There was a time when the role of citizens in their
democracy was much more than voting.
DFL Party Chair Ken Nelson said in the past, people were
more engaged in issues and in policy discussions.
"People brought those ideas to a number of institutions,
including the political parties, for discussion," he
parties have become part of the problem.
said political parties have one main function: to elect
people who share their values.
"The piece that is missing these days is finding the
candidates who share those values or the candidates who
will represent the broader party," he said.
Parties have not helped create a more civil discourse on
fewer participants now in civic institutions like
political parties and other organizations. "All that's
left is the diehards," Martin said.
"When so few people show up, those people represent a
smaller viewpoint in the larger party," Martin said.
The people at the extremes show up and dominate the
The candidates who are endorsed represent those extreme
viewpoints or positions.
elected officials in Washington and St. Paul who have
put their oath to their political party or to special
interest groups ahead of their oath to their
"That leads to a corrosive debate when it comes to
public policy," Martin said.
He was critical of efforts last year by Republican party
leaders to convince the Legislature that the surplus
should be given back as tax cuts. "I don't think it's
appropriate for political bosses to be at the
Legislature dictating to legislators what they should be
doing," Martin said. "It's not the place for a political
a role for parties to hold elected officials accountable
to their platforms and their values," he said.
"But it's another thing to create this false dynamic and
choice for legislators: 'Do I respond to the wishes of
party leaders or do I do the right thing and find common
ground and compromise and work with the other side to
get something done?'" This dynamic creates the toxicity
we've seen in Congress, in legislative bodies across the
country and in local governments.
have a responsibility, but we have to temper that
responsibility with the idea that compromise shouldn't
be a dirty word," Martin said. "It's become a game about
making sure the other side doesn't win. It's no longer a
sign of success to say, 'We got something done for the
people we serve.' Now the sign of success is to say, 'We
didn't get anything done, but we made sure the people on
the other side didn't get what they wanted, either.'"
years ago, the campaign ended the day after the
"The swords were put away," Martin said. "People decided
the campaign was over, the rhetoric needed to get toned
down and we needed to find common ground. We needed to
do something for our constituents."
scenario doesn't exist anymore," he continued.
"Now the campaign isn't over after the election.
It's one perpetual campaign of people pointing figures,
placing blame and calling names to score political
have a role in public policy.
parties really to be engaged in public-policy
discussion, they cannot exact ideological purity and
they cannot force their elected officials to toe the
party line," Martin said. "They cannot be in the
business of just trying to make the other side look
responsible for broadening the conversation about public
An interviewer asked what the roles of the party
leaders, the elected officials and the citizens are in
tackling serious problems in serious ways. Martin
responded that it's everyone's responsibility.
"If we approach policy issues through a narrow prism, we
will create a situation where we're set up for
failures," he said.
the issue of transportation funding in the state.
The Republicans have said they won't support any
proposal that needs new tax revenue.
And the Democrats have said they won't support taking
money from the general fund.
"If you want to see the transportation crisis fixed, you
don't start the conversation by taking tools off the
table," he said.
"That leaves no room for solutions. It creates a
situation where the conversation is already set up for
parties should not expect purity on issues from elected
asserted that the role of political parties is not to
tell their elected officials they have to do a certain
thing or the party will run candidates against them in
"We're a 'big tent' party," Martin said. "We shouldn't
exact purity on some of these issues.
We should approach issues very deliberately and
intentionally by putting everything on the table.
You have to have all options on the table in situations
There are no sacred cows."
that in 2011, party leaders warned Republicans that if
they compromised with the governor, the party would run
candidates against them in the primary. "What kind of
message does that send?" Martin asked. "We all have a
responsibility to allow elected officials the
opportunity to govern."
"If we box
our elected officials into a corner and expect purity,"
he continued, "it makes it tough for them to find common
ground with the other side. Policy is not black and
white." He said the public also has a responsibility to
show up and participate.
the state don't want to dodge major issues.
Martin said the governor and other leaders realize that
our transportation needs are crippling our economy and
are a looming crisis for the state.
They don't want to dodge the issue.
"But there are some legislators who understand they can
create political advantage by making the other side look
bad," he said.
"They take options off the table, nothing gets done and
they can blame the other side.
But I do have faith that a number of our leaders want to
see these issues resolved."
of serious debate about major reform and major public
policy are gone.
interviewer asked whether the real topics get discussed,
as opposed to peripheral issues.
