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of Discussion with Don Fraser and Tony Sutton
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, July 3,
Verne Johnson, Chair; Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald,
Jim Olson (phone), Bill Frenzel (by phone), Clarence Shallbetter
Context of the meeting—During
the summer the Civic Caucus has been visiting with speakers bi-weekly,
interspersed with internal discussions about the future of the state
firstly, and then how the Caucus may fit in it. Importantly, the coming
Governor’s race will be an opportunity for the people of the state,
through the candidates, to determine its direction forth.
Today’s speakers will
help to frame the challenges facing Minnesota, and candidates for
Welcome and introductions--Verne
and Paul welcomed and introduced Don Fraser and Tony Sutton, our guests
for today. Don Fraser, a Democrat, served in the Minnesota State Senate
from 1954 to 1962 and served as Minnesota's 5th District member of
Congress from 1963 to 1979. He then was elected mayor of Minneapolis,
serving from 1980 to 1993. He has remained active in civic affairs and
currently is deeply involved in working for early childhood education.
Tony Sutton, a Republican, was just elected State Republican Chair in June
2009. Sutton is CEO of Baja Sol Restaurant group. He formerly was deputy
state auditor. He has served two separate stints as executive director of
the Minnesota Republican Party. He got his first taste of politics in
1984, going door-to-door for Ronald Reagan.
Comments and discussion—During
comments by Fraser and Sutton and in discussion with the Civic Caucus, the
following points were raised:
1. Role of the Governorship in the state’s
chair opened with a basic question to the two speakers: Do you agree with
the Caucus’ notion that the Governorship is especially critical today to
the state’s future?
first. He is impressed, he said, with the number of people who are worried
about where the state is headed. We have lost energy, enthusiasm. We used
to say that Minnesota has two great things to offer—weather and education.
A bit joking on the former.
The decline in
education is important, he said, and has attracted his energies. Fraser’s
main focus now is in early childhood education. Several decades ago we
were the first state to provide a program for early childhood parent
education - ECFE. We’ve lost that image. The state has not shown the kind
of creativity it has in the past, lacking policy innovations in general.
The achievement gap in the state is the new era of civil rights.
“Well; any Governor’s tenure is important,” he said. We have big financial
problems. What made Minnesota great was education, he agreed, but also a
large tax base. Minnesota has always had a disproportionately large
portion of fortune 500 companies.
“You can’t love
employees and love taxes without loving employers,” Sutton said, making
his case about business climate. “3M won’t expand here anymore. A weaker
tax base exacerbates problems” in state policy and finance. He agreed that
the achievement gap in Minnesota is a problem—and that education in
Minneapolis is especially troublesome—but added the observation, “You
can’t do the same thing for 40 years and expect things to be different.”
2. Impact of higher taxes on upper-income
member asked is the state is discouraging upper-income earners and
retirees from residing in the state because of its present upper-end tax
rate, and the recent talk of adding a fourth tier?
back over his experience, said that “this question has been on the table
for decades,” noting that all studies he has seen have shown the tax
question to be secondary. “Minnesota has always been high-tax, with its
talent home grown.” The primary question as he sees it is not how much are
you taxing, but, What are you spending the money on?
Sutton mentioned the
“Minnesota colony in Naples,” referring to the collection of Minnesotans
who have moved their primary residence to Florida, usually in retirement.
“It’s a capital drain,” he said. Geography matters less now, in an age of
such fluid digital connectivity. It is possible to reside in Florida but
still maintain connection in Minnesota.
3. Need for innovation-“We need
innovation,” Sutton said, in response to the tax question. “That's good
old fashioned Yankee ingenuity.” A member said that it seemed to him the
question facing the governor was less about the tax rate than about
economic activity—as the Caucus has brought up before, and as has been
touched on in this conversation—this is innovation that’s needed. How does
a governor lead on this, he asked; what sort of language does he use?
“He needs to talk
about tax and regulatory structure,” Sutton responded.
4. Focus on what taxes pay for--Fraser
elected to frame the question a bit differently. He is troubled, he said,
with the idea that we look at taxes first, without asking what they pay
for. The focus should be on what we need, then weigh the question of
taxes. Spending on education, for example: “We can talk about innovation,
but if we don’t have education we won’t have innovation.”
A member asked if what
was being talked about by both men was that the candidates for Governor
must each address, in a meaningful way, economic growth? Yes, they
concluded, and there will be differences in approach.
5. Impact of precinct caucuses on polarization
of the Caucus asked the two speakers if they thought the party-caucus
process works well, in identifying and selecting strong candidates. It
seems, one added, that the caucus contributes to the polarity of politics?
Fraser responded that
it is true the caucuses get ideological, but without that you lose much of
the energy around the process. Endorsed candidates need to moderate once
they get to the state-level campaigns.
One idea, he added,
though noting he doesn’t necessarily endorse it, is to have the two top
vote getters in a single primary, regardless of party, advancing to the
general election. This is a system followed in Washington State and
California - all candidates file in a unitary primary. That would
push candidates to the center earlier-on in the process, Fraser said.
Sutton said that he is
supportive of the caucus process because it allows ordinary people to have
influence over the system in ways they otherwise couldn’t. A single
passionate person has limited impact through voting, but by engaging in
the party caucus they can get in on the critical endorsement of
candidates. This doesn’t require money.
“Big ideas don’t come
from the middle,” Sutton said. “They come from the outside,” referring
both to outside the political-center and the ideas of ordinary citizens.
