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Meeting with Dan Dorman
Civic Caucus, 8301 Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, February 2, 2007
Guest speaker: Former State Rep. Dan Dorman,
Albert Lea Republican
Attendance: Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (by phone),
John Mooty (by phone), Jim Olson (by phone), John Rollwagen
A. Context of the meeting: As part of
its review of the elections process and its connection to polarization and
paralysis, today the Civic Caucus is looking at the role of the
legislative leadership in Minnesota in running campaigns for legislators.
B. Welcome and introduction--Paul
welcomed Dan Dorman, who retired voluntarily from the State Legislature in
2006. Dorman has commented frequently on Civic Caucus summaries and
participated in many surveys conducted by the Civic Caucus. Dorman owns a
tire and auto service business in Albert Lea, MN. First elected to the
Minnesota House in 1998, he served for eight years on the Tax Committee
and was chair of the Capital Investment Committee for the last two years.
He has a BA political science from the University of Minnesota.
C. Comments and discussion--In
Dorman's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Shift in responsibility for conducting
legislative campaigns--In years past political parties played a
much larger role in individual races for the State Legislature, Dorman
said. But active participation in parties declined at the local level.
Moreover, the people who remained active tended to be more extreme in
their views. As the base for conducting individual races at the local
level declined, the legislative caucuses at the state level stepped in.
What this means, of course, is that the local legislative races now are
conducted more from central offices of the legislative caucuses in St.
Paul than at the local level.
2. Change in the significance of the impact
locally of a statewide decision--As a consequence of the shift,
we now see that the impact locally takes on less significance. To
illustrate this point, Dorman referred back to when the State Legislature,
at Governor Ventura's urging, replaced most school property tax levies
with state aid. But, Dorman said, the Legislature did nothing to halt the
right of school districts to conduct excess levy referendums. He recalled
making a motion to discontinue the excess levies after six years, but he
only received about 13 or 14 votes in support out of a total of 134 House
members . Thus, he said, it is clear that the Legislature never intended
to provide 100 percent of school funding from the state, with no local
funding. But if you listened to the tone of many campaigns last year, Gov.
Pawlenty and Republicans were to blame for the need for excess levies.
3. A disconnect between issues at the local and
state level--What is happening now, he said, is that candidates
for office in a legislative district are trying to reflect views of voters
in the district, but the state-wide legislative caucus is running the
campaign based on statewide interests, which might be different from those
at the local level.
4. Control of spending campaign dollars is highly
centralized--A Civic Caucus member noted that yesterday's paper
reported that the four legislative caucuses (House and Senate DFL caucuses
and House and Senate Republican caucuses) spent a combined $8.5 million on
legislative races in 2006. That is over $40,000 a seat, and since at least
1/3 of the seats are not competitive, it would be over $60,000 per seat in
which a caucus got involved. Each caucus sets up a campaign committee. A
small group of legislators in each legislative caucus makes policy and
oversees the staff. Other legislators have very little impact on the work
of the caucus campaign committees.
The legislative caucuses usually concentrate their funding on races that
are the most competitive. However, Dorman noted that the legislative
caucuses will also spend money on selected "safe" seats, depending upon
the desires of the group that is overseeing the distribution of the funds.
5. Impact on how individual legislators vote--With
campaign financing heavily concentrated in the legislative caucus, it is
now extremely difficult for an individual legislator, who was elected with
financial support of the caucus, to do anything but vote for the caucus
position in the Legislature. Consequently, the campaign financing system
re-enforces the strength of the caucus and, thereby, contributes to
polarization. Dorman recalls that some members thought that incoming
freshmen should not be able to vote for leadership for the next two years
since the current leaders had played such a big role in getting the new
members elected. Such a rule would further concentrate power by making it
hard to change leadership from session to session, he said.
6. Distortion of candidates' positions in
campaigns--With the legislative caucuses heavily involved in
local races, local candidates find themselves having to defend
state-caucus-prepared campaign brochures attacking the opposition, even
though the local candidates and own campaign committee might not want to
make such attacks, let alone support them.
In the 2006 campaign for Dorman's seat, for example, the candidates were
Matt Benda (Republican) and Robin Brown (DFL). Brown won. During the
campaign Benda found himself being challenged about a claim against his
opponent about illegal drugs that appeared in a
legislative-caucus-prepared brochure. Benda didn't agree with the claim
and tried disclaim any connection with the brochure.
Dorman mentioned another instance where two Republican legislators from
different districts were subjected to negative brochures, even though one,
Jeff Anderson, had voted no on a controversial tax bill and the other,
Greg Davids, yes. Anderson was criticized in a brochure for voting against
a jobs program that was part of the bill, and Davids was criticized for
voting yes, because of a provision cutting local government aid. They were
attacked no matter which way they voted.
7. Concentration of legislative campaign power in
a very few people--A Civic Caucus member drew attention to a
chart distributed at today's meeting that summarizes the receipts and
expenditures of the four state legislative campaign caucuses during 2006.
Reports from these four groups had been published in the last couple of
days by the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. The member noted
that today's discussion reveals how power over these funds is concentrated
in a few people but that the impact is felt throughout all state
legislative races. The member said it seems clear that an individual
legislator under the current system has little option but to "fall in
line" with the recommended caucus positions in the Legislature.
Not falling in line is hard, because you get blasted from both sides,
Dorman said. After six years he was burned out and very cynical. He did
not want to run for re-election in 2004. But his wife and two lobbyists
who he respects predicted that the Republicans were going to get hammered
in 2004 and that Dorman would be able to have an impact. He is glad that
he ran and was given the opportunity to put together two bonding bills,
both of which passed by wide margins.
