Lori Sturdevant, Minneapolis Star
Tribune Editorial Writer
Big money drives Minnesota public policy
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview December 09, 2016
John Adams, Steve Anderson,
Dave Broden, Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director), Rob
Jacobs, Randy Johnson, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Bill
Rudelius, Dana Schroeder (associate director), Lori Sturdevant,
Clarence Shallbetter, Tom Triplett, T. Williams, Fred Zimmerman.
What's driving Minnesota
public policy today is who is paying for our politics and what those
people insist on, asserts Star Tribune editorial writer and
columnist Lori Sturdevant. She says the quality of ideas is not
what's driving public policy now. She denounces the million-dollar
legislative races that have recently appeared in Minnesota and says
candidates have lost control of their own campaigns. She calls the
nationalization of Minnesota's politics "an amazing change" in just
the last dozen years. She contends that elected officials feel bound
to their political patrons and that legislators are paying more
attention to money than to their constituents.
Sturdevant agrees with the Civic Caucus
that the community sector must come up with better, more thoughtful,
innovative public-policy ideas that look to the future. But she is
concerned about the recommendation in the recent Civic Caucus report
that foundations should play a large role in helping improve the
quality of these proposals. She points out that foundations are not
really accountable to the public, although she praises Minnesota's
foundation community. But she says other communities have quite
different foundations that have been created by well-to-do people to
advance their particular interests and agendas. She asks what would
happen if Minnesota's foundation community were to change
significantly over the next 25 years.
Sturdevant addresses the caliber of
candidates for public office in Minnesota, the need for nonpartisan
public-policy guidance in the area of transportation, the need for
political and legislative reform, the benefits of cooperation among
existing nonprofit public-policy organizations and the importance of
convening people face-to-face to talk about issues. She's optimistic
that Minnesota can still make public policy work.
Lori Sturdevant is an
editorial writer and columnist at the Star Tribune.She writes
about topics she has covered for more than 35 years: state
government and politics. She joined the Minneapolis Tribune
as a summer replacement reporter in 1975, returned as a reporter in
1976, and was lead Capitol reporter and a newsroom assignment editor
before joining the editorial staff in 1992.
A native of South Dakota, Sturdevant is a
graduate of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is a member of
that institution's Board of Trustees. She has been the author,
ghostwriter or editor of 10 books, including A Man's Reach: The
Autobiography of Elmer L. Andersen, Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the
Minnesota Women's Movement, and The Pillsburys of Minnesota.
Her latest book is Creating a Real School: the Lake Country
School Story by Larry and Pat Schaefer, released in 2016.
She is a three-time winner of the
Minnesota Book Award and recipient of the David Graven Award at the
2010 Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Awards Program.
September 2015, the Civic Caucus has been undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating, defining
and resolving major community problems. On Nov. 27, 2016, the Caucus
issued its report based on that review, Looking Back,
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.The
Civic Caucus interviewed Lori Sturdevant of the Star Tribune
to get (1) her reaction to its report; (2) her perspective on
whether the Legislature and other policy bodies are getting the
kinds of quality proposals they need for resolving community
problems; and (3) her suggestions for people the Caucus might
interview in the coming months to follow up on its report.
It's encouraging that the Civic Caucus is concerned with advancing
the creative, innovative solutions we all associate with Minnesota
public policy. Sturdevant
followed up on that remark by saying she has great respect for the
Civic Caucus and its latest effort to improve the state's
What's driving public policy today is who
pays for our politics. Sturdevant said having an idea advanced
by an organization like the Citizens League or the Civic Caucus and
then accepted affirmatively by the Legislature "is not a slam dunk
anymore. It never was, but it's gotten much more difficult. The
quality of ideas is not what is driving public policy now. What's
driving public policy is who pays for our politics and what those
people insist on."
Sturdevant asked the interview group to
what extent the Civic Caucus's proposal-that is, to ask the
Minnesota foundation community to take the lead in attempting to
improve the quality of public-policy proposals offered by
organizations and individuals-overcomes the problem that the
political process won't embrace ideas opposed by the financial
patrons of our politicians.