He expressed criticism about the idea of a center in politics. “You can’t
be in the middle,” he said; “few people truly are.”
6. No support for multiple endorsements--A
member asked Sutton if four or five candidates make it through the GOP
convention, with split votes, would there be any chance of the party
endorsing more than one candidate? “No,” he responded quickly. “We’ll
find one person, and defeat the others” if they run.
On the Democratic
side, Fraser concurred. “It runs against human nature,” he observed. “Get
a bunch of people in a room, and they want to pick someone.”
7. Likelihood of party nominees being top-flight
bottom line,” a member said, “is that on September 7, 2010. we will have
a primary. On September 8, how can we ensure that we will have a
satisfactory slate,” that each party’s candidate is strong?
Sutton said that he is
setting the tone now, with the candidates in his party—there are many at
present. He is refereeing the context, he said, and there will be no
getting into negative issues, if he can help it.
Fraser hopes the
candidates for Governor will talk about their vision for the state in a
positive way, forward-looking, assessing obstacles. If both parties take
this approach we will get two top-notch candidates.
8. More professional politicians are candidates
than are regular citizens?--A member said that when he looks at
the long and growing list of declared candidates, he sees people whose
reputations are as politicians—they are professional politicians. Most do
not come from backgrounds of personal accomplishment separate from
political office. What do the speakers make of this?
“It is difficult with
the party process,” Fraser said. Being active in the party is
important—and it takes time. Lots of time.
It really is a
full-time job, Sutton concurred, even before being elected. Handling
press, fundraising, building a network—all these take time. It is
difficult to pick up and do one day, or one electoral cycle, without long
periods of preparation and build up.
One example of a
citizen's effort, Sutton said, was Brian Sullivan’s contest with Pawlenty
for the GOP endorsement in 2002. Pawlenty was coming from the Legislature,
and had strong networks. Sullivan was able to make a run of it because he
had good ideas, but in the end he could not edge the Governor out.
9. The potential of third parties to attract
the parties pick their own and go into the wings, a member said, the
independents have an opportunity to go up the middle. There is a
significant mid-section, though not as large as the party faithful unless
there is a candidate that can peel them away. Is there a future for third
Sutton observed that
Ventura experienced a perfect storm, but since then the success of third
parties has tended back toward what is probably its natural state. The
test of third parties is to show an ability to get more than 5 percent of
the vote, consistently.
Fraser said that he
hasn’t been able to figure out the third party problem. The Independence
Party would like to be able to place a Republican or Democrat on the
Independence Party line if they so chose, which would do much to increase
their power. If we got to IRV at the state level, he said, the role of the
independents might be affected.
10. Questions about ranked choice voting--Sutton
said he is skeptical of ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff
voting (IRV), thinking first of the south and Jim Crow laws. “What are the
unintended consequences?” A strength of the two party system is that there
is always a choice: Republican or Democrat. If in Minneapolis IRV leads to
two Democrats competing with one another in the final round, is there much
value added, Sutton asked?
11. Would previous generation political leaders
be popular today?--The
chair posed a question to Fraser and to Caucus member Bill Frenzel, each
of whom has been in public affairs for as long as anyone around. In their
day, he said, it was possible to deviate to get things accomplished. But
today there is retribution. Would you two, he asked, be as popular in the
Frenzel responded that
he would still be an ‘R’—a Republican—but he probably would not have run
for office. “I’m partly responsible for laying the caucus system on
parties,” he said, “and regard it as a mistake. People who get the
endorsement, as they say, are unfit for office because of what they have
to say to get there.”
Fraser said that he
doesn’t necessarily think that people used to be more ‘moderate’—that is
too troublesome a word—but that people certainly were to be given more
room to deviate. He asked a question of Sutton: the Republicans, it seems,
are getting into positions that are unreasonable. He cited global warming
as an example. How is this; how are the decisions being made?
“My perspective is
shorter” than the others, Sutton said, at 41 years old. “But I think the
system works pretty well.” There is a ying and a yang; if one party starts
to get too far off, the public will balance them out through elections. On
issues, getting at Fraser’s question, Sutton said that he thinks language
“I think when Al Gore politicized it (global warming), the natural
response was skepticism. Global warming is an example of
hyper-polarization,” Sutton said, “with people unable to usefully work on
“In the GOP” in
Minnesota, Sutton asserted, “we will be partisan—but on policy issues, not
on petty matters.”
12. Hopes for visionary candidates--In
closing, Fraser said that he hopes candidates for governor to be
forward-looking, with visions for the state. Sutton commented that he
really likes the Civic Caucus forum. “Its not often you have calm
discussion,” he said, in a truly non-partisan atmosphere.
13. Rescuing Minnesota from fiscal despair--Responding
to a questioner, Fraser and Sutton agreed that the biggest problem facing
the new Governor will be how to manage the state's budget that might be
facing a $7.3 billion shortfall when the new Governor takes office in
14. Possible role for Civic Caucus--The
Chair asked the speakers if they see a role for the Caucus in the governor
race? It would be helpful, Sutton said, to have a non-partisan group—that
is not a front for political organizations—that can host good
conversations. Fraser followed by saying that “Anything you (CC) can do
will be a plus. There might be some merit in asking for written responses
from candidates,” to questions, in addition to the in-person talks.
On that, thank you to
the two speakers, and have a wonderful 4th.