8. Question about the sources of information for
"questionable" state-caucus-prepared brochures--The legislative
caucuses hire staff, public relations consultants and polling consultants,
who are the key individuals in determining the content of brochures in
individual races. Individual candidates play no role in deciding what
these brochures will say, since they supposedly are paid for as
"independent expenditures", unconnected with a candidate's campaign. The
only option a candidate would have is to ask that a legislative caucus not
be involved in the campaign at all.
Candidates tend to throw their hands in the air and say, "it was not me",
but in most cases they can influence the tone by talking to the caucus
before the heat of the campaign. In most races for example, the
Republicans and Democrats send out the same kind of "stuff". He requested
that the Republican caucus not do that in his race, and they respected his
9. Concentration of funds in selected races--A
Civic Caucus member noted that the dollar amounts are very
substantial--totaling $8.5 million by the four caucuses in 2006. Dorman
commented that you must realize, too, that these funds can be distributed
selectively to the races that are most highly contested. Certain parts of
Minnesota, such as the central cities, the Iron Range, and some western
suburbs, have very few close races. So the money doesn't have to be spent
there. Dorman recalled a race in the Moorhead area a few years ago where
$250,000 was spent on each candidate--a total of $500,000 for one
legislative seat. In 2006, in the race for Dorman's seat, he said that the
DFL and GOP caucuses each provided at least $40,000 in independent
expenditures, which exceeds the amount a candidate can raise and spend.
10. Where the money comes from--Contrary to strict contribution limits to
an individual candidate's campaign, no limits exist on how much can be
given to a legislative caucus, Dorman said. Moreover, if you're a
representative of a business, employee association or other organization,
you'll put your money where it can produce the most results. The
legislative caucus is a much more powerful agent in determining whether a
lobbyist's interests are considered than is an individual legislator.
11. Importance of 1999 Federal court decision--A
1999 U. S. District Court decision threw out limitations on independent
expenditures. Before that time, according to David Schultz of Hamline
University, political parties and caucuses were not allowed to make
independent expenditures on behalf of candidates. According to Schultz,
Minnesota caucus and party independent contributions were less than $1
million in 1998 and soared to more than $8 million in 2002.
12. Possible changes in state law--Dorman
suggested that perhaps the state's political party endorsement system
should be altered to allow multiple endorsements from the same party to be
on the primary ballot. Perhaps, he said, any candidate receiving at least
25 percent support at an endorsement convention could appear on the ballot
as an endorsed candidate of that political party. Also, he said he is more
open to instant runoff voting, where voters rank candidates in their order
of preference, than he was in the past.
He said a limit on the amount that a legislative caucus can contribute to
an individual candidate would be helpful, if it could pass. He
acknowledged that any changes would have to be passed by the body directly
affected by the changes, the Legislature itself, which reduces the
likelihood of passage.
There is another way that the power of legislative caucuses could be
limited, he suggested. While they can legally spend, they could agree not
to. But he acknowledged that would be wishful thinking.
13. Coordination between the Governor and the
legislative caucus--Dorman said he has somewhat of a jaded view
of the relationship, because he has felt the Governor is more interested
in working with the legislative caucus when such coordination benefits the
Governor. The Governor seems less interested in supporting coordination
that would benefit the legislative caucus, he said.
14. Question of precinct caucuses--Responding
to a question about changes in the precinct-level meetings that the
political parties hold every two years, Dorman said he wishes more people
would attend, but he is not sure how to improve the caucuses. Asked about
totally open primaries, without party endorsement, Dorman said that
wouldn't be worse than what we have now.
15. Changes in redistricting?--Dorman
doesn't think serious problems of gerrymandering exist in Minnesota.
Moreover, he has difficulty imagining how a redistricting commission could
be established that would guarantee its nonpartisanship. In terms of
making districts more competitive, he doesn't know how that would be
possible in certain areas that already are predominantly in one-party
control. Dorman said he hasn't thought about, but is somewhat intrigued
by, the possibility of making districts larger and having, say, three
legislative seats at-large within the district, but not allowing any one
party to nominate candidates for more than two seats in such a district.
16. Best possibility for reducing polarization
and paralysis--Asked which of several elections changes he sees
as offering the best prospect for reducing polarization and paralysis in
the Legislature, Dorman said to get more people involved at the local
level, so that influence over legislative campaigns can be lessened at the
17. Using the state constitution for legislative
purposes--Dorman was asked his opinion on proposals now active
in the Legislature to provide a constitutional guarantee of revenue for
arts and clean water, similar to the guarantee provided to transportation
in a referendum last November. Such proposals ought to be a red flag to
everyone that the system is broken, Dorman said. Legislators are simply
passing controversial issues back to the voters who elected them, rather
than taking a stand themselves. He agreed that it would be interesting if
someone would author a bill for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a
certain revenue stream for every state services, as a way of illustrating
the problem of granting favored treatment to some services and not others.
A member facetiously commented that if such a constitutional amendment
were adopted, there'd be no need for the Legislature to meet.
18. Role of the Civic Caucus summaries--Dorman
said he hadn't considered the advantages of forwarding summaries of Civic
Caucus meetings to people on his own email list, but he thinks that is a
way to spread the information from the Civic Caucus more widely.
19. Thanks--Members thanked Dorman for
meeting with us today.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.