The foundation community is not, in any
usual sense, accountable to the public. Through the tax system,
Sturdevant said, foundations have some accountability to the public.
"But they're not accountable in the way we usually think of things
being accountable," she asserted. "It's an advantage in some ways,
because it also means they're independent, but a lot of foundations
are very susceptible to doing the bidding of their donors."
She said that's made clear in the book
Dark Money: The
Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical
Right by Jane Mayer.
Some foundations have been created by well-to-do people with
agendas. "Foundations have been used to advance those kinds of
agendas," Sturdevant said. "If you are funded by foundations, how do
you build a reputation for your work as something bigger than just
the foundation community's agenda?" she asked. "How do you avoid
being controlled by these foundations that have a particular
self-interest and agenda?"
She praised Minnesota's foundation
community, but she said other communities have foundations that are
quite different. An example would be foundations that work to
maintain the status quo in a number of ways.
How do you set an independent, middle
ground agenda? With results of the recent election, Sturdevant
argued, elitism is out of favor politically. "All of us who are
considered elites are out of vogue right now," she said. "How do you
involve the old Citizens League types? How do you involve more than
Citizens League types in this work, so as to enhance your
credibility? I think that becomes important to the work you will
accomplish. How do you set an agenda that is seen as springing from
average citizens, rather than from partisans or special interests or
just Citizens League types at a time when there is such intense
polarization of the electorate?How do you set an agenda that is seen
as truly independent and occupies the middle ground?"
Should there be a public policy shop
within state government? "To what extent did you consider a role
for a public policy shop within state government, such as reviving
the State Planning Agency or expanding the good shop at House
Research?" Sturdevant asked. "There are advantages and disadvantages
to being within government. But the accountability problem that your
proposal has would be alleviated if somehow the agendas were set in
a system that is accountable directly to the public."
An interviewer commented that the Civic
Caucus is not going to be the organization that does the work.
"We're just trying to find a way that it might be done," he said.
What about political process reform?
"Will you work on political process reform?" Sturdevant asked the
group. "We now have million-dollar legislative races. The scale of
this has just gone crazy." She said following Watergate, Minnesota
passed a public campaign finance system that held pretty well. For a
long time, most legislators were able to control their own campaigns
and were adhering to spending limits.
"But in this new independent-expenditure
world, candidates have lost control of their own campaigns," she
remarked. "What their own campaigns can control is a miniscule
portion of what's being spent in their districts. The
nationalization of our Minnesota politics is an amazing change in
just the last dozen years."
There has been a reduction in emphasis on
social sciences in schools, including civics education.
Sturdevant made that remark in response to an interviewer's
commentthat higher education is not preparing kids to be citizens.
Sturdevant noted that Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) is trying to
improve K-12 civics education by requiring high school students to
pass the U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate.
What are the institutions that can be
helpful in how people participate in learning about issues today?
An interviewer asked that question after commenting that today
people pick and choose how they get their information based on what
they already believe. He went on to say that meetings like that of
the Citizens League in the past, where people served on study
committees that lasted six months or more, aren't possible today.
People are willing to sit at their computers or use their phones,
but many are unlikely to come to meetings. "We haven't adapted our
process to match the communication methods of today," he said.
Legislators are paying more attention to
money than to their citizens.
Sturdevant remarked that the Civic Caucus
wants to put together a product that has impact and that is seen as
valid and viable. "The audience you're speaking to is primarily the
Legislature and other public bodies," she said. "Those people feel
bound to their political patrons. Legislators are paying more
attention to money than to their citizens."
For example, she asked, why was Sen. David
Hann (R-Eden Prairie) so hostile to light rail even though polls in
his district showed substantial citizen support for it? Sturdevant
believes that ultimately cost him his seat in the recent election.
"The political patrons of the state Republican caucus are
anti-transit," she said. "We have to connect the dots back to the
source of that money."
