless she decides to run for the U.S. senate seat now held by Amy Klobuchar.

Chip Cravaack came out of nowhere in 2010, and upset one of the “undefeatable senior Democrats in the house, 17-term Jiim Oberstar, then chairman of the powerful transportation committee. A solid conservative, Mr. Cravaack does represent a blue collar Democratic district, but redistricting is likely to help him. DFLers are already having trouble finding a home-grown opponent for him.

Senator Klobuchar, a first-term DFLer, has made a positive impression among her colleagues in the senate, where her party is still in the majority. She is expected to have a relatively easy re-election in 2012 because she quickly mastered the technique which marked the success of some of her predecessors in both parties, i.e., appearing to be more centrist than her voting record. She serves on the Judiciary committee, the Science and Transportation committee, among others. (A Klobuchar vs. Bachmann race in 2012 would be colorful spectacle nontheless.)

One of the least public members of the Minnesota delegation, Republican Erik Paulsen, is quietly building respect in the house, and like Bill Frenzel (who represented the district years before, might become a powerful behind-the-scenes member in Congress. Unfortunately, the DFL incumbents in districts 2 (southern Minnesota), 4 (St. Paul) and 5 (Minneapolis) have so far proved to be disappointments compared to their DFL predecessors. Tim Walz is no Tim Penny; Betty McCollum is no Bruce Vento; and Keith Ellison is no Martin Sabo. Nor is Mrs. Bachmann as significant as Vin Weber was.

Mr. Weber, incidentally, continues in private life to be a major player in the nation’s capital where he is a consultant. Mr. Weber was co-chair of John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, principal policy adviser to Mitt Romney in 2008, and is expected to bring significant firepower to TIm Pawlenty’s 2012 campaign.

Finally, Tim Pawlenty has come from seemingly nowhere to be a major contender for the presidency in 2012. He was reportedly the other finalist for John McCain’s 2008 vice presidential choice. (Perhaps like John F. Kennedy’s failed 1956 bid to be Adlai Stevenson’s vice president, it was a stroke of luck. Kennnedy, if he had beaten Estes Kefauver in 1956, probably would not have been able to win his party’s nomination in 1960.) Losing vice presidential candidates are rarely heard from again (FDR was the rare exception).

It would be an historic irony if it were blue collar conservative Republican Pawlenty who succeeded where more liberal Minnesota historic figures Harold Stassen, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale had failed.

What has changed about Minnesota’s national reputation in the post-World War II period through the 1980’s, personified by liberals Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Orville Freeman, is that its national influence is now primarily on the conservative side of the aisle. This could change again over time, but for now, it is Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Kline and Mrs. Bachmann who generate headlines, controversies and stories across the nation.

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