Minnesota’s status as a "state that
works" is less secure
than in 1970s, yet is still somewhat intact
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview February 12, 2016
John Adams, Dave Broden
(vice chair), Paul Gilje (executive director), Randy Johnson,
Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder (associate director). By phone:
Janis Clay, Tom Dennis, Sallie Kemper (associate director),
Minnesota has undergone some discouraging trends since the
1973 cover story in TIME magazine declared Minnesota a
"state that works," according to Tom Dennis of the Grand
Forks Herald. He points to a 1996 New York Times
story branding Minneapolis as "Murderapolis," to the budget
turmoil and special partisanship in the 2000s and to a 2004
report by the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School that
concluded Minnesotans believe government is wasteful and public
programs are not well run.
But Dennis is cautiously optimistic.
He believes discouraging trends are subject to change. He calls
Minnesota "a resilient place," where partisanship is moderating
and where reassuring signs show that "all is not lost." He
asserts that while Minnesota's status as a "state that works" is
strained and not as secure as it once was, it's still somewhat
intact. He says one of the state's great assets is the range of
civic institutions struggling to resolve its problems. Also,
government in Minnesota and North Dakota remains unusually
responsive to public interest and public pressure.
Dennis contends that his newspaper's
editorial page and its news pages continue to play a role in
promoting public awareness and debate of issues before final
decisions are made. The special projects the paper does that
include deep reporting on an issue bring public attention and
get policymakers moving. But the newspaper industry worries
about the lack of young readers and is struggling with how to
make money in the digital arena.
Tom Dennis is editorial page editor of the Grant Forks
Herald in Grand Forks, N.D. He has held the position for 18
years. Before moving to Grand Forks, Dennis edited the editorial
page of The Times Leader newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.,
and also was a reporter and columnist at the Duluth News
Tribune in Duluth, Minn.
Dennis is a graduate of Williams
College in Williamstown, Mass., and holds a master's degree from
the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New
York City. He is a veteran of active-duty and reserve service in
the U.S. Coast Guard.
Caucus is undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major public problems. The Caucus
interviewed Tom Dennis, veteran editorial page editor of the
Grand Forks Herald, to get his perspective on how
Minnesota's process for developing sound policy proposals worked
in the past, his assessment of how well that process is working
today and his thoughts on the role the media have played in the
past and play currently in that process.
Outside of the city of Grand Forks, about half the readers of
the Grand Forks Herald are from North Dakota and about
half from Minnesota.
Dennis of the Grand Forks Herald said the paper
circulates to Bemidji in the east and to Devil's Lake in the
Minnesota has something the east coast
does not. Dennis said he's in Grand Forks because of
Minnesota's and North Dakota's quality of life. He grew up in
Rhode Island, but his family would come to Minnesota often to
visit relatives as he was growing up. "Minnesota seemed to have
something that the east coast did not," he said. "I liked the
sense of community, the lakes, the pace of life, and the idea
that both in Minnesota and North Dakota, when you're raising
kids, you escape the crushing pressure to get your kids into
He said if you live on either the east
or west coast, that pressure can dominate parents' lives. Here
you escape that, because there's faith in the quality of
institutions such as the University of Minnesota and the
University of North Dakota. "That makes for a much more relaxed
atmosphere in which kids can grow up."
He said his thinking about Minnesota
was reinforced by the
featuring then-Governor Wendell Anderson and the headline, "The
Good Life in Minnesota." The story inside proclaimed Minnesota
"the state that works." Another influence, Dennis said, was Neal
Peirce's assertion in his 1983 book, The Book of America:
Inside 50 States Today, that no other state better captures
the good life for more people than Minnesota.
Minnesota's status as a "state that
works" is strained now and not as secure as it was back then,
but it's still basically intact, as it also is in North Dakota.
Dennis noted that in 2004, the then-Humphrey Institute at the
University of Minnesota, under the leadership of Ted Mondale's
Minnesota Community Project, issued a "sobering report."