An interviewer commented that legislators
appear to act based on the information they're given. "And the Koch
brothers are giving them lots of information," he said. "They're
hiring colleges to do studies that legislators can use. The Koch
brothers are doing a great job of getting information to legislators
to get the decisions they want."
"There is an opportunity still for
individuals to make a difference apart from spending billions of
dollars," Sturdevant responded. "But billions of dollars back the
messages that come from the entrenched groups. There's more money
being spent on the right and it tends to be dark money. The money
being spent on the left is more visible."
She said all this money takes certain
things off the agenda or makes it difficult for them to stay on the
agenda in a meaningful way. The issue of big money has a hard time
staying on any agenda, because there are big-money forces arrayed
Did the additional money affect the
presidential election? An interviewer asked whether all the
additional money actually influenced the presidential election.
Sturdevant responded that Hillary Clinton's campaign spent more than
Donald Trump's. The dark money that was spent, according to Jane
Mayer, was $750 million, all concentrated on eight states and on
down-ballot races and turnout. The down-ballot races altered the
turnout, Sturdevant said, which made the difference in the
presidential election. Only 80,000 votes made the difference between
Clinton losing and Trump winning.
Sturdevant said Clinton was talking about
things that would have made a difference for the economies in
various states: reducing the debt associated with higher education,
a higher minimum wage, paid family leave. "Those sorts of things
would have made a difference in lots of places," Sturdevant said. "A
positive immigration policy would have made a difference for the
Minnesota workforce. That whole message seemed to get muted
Instead, she said, people were convinced
that negative trade deals were responsible for loss of their jobs
and that immigration is a threat, not a plus.
The community sector must come up with
better, more thoughtful ideas that are innovative and look to the
future. An interviewer asked for Sturdevant's assessment of the
effectiveness of the community sector in taking seriously the need
for analysis of issues and the need to be thoughtful in coming up
with proposals that are innovative, looking to the future, specific
and actionable. He asked how urgent it is for that process to be
Sturdevant replied, "There is a need. No
question about it. And there is a need to engage a younger
generation that operates primarily on social media."
The print media are not dead yet. An
interviewer commented that some print media have an impact on some
of the people who think about things. He asked where the print media
are having influence, irrespective of the big money. The Cowles
family (former publishers of the Star Tribune), he said, had
an idea about the world and had impact.
Sturdevant interjected that the Cowles
family had an idea of Minnesota's place in the world that was
ambitious and very impactful.
The interviewer asked how print media
people today think of their impact. How are they edging into the new
way of people learning about what's going on in an intelligent way?
Sturdevant responded that the Star
Tribune is not talking as much about print anymore as about
being a news service. It's bigger than print alone, she said.
Someone in the paper's circulation department told her, "We don't
talk about circulation; we talk about readership."
In a given week, Sturdevant said, 1.3
million adults in the metro area read the Star Tribune in
print or online. "That doesn't mean they're reading the whole
newspaper," she said. Many people reading the paper are reading one
article referred to them by a friend on Facebook, which is one of
the primary entrees to the Star Tribune.
She said today the Star Tribune has
47,000 digital-only subscribers and the number is growing. That's
among the highest of any major metropolitan news organization. In
terms of the print edition, the Star Tribune has the fifth
largest Sunday newspaper circulation in the country. Only the New
York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Chicago
Tribune are larger.
"We're not dead yet," Sturdevant said.
The impact of the editorial page is
probably less today than it was 25 or 30 years ago. As an
example of that, Sturdevant noted that every major newspaper of note
endorsed Hillary Clinton, but that didn't seem to matter. "That
tells you a lot," she said.
The Star Tribune has always had
ebbs and flows in its reach outstate. Sturdevant said that seems
to be caused by whatever the latest fad is in the publisher's
office. She commented that the paper has readers all over the world.
