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Summary of Meeting with Steve Sviggum

Civic Caucus,  8301 Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437

Friday, February 9, 2007

Guest speaker: State Rep. Steve Sviggum, Republican, former Speaker of the

House

Attendance: Verne Johnson, chair; Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (by

phone), John Mooty (by phone), and Jim Olson (by phone)

A. Context of the meeting--The Civic Caucus has been learning about the

elections process in Minnesota to see if polarization and paralysis in state

government are related in any way to how people seek office, are endorsed,

nominated and elected. On several occasions in recent weeks the role of the

legislative caucuses has come up. Today we're meeting with Rep. Steve Sviggum,

who served as House Speaker and head of the House Republican Caucus until the

2007 legislative session.

B. Welcome and introduction-- On behalf of the caucus Paul welcomed Rep.

Sviggum and introduced him. Sviggum, in his mid-50s, has the distinction of

already having served in the Minnesota House for more than half his life.

Sviggum was born in 1951 and was first elected in 1978. He was reelected to

his 15th term in November 2006. He served as speaker from 1998 to 2006.

Previously he was House minority leader for six years. So he headed up his

legislative caucus for 14 years. He's a graduate of St. Olaf College and a

farmer/educator. Sviggum has recently been named a fellow of the Humphrey

Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and will start

teaching there in the fall.

C. Comments and discussion-- During the comments of Sviggum and in discussion

with the Civic Caucus the following points were raised:

1. The difficult role of Speaker-- Speaker of the House is a demanding,

controversial position, Sviggum said. He was a lightening rod for issues. We

say in our lives that friends come and go. With the Speaker, enemies

accumulate. He could have filled his schedule 24 hours a day.

2. Legislative caucus serves as a balance to special interest

groups-- The courts have ruled that independent expenditures are a part of the

process. No limits exist on independent expenditures. In the last campaign,

Education Minnesota (a teachers union) spent $2.9 million on independent

expenditures; AFSCME (a public employees union) spent $1.9 million; and casinos,

$1.2 million. Other special interest groups are jobs now, transportation,

Sierra Club, trial lawyers, and the family council. Special interest groups

usually focus their independent expenditures on 30 to 40 districts where races

are close. The legislative caucus becomes a balance to counter the special

interest groups.

3. Legislative caucus fills a void because political party activity has

evaporated at the local legislative district level-- The legislative caucus

decided it had to control its own destiny. Political party activity largely has

disappeared in many legislative districts. Without the legislative caucus

entering the picture, there'd be no support for finding and supporting--in the

case of Sviggum's caucus--Republican candidates. They need to find good people

to run, and the candidates must have support, that is, leg work, field staff and

financial contributions. Elections are best served by having good people to

run for office and the citizens having good choices on the ballot.

4. Personal role of the Speaker in fund raising-- As Speaker, Sviggum

said he personally raised most of the money for the House Republican caucus,

which was $2.4 million in 2005-2006. He said that his legislative caucus has a

campaign steering committee of about seven or eight legislators who make

decisions on how the funds are to be distributed among candidates. If the

caucus weren't involved, the special interests like education, labor and

business would largely determine whose campaigns would receive financial support

through their independent expenditures with special interest advocacy.

5. Personal role of the Speaker in recruiting candidates-- He said he

has driven all over the state repeatedly--often getting home in the wee hours of

the morning--to encourage candidates. He remembers, for example, one day he

left the Legislature at 2:30 p.m., drove to Thief River Falls for an 8 p.m.

meeting with a prospective candidate, and then drove back to St. Paul, arriving

at 5:30 a.m., just in time to shower and shave and get ready for the next day.

Some people would think that the legislative caucus is trying to enhance its

power. But they're just trying to encourage good people to run.

6. Caucus control over legislators disputed-- Sviggum said it is

"absolutely wrong" to assume that legislators who were elected with significant

legislative caucus support are then obligated to simply support positions of the

caucus. He said that every member has a strong independent streak. They see

themselves responsible to the voters of their district. They realize the

importance of the legislative caucus, of course. The legislator from Kenyon,

for example, knows that he or she must get support from other districts to pass

legislation. Without that kind of cooperation and collaboration nothing would

pass. A caucus can be seen like a “team” (football, family, business etc.).

You recognize and respect differences of opinions and positions and hope and

work for each other's success (in this case Minnesotans' success).

7. Polarization-paralysis problem challenged-- Sviggum challenged

claims by others that the Legislature is plagued by excessive polarization and

paralysis. The Legislature today is far more open than it was 40 years ago when

decisions were made by a few white men, maybe in a bar in St. Paul. No one

wants to go back to those "good old days", Sviggum said. The irony is that the

approval rating amongst citizens of the Legislature has gone down-- but we’d

never go back or accept the “good old days".

Newly elected legislative caucus leaders in the 2007 Legislature have

the responsibility of stimulating cooperation among members of their caucuses.

Legislative caucus leaders cannot act arbitrarily.