Dennis quoted from the report:
"Minnesota is changing. In a state
where the storied consensus once meant a high degree of civic
engagement and shared vision, we see divisions into increasingly
irreconcilable camps, with a deep skepticism about public
institutions and strong disagreement on their role and abiding
concern about the rapid growth and change in the makeup of our
communities. Clearly, the causes of these disruptions are
multifold: a changing economy, racially diverse immigration into
the state and the polarization of politics. Regardless, there is
an increasing belief that community in Minnesota is on the
decline, as fewer people know their neighbors, the quality of
education seems to erode, transportation infrastructure fails to
keep up with needs and taxes seem persistently high."
The report concluded, "Minnesotans are
convinced that government is wasteful and inefficient,
squandering hard-earned tax dollars on programs that are not
well run or do not benefit all people equally."
Dennis said another bad omen for
Minnesota occurred in 1996, when the
"There were clearly discouraging
trends," he continued. "But Minnesota is a resilient place. The
2000s were the years of Governor Jesse Ventura, budget turmoil
and a newly intense partisanship at the Legislature. Some of
that seems to have moderated. There are enough reassuring signs
to let me know that all is not lost."
Dennis pointed to a November 2015
story in the Star Tribune headlined,
On another positive note, Dennis
pointed to Minnesota retaining its high ranking for educational
test scores and its high ranking on health and quality-of-life
indicators. "It's a resilient place," he said. "There are still
lots of great reasons to live in Minnesota."
There are a number of civic
institutions engaged in trying to fix the things that are
threatening Minnesota's status as a good place to live. "One
of the great assets of the state is a whole range of civic
institutions struggling mightily to try to correct things,"
Dennis said. He mentioned the
Coalition of Greater
which has a membership of 85 cities about the size of East Grand
Forks and Bemidji, with Duluth the largest city represented. The
organization lobbies the Legislature on a variety of small-city
issues, especially for local government aid from the state.
Dennis noted that the Coalition
routinely sends out opinion pieces to newspapers, which he
believes is very effective. He said "beleaguered editors" of
small newspapers are looking for material of interest about
public life in Minnesota. "The opinion pieces are ready to go,
so we put them in the paper," he said. "They get out to
audiences of tens of thousands of people. The Coalition is one
institution that has real-world impact, in part because it's
good at media relations."
He said the
Minnesota Chamber of
generates opinion pieces fairly routinely on various issues. And
he mentioned the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank's quarterly
a regional business and economics journal that runs in-depth
profiles of issues affecting the region.
Dennis noted the recent change in
leadership at the conservative think tank
Center of the
from founder Mitch Pearlstein to new president John Hinderaker.
Dennis said Hinderaker wants to persuade Minnesotans that they
don't have it so good and to explain why the high tax/high
service model in the state isn't working. "It'll be interesting
to see how that works out over the next few years," Dennis said.
"On balance," he said, "the public
institutions work as effectively as they can in modern America,
given our partisanship. I still find in Minnesota and North
Dakota some semblance of that good life that Gov. Wendell
Anderson was touting on the cover of TIME magazine. It's
still a good place to raise kids. I like being part of the
forces like the Civic Caucus trying to keep it that way. You get
a sense of government as being willing to change over time, to
make adjustments, so people have a sense that they can make a
Citizens are still fairly engaged on
the issues that matter to them. An interviewer asked about
citizen participation and what observations Dennis has about the
role citizens play today and have played over time. The
interviewer asked about the impact of what is in the paper
Dennis observed that citizens are
still engaged whenever a problem arises. They turn out to
community meetings, he said. He gave several examples of active
citizen engagement. In St. Cloud, there were full houses at
meetings about Somali immigration and assimilation.
Another example is the concern people
have actively expressed about the building of the proposed
Sandpiper Pipeline, which would extend 616 miles from near
Tioga, N.D., to near Superior, Wisc. The pipeline, Dennis said,
has been brought to a standstill now by environmental groups,
who are getting their views heard in the courts.