"Are we talking about the right topics?" he asked.
that the days of very meaty debate about major
government reform and major public policy are gone,"
When the Minnesota Miracle passed in 1971(a major reform
of the state's tax system and in how the state funds
school districts and local governments), he said both
Republicans and Democrats engaged in a "very meaty
The legislation "changed the very fabric and culture of
now when we talk about education, we're not having that
level of conversation. "We're just talking about the
small potatoes of an increase here or an increase
there," he said. "We're not talking about the larger
systemic issues around education." He noted that
pertains to every issue, whether it be tax reform,
transportation or health care.
been some transformative policy debates, Martin said,
but they've been few and far between. "It's important to
understand that there was a different culture back then,
a different sense of what your objective was and a
different sense of what success meant. Now so many
issues we talk about at the Legislature are boiled down
to very small, incremental changes versus large,
interviewer said perhaps the best example of a
legislative decision to implement systemic change also
happened in 1971, with passage of the Fiscal Disparities
program. The program shares business property-tax base
among the seven counties in the metro area. It was "an
enormous decision, unequaled anywhere around the
country," he said.
advocacy groups might have to support candidates with
whom they don't always agree.
interviewer noted that in the past, when candidates were
running for office, advocacy groups would meet with them
and ask a few screening questions.
Now, he said, advocacy groups give candidates
50-question, written questionnaires, expect them to get
a perfect score and won't support the candidates if they
really changed from advocacy groups feeling that if
candidates will always listen, even if they don't always
agree, that's enough," the interviewer said. "Now that's
not enough anymore."
to win elections," Martin said. "If we expect candidates
in certain parts of the state to take positions on
issues that will cause them not to win elections, we're
not going to build a majority. We need to win, sometimes
at the expense of issues our advocacy groups want."
believes that candidates should not take vows put
forward by interest groups who will support the
candidates if they do. "No one in either party should
take such a vow," he said. He pointed to the Tax Party
pledge to raise no new revenue that some candidates have
agreed to in past years. "How, then, are we going to
solve some of these issues? Sometimes, advocacy groups
might have to support candidates with whom they don't
have contributed to the erosion of the type of
substantive debate that used to go on over public-policy
interviewer asked about the role of the media in
educating the public about complex issues.
Martin responded that today people require almost
instant news and aren't as interested in following the
debate over policy issues.
"The media have a huge influence on what our candidates
will talk about," he said.
"People are looking for sound bites."
of good groups are bringing good public-policy proposals
"You can be an agitator on the outside until you get
people elected who also care about public policy,"
"Getting stuff done is not possible until you get people
elected who share your values."
that people working in academia and in the field of
public policy can't divorce policy issues from the
political process and getting people elected. He said
millennials are not apathetic and tend to be more
interested in the substantive type of debate we're
should have a presidential primary, but should keep the
caucus system for statewide and local offices.
noted that 206,000 people showed up for the party
precinct caucuses in
this year. He called the Minnesota DFL party one of the
strongest political parties in the country and he
believes the caucus system is a big part of that.
Caucuses are an opportunity for people to have their
voices heard and to have a huge influence in the
selection of candidates and the development of the
else in our society can you come together with your
neighbors and be engaged in politics and issues?" Martin
"The caucus system enables that."
He admitted, though, that when people aren't engaged in
it, the caucus system is not reflective of the larger
asserted that someone like Paul Wellstone had the
opportunity to get elected through the caucus system. A
primary would favor candidates with more money and more
We need to
think about how to reform the precinct caucuses to
An interviewer commented that usually only two to four
percent of people attend party caucuses. The public
perception is that the precinct caucus is extremely
narrow and beyond the average citizen.
responded that the parties must reform precinct caucuses
to increase participation. "There are lots of ways to
include more voices in the platform," he said. "There
are structural things that prevent more people from
participating, but mainly, people think it's not worth
platform and resolutions used to be a much more central
part of the process at party caucuses.
interviewer commented that the caucus system is broken.
He said he has gone to every caucus since 1960, but they
aren't the same today as they used to be. Nor is the
training of people running the caucus as good as it used
to be. Today, the purpose of the caucus isn't clear.