8. Problem of electing all Senators at the same election-- Currently

all state senators are elected at the same time every four years. He believes

the law should be changed to that one-half of the Senate would be elected every

two years. He recalled that in 2004 the Republican-controlled House passed

bills, but the DFL-controlled Senate refused to take action. House members

were up for election in 2004 and needed to show a record to the voters, but the

Senate wouldn't be running until 2006. Such an impasse would be much less

likely if some of the Senators would have been up for election in 2004. DFL

majority Senators actually stated: “We don’t need anything, were not up for

election.”

9. Ability to maintain close relationships across party lines-- It was

noted that a legislator in a previous meeting of the Civic Caucus said that it

is difficult for a Republican and a DFL legislator to work together during the

session when each knows that the other's legislative caucus will be raising

money to defeat the legislator in the next election. Sviggum said that

informal gatherings of legislators are much easier within the confines of ones

own legislative caucus. If he's going to go out for dinner, spending $20 of

his own money, he'd be much more likely to go to dinner with someone from his

own caucus.

10. Balancing the best interests of the state with the best interests

of a legislator's district-- In response to a question about the need to consider

bold action that benefits the state, Sviggum said that some legislators lose

sight of what's in the best interests of the state and vote the interests of

their locality only, without an ability to cooperate or compromise for

everyone’s best interest.

11. Support for Robert Fulghum's philosophy-- As a guide for legislative

behavior, Sviggum said he philosophically thinks that Robert Fulghum had it

right in his book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergaten": play

fair, clean up your own mess, don't hurt anyone. Every day work a little, play

a little, sing a little, write a little and pray a little – “Balance”.

12. Need to balance interests-- Sviggum disputed that far left and far

right policies are dominant. He said that a leader can't govern from either

end. He doesn't want to be perfectly in the center, but balance is needed.

13. Sviggum's suggested legislative changes-- Sviggum highlighted three

changes he would support:

--Rotate terms of the State Senate, so that one-half of the

seats would be up for election every two years, rather than the entire Senate

running every four years.

--Don't allow ex-legislators to immediately become lobbyists as

soon as they leave office -“Revolving Door” legislation.

--Establish a bipartisan commission to be responsible for

redistricting.

14. Possibility of limiting independent expenditures-- Civic Caucus

members said they recall David Schultz saying that limits on the size of an

independent expenditure for an individual candidate could be imposed. Sviggum

said it is his understanding that the Supreme Court decision wouldn't permit

limits. In continuing discussion he said that perhaps limits could be imposed

by law on legislative caucuses, but he doesn't see how such limits could be

imposed on special interest groups.

15. Reinvigorating the political parties at the local level?-- Sviggum

said he doesn't see a great deal of confidence in political parties among

citizens and that local involvement in party affairs attracts very few people.

16. Absence of "middle ground" voters at precinct caucuses-- A member

commented that participation in the biennial precinct caucuses (the grass-roots

party meetings that lead to candidate endorsement) seems heavily concentrated

among persons on the far left or far right politically. The member asked

whether changes might be considered that would enlarge the influence of people

in the middle.

Sviggum said he supports the concept of multiple party endorsement for a

given office, such as, for example, giving party endorsement to all candidates

receiving at least 25 or 30 percent support for endorsement. He also would

advance the date of the primary election.

He said he'd consider an idea of increasing the size of legislative

districts and having some candidates run at-large within such districts. A

Civic Caucus member mentioned one idea that three House members could run

at-large in the same district, with a requirement that each political party

would not be allowed to nominate candidates for more than two of the three

at-large seats. Such an idea would guarantee at least one minority party

candidate would get elected, irrespective of the political makeup of a district.

However, others, including Sviggum, felt such an idea might be prohibited under

the Minnesota constitution.

Sviggum said he supports a unicameral Legislature. It would be more

accountable to the citizens, he said.

17. Make changes in legislative caucuses as campaign bodies?-- If one

accepts the fact that legislative caucuses are likely to continue to be dominant

players in local legislative campaigns, Sviggum was asked whether any changes

should be made, statutory or otherwise, that would make the campaign role of the

legislative caucuses more visible to the people of the state. He said he has

not thought about any possible changes.

18. Comparison with other states-- While acknowledging problems in

Minnesota, Sviggum said our problems are not like those of several other states,

where legislative leaders are under indictment or in prison for their illegal

activities.

19. Thanks-- On behalf of the Civic Caucus, Verne Johnson thanked

Sviggum for meeting with us today. He informed Sviggum that a draft of the

summary of today's meeting will be distributed to Sviggum as soon as it is

prepared. After Sviggum has made any changes, the summary will be circulated

among some 500 persons on the Civic Caucus email distribution list.

 

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.  

© The Civic Caucus, 01/01/2008
8301 Creekside Circle #920,   Bloomington, MN 55437.  civiccaucus@comcast.net
Verne C. Johnson, chair, 952-835-4549,       Paul A. Gilje, coordinator, 952-890-5220.

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