He also mentioned the example of
school bond referenda. "I don't get a sense that those are
diminishing in importance," he said. There is active citizen
participation in meetings and debates about the referenda.
The newspaper industry is fretting
about how comparatively few young people read the newspaper and
keep up with current events that way. The issue is, Dennis
said, as these young people get older, will they pick up the
newspaper? "The jury is still out as far as millennials are
concerned," he said. "The news-reading habits of people have
dramatically changed, with so much of it done on people's
phones. All newspapers are trying to crack the digital code, not
how to create content, but how to make money."
He said most newspapers still get the
bulk of their money from the print product, either advertising
sales or circulation sales. That's typically about 80 percent of
the company's revenue. But circulation has declined, sometimes
by half, so there's less market penetration than there used to
There's more readership than ever
before, because of online readers, Dennis said. "But the revenue
that comes in from online doesn't compare to the print
advertising. Some papers, like the Star Tribune, now are
using pay walls, so you can only get a certain amount of content
online without a subscription. That's to prevent the erosion of
readers of the print product. It's a whole new world for
There has been a demographic shift
over the years with the decline in the population of rural
Minnesota, which means less power at the Capitol. An
interviewer commented that the split between urban and rural
keeps getting worse and worse. One of Minnesota's greatest
strengths, the interviewer said, is that no matter what kind of
place you want to live, there's a place for you, whether in the
heart of the city or on a farm. Now some people make immediate
judgments about city people or rural people. One legislator told
the interviewer that the urban/rural split is bigger than the
Republican/Democratic split. The interviewer asked how we could
increase the understanding and respect urban and rural people
have for each other.
Dennis agreed that the declining rural
population translates to less power at the Capitol. "All the
rural legislators and city council members are keenly aware of
that and do what they can to try to maintain what clout they
have," he said. He noted that the Iron Range, for example, used
to be more of a force in the Legislature than it is today.
He asserted that Local Government Aid
(LGA) was one of the key ways that made the vision of being able
to live anywhere work. "If you moved to a small town like East
Grand Forks," he said, "you could trust that you'd have an
adequate library and police force. LGA was a big part of that."
Things in North Dakota have changed
enough recently to alter some perceptions about rural areas.
"Changes brought by oil development in North Dakota over the
past 10 years have been so dramatic that I now realize all of
these things are really transient, just waiting for the next
trend," Dennis said. "All the stories in the 1980s and
1990s used to be about North Dakota emptying out, but now that's
so far removed from reality. Apartment rents in Williston were
rivaling those in Manhattan in the 2000s because of the gigantic
influx of people and money. Now there's another reversal,
because oil is a cyclical industry. But the change was so
dramatic. You can see that the optimists were right and the
pessimists were wrong."
"So in Minnesota, while these trends
may seem permanent, they're more subject to change than you
might think," he said. "Demographics can move in one way, but
then it reverses."
On balance, there are enough
civic-minded institutions to keep Minnesotans thinking that
progress is being made on the state's general problems. An
interviewer asked if Dennis was aware of any groups of citizens
getting together today in a nonpartisan way. Dennis responded
that there are a handful of nonpartisan groups that play a
unifying role, including the Civic Caucus and the
Jefferson Center, which
uses citizen juries to come to a consensus or conclusion on
various issues. Minnesota Public Radio is another unique and
He said the existence of groups like
these sets Minnesota apart and that the state nurtures these
"It's hard to say how effective these
groups are," Dennis said, "but, on balance, their very presence
in the state helps make Minnesota what it is and gives people
trust in public institutions." He senses a recovery of trust
since the 2004 Humphrey Institute report he quoted earlier. "I
don't think there's as much cynicism as accompanied the Ventura
era in the 2000s."
He said, though, that there are some
nagging problems so resistant to solutions that he could imagine
people getting cynical about them. He pointed to the
stubbornness of the achievement gaps between blacks and whites
and the immigration issue. But, he said, there are enough
civic-minded institutions to keep Minnesotans thinking that
progress is being made on the state's general problems.