People come to the caucus to vote for candidates in
national or state races. "Any discussion of issues is at
the bottom of the list," he said. Many people leave
after voting for the candidates and never get to the
resolutions on issues.
replied that in the past, the party platform played a
much more central role in caucuses. He agreed that the
platform often has become secondary and irrelevant in
the caucus process. "But the party exists so people can
build power," he said. "People in our party can have
amazing influence and can help reverse the growing
cynicism. The way to change things is to get involved."
Many decisions are still made at the local level.
"The party has the opportunity to bring in a new
generation of perspectives.
It's incumbent on party leaders to create new
opportunities for people to get involved."
to Martin, both parties are focused on legislative and
higher-office elections. He believes the Tea Party, in
order to build its movement, is focusing on local
government offices, such as school board members or
county commissioners. He ponders whether the DFL party
should also focus on the local level and wonders whether
the party would then lose its impact on state policy.
for office should listen to everyone and filter what
they hear through the people in their districts.
interviewer asked whether candidates should pay
attention to the media, to advocacy groups, to
nonpartisan do-gooders, to the governor's office or to
the DFL platform.
He asked where candidates should get ideas for their
said his advice is to listen to everyone and filter what
you hear through the people in your district. "None of
us is as smart as all of us," he said.
"Maybe some people expect that as party chair I should
be a dictator.
But I won't beat you over the head if you don't support
a certain issue.
What constituents are thinking does not always jibe with
the party's ideas.
Power comes from the people who vote."
said good-government think tanks should also be at the
table giving information to candidates and elected
Those candidates and officials can then decide what's
best for their districts and what's good politically.
government institutions is at an all-time low.
that Congress has only an 11 percent approval rating,
Martin said. And 80 percent of parents don't want their
kids to go into public service or politics. "We have to
reverse that, so people understand that public service
is good," he said.
run because they want to make a difference," he noted.
In the past, elected officials started with a level of
respect for the people across the aisle. Now they look
at them as evil.
Republicans are attacking government to raise cynicism.
said Republicans are making a very concerted effort to
make government look bad. They're telling people that
government's broken and that we should shrink
government. That increases cynicism. When people become
cynical, they say they're not going to participate. "The
level of toxicity rises," he said.
out that there are more Democrats than Republicans in
Minnesota and in the country as a whole. "Republicans
win because people don't turn out to vote," he said.
"The only way they can win is by suppressing voters and
raising cynicism." He admitted that some Democrats are
also complicit in that.
thirty years ago, the parties agreed on a goal, but had
different ways of achieving it.
Martin said, the parties can't even agree on a goal.
"How can we find common ground when we can't agree on
our goal or objective?" With that level of toxicity,
lower voter participation is not a surprise.
pointed out that Minnesota still has higher voter
participation than most other states.
"Voters here expect discussion on the issues."
has governed with the idea that we're governing for all
"We're not trying to pit one part of the state against
each another," Martin said. An interviewer suggested
that the Republicans are the party of Greater Minnesota
and the DFL is the party of the metro area and the
larger outstate cities. Martin responded that the
Democratic Party nationwide has become the party of the
urban core. But in Minnesota, he said, there are big
pockets of Democratic votes outside of the urban core.
said that polling for the last 10 years has shown that
the Democrats are losing white working-class people and
union members, the New Deal Democrats who were once the
base of the party. "A lot of that is because of cultural
issues like abortion and guns," he said, "and a lot is
because of people's inability to get ahead in the
current economy. That's real and we must be more
reflective of that."
officials can't always listen to their constituents, but
they shouldn't be dismissive of the people who elected
An interviewer asked whether elected officials should
sometimes vote with their consciences, which may not be
what their constituents want.
"There are so few opportunities to make a big impact on
people's lives," Martin replied.
"Sometimes officials just have to say, 'I'm going to
vote for this.'" In those situations, they must decide
whether to vote for the greater good by voting against
And the DFL will not punish its elected officials for
voting against the party.
Alexander Hamilton talked about balancing out the will
of the people with the responsibility to future
"Elected officials can't always listen to their
constituents, but they shouldn't be dismissive of the
people who elected them," Martin said.
There are too many "finger-in-the-wind" politicians,
such as former presidential candidates
Pawlenty and Mitt Romney.
Politicians like Senator Paul Wellstone and Governor
Jesse Ventura led with conviction and didn't just worry
about getting reelected, Martin said. "Now many
politicians are just thinking about how they'll get
reelected. It's a very narrow self-interest."