Column: Are we still ‘Minnesota Nice’ and is that good or bad?

By CHUCK SLOCUM – Guest Columnist

I have long viewed the term “Minnesota Nice” as a kind of cultural jargon indicative of the overall pleasantness of the people of our state.

At least some others have postulated that it is really all about “phoniness and passive aggression” dating to Scandinavian immigrants who settled here seven or more decades ago.  They understood, it is said, that people should not present themselves as exceptional even if they are.

A forum sponsored by The Minnesota Legislative Society ­— a group of former state lawmakers with some members dating to service over a half century ago — recently corralled three journalists with deep experience as State Capitol reporters asking them to share their opinions on a range of subjects that included multiple references to Minnesota Nice.

As a guest at this meeting, I took some notes about how both the panelists and the one-time insiders felt about the current conditions regarding political civility and effectiveness.

Here are my observations of what was shared regarding the changes in Minnesota’s two house legislature, each controlled by Republicans while six-year incumbent DFLer Mark Dayton serves as governor.

Minnesota Nice remains

While the electorate is more polarized now, the traditional view of the good guy “Minnesota Nice” remains when compared to other states and Washington D.C.

More women and minorities are winning elections at state and local levels, resulting in greater diversity, but fewer working people with private sector experience are seeking office.

While out of public view key decisions remain a staple of state politics, finding common ground used to mean “deals were made in the middle” and that phenomenon is less common in a more sharply partisan political environment.

There remains “chicanery”  largely because the single subject law-making requirement is repeatedly violated sometimes resulting in confusing, uninformed, back room, pork barrel politics.

Advent of social media rallies people

Challenging this secrecy is the advent of social media, especially the iPhone and its various apps that allow the public to directly observe and respond rapidly to previously unknown legislative proposals, often causing a snow ball of public opinion especially on ideas viewed unfavorably by the public.

Lawmakers are getting older perhaps because retirees are able to afford legislative service at $30,000 a year even as the 1972 passed constitutional amendment allowing annual sessions has made the job almost full time.  Key staff who operate government, too, are not getting any younger.

The current impasse between a line-item vetoing DFL governor and GOP legislative leaders who filed court actions to prevent having their operating appropriations canceled “is a story of two wrongs not making anything right,” according to one experienced TV reporter.

It should be generally accepted that things have changed after a half century of having the courts implement redistricting because legislators and governors have been unable to find agreement. Realignment every 10 years is required to create constitutionally equally populated House (134) and Senate (67) districts.

Though in some ways Minnesota is an exception, public affairs reporting is being diminished as the economics of companies owning newspapers, TV and radio stations are financially challenged to make a profit due largely to outside social media competition filling the news hole for many younger citizens.

State Capitol restoration a success

Most attending the forum agreed that bipartisan teamwork won out in the completion of the multi-year $310 million State Capitol renovation of the 1905 Capitol building by restoring its grandeur, including amazing artwork from yesteryear.

Minnesotans are invited to experience all of this at a free grand opening Aug. 11-13.

It promises to be a family friendly party for all the nice Minnesotans.

(Minnetonkan Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm; he is a former state chair of Minnesota Republicans and was once executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. Contact him by e-mail Chuck@WillistonGroup.com)