The Grand Forks Herald has
editorialized that the
Basin Compact provides
a useful model for how Minnesota and North Dakota could
cooperate on the Red River Valley.
Several interviewers asked about the need for organizations that
can deal with issues that cross state borders. Dennis responded
that his newspaper has editorialized that the Susquehanna River
Basin Compact, which includes the states of Pennsylvania, New
York and Maryland, provides a useful model that could be applied
to the Red River Valley. Such a compact between Minnesota and
North Dakota would be a very formal, congressionally approved
relationship between the two states, he said.
The Humphrey School at the University
of Minnesota could help enlighten people about how the larger
region is working today and what we might do to make it better.
"If I were dean of the Humphrey School, that would be a
focus," Dennis said. "That would be the logical place to find
that type of research. It's probably a matter of leadership. If
the University wants to bring up the profile of the Humphrey
School, it would have to declare that goal and call on the
school's leadership team to make it happen."
Grand Forks has a new industry,
unmanned aircraft testing and maintenance, that came about
through civic cooperation. An interviewer brought up this
recent development and Dennis commented, "Things do sometimes
change for the better." He said the joint efforts of the
University of North Dakota, other area postsecondary
institutions, the North Dakota Congressional delegation and the
Air Force resulted in the FAA naming Grand Forks one of six
sites in the country where unmanned aircraft would be focused.
"Grand Forks has an exciting new
industry to look forward to," Dennis said. "Things like this are
clearly still possible when the circumstances, the conditions
and the leadership are right."
The newspaper's editorial page and its
news pages both have a role in promoting public awareness and
debate of issues before final decisions are made. In
response to an interviewer's question, Dennis said editorials
are creations of the editorial board, which comes to a consensus
on an issue and then tries to present that consensus as a
common-sense way forward. "So, the editorial often winds up
approximating the compromises that take place in City Hall or
the state Capitols," he said.
He said the role of the news pages in
promoting discussion of issues is pretty much the same today as
it was in earlier years. Reporters are looking for news and
issues raised by city councils and other public bodies.
Sometimes, Dennis said, the newspaper sponsors a political
debate or a forum on a particular issue to further public
understanding. In other cases, editors will spot a trend and
then do a special project on that trend. "That brings things to
the public's attention and gets policymakers moving," he said.
There is no entity in North Dakota
that produces consistently interesting studies to which the
whole state pays much attention. An interviewer asked
whether the University of North Dakota (UND) has something like
the Humphrey School or an emphasis in its Ph.D. programs that
focuses on looking at and helping the state to understand what
its issues are and where it's going. Dennis replied that there
is less of that kind of civic involvement at UND. There are
individual economists and political scientists who study state
issues and offer great insights. But there is no parallel
to the Humphrey School and no entity producing consistently
interesting studies on public policy issues.
Some North Dakota foundations are
addressing community problems. In response to an
interviewer's question, Dennis said Grand Forks was a Knight
newspaper community, as were Duluth and St. Paul. The Knight
Foundation is still active in those communities and sponsors
periodic studies about what the biggest problems in Grand Forks
are and how to go about addressing them. He said the community
foundation in Grand Forks sponsors similar types of evaluations.
He noted that the local Chamber of
Commerce also plays a role in figuring out the kinds of things
the community needs.
Government in North Dakota and
Minnesota remains unusually responsive to public interest and
public pressure. Dennis said one great thing about America
is that it has a "self-governing mechanism" for solving
problems. He brought up again the dramatic reversal in North
Dakota's fortunes between the 1980s and 1990s and the 2000s.
"All of the forecasts were way off," he said. "Trend was not
destiny in that case."
"None of the trends you see now do you
need to be permanently discouraged about," he continued.
"They're all subject to change. With the right leadership, you
can retain a sense of optimism, especially in North Dakota and
Minnesota, where government remains unusually responsive to
public interest and public pressure."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,