"We're not as geographically bound," she asserted. "That said, we
have a very strong commitment to being Minnesota-specific. That I
don't see eroding. We are Minnesota-specific, not Twin
How does the Civic Caucus respond to the
dark money era? An interviewer reported that when
The interviewer asserted that dark money
can only thrive in an era where people are choosing not to be
informed and choosing not to listen to other points of view. "Part
of what the Civic Caucus is about is to break through this," he
said. "Because we're not beholden to people because of money, party
or anything else, we can expose the fact that there are innovative
solutions that cross party boundaries. But it also has to be a sea
change. It has to be a call to a new kind of patriotism. If you
believe in democracy, part of your patriotic duty is, as Don Shelby
said, to be informed."
"I think that's what we seek to do," the
interviewer said. "We're not going to tackle dark money, but we want
to expose the innovative solutions."
"I want to encourage you to do exactly
that: to shine a spotlight on the issues that are being neglected by
the system," Sturdevant responded. "That's a wonderful role. It's
really important that you preserve your independence and credibility
as you do that." She said that's the reason she's asking about the
independence and accountability of the foundation community, if
that's to be a financial source for this work.
We're not getting the caliber of
candidates for public office that we'd like to see. An
interviewer asked how we can change the kind of people who enter
public service, particularly those in elected office. "A lot of
things depend on what a person brings to the table and how
susceptible that person is to being manipulated by so many external
forces," he said.
Sturdevant responded that she has worried
in recent years about the difficulty in attracting good people into
government, whether in elected, appointed or civil- service
positions. She asserted that Minnesota voters just did something to
counter that trend by passing the Constitutional amendment that
requires an independent commission to set legislators' salaries.
"That was an important change," she said. "It should lead rather
soon to an increase in legislative salaries, which is not the
end-all and be-all, but it will help." As it is now, she maintains
that we're not getting the caliber of candidates we'd like to see.
"Some of these folks are not up to the job."
"Having a job that doesn't require quite
so much financial sacrifice will help," Sturdevant argued. "Having a
job that isn't so thankless and isn't going to subject you to a
constant barrage of all kinds of criticism would certainly help,
too. That maybe speaks to your call for a new kind of patriotism."
She asked what that would really look like
and said it would require us to stop demonizing government. "There
are people with large pockets and large impact who believe that
government is pretty much all illegitimate," she commented.
Why do people vote against their own
interests? Two interviewers asked Sturdevant that question. She
referenced the 2004 book
"People will vote for some sort of a sense
of patriotism or goodness or morality," she said. "There is that
sense of wanting to be on the side of goodness that is motivating
some votes. But folks maybe aren't quite discerning where 'good'
"And," Sturdevant continued, "we're in an
environment where, since Ronald Reagan's campaign in 1976 and his
victory in 1980, we've had a pretty strong drumbeat of 'government
is the problem, not the solution.'" In Minnesota, we've squeezed
government hard, she asserted. She noted that Minnesota Senate
Minority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) has said that government can't
do anything well if it's squeezed too much. "Then government
continues to be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of some people,"
Involving multiple foundations is
beneficial. An interviewer echoed some of Sturdevant's concerns
about the Civic Caucus report recommending that Minnesota's
foundation community should take on a role in attempting to improve
proposals for solving community problems. But he thinks the fact
that the report talks about multiple foundations being involved is a
strength, because certain donors can have a disproportionate impact
on individual foundations. The interviewer noted that when more
foundations are involved, it's less likely that particular donors
will have influence.
Foundations today are now very sensitive
to demographic, racial and income-equality issues, the interviewer
continued. Working with foundations might help address the concern
of having a greater diversity of people involved in trying to
resolve public policy issues.
Which Minnesota institutions have the
greatest policy impact? The same interviewer, a former director
of Minnesota's State Planning Agency, doesn't believe that
dismantled agency will be revived. He said Legislative Auditor Jim
Nobles has a huge positive impact on public policy. Maybe some sort
of quasi-public entity, perhaps affiliated with a higher education
institution, could take on some of the former functions of the State
The interviewer continued by saying the
Star Tribune has the foremost public-policy impact in the state
of Minnesota. The newspaper's recent multi-issue, high-profile,
front-page series on topics like endangered waters and treatment of
disabled people working in sheltered employment have a huge impact,
he said. "If there's some way we could build a link between what the
Civic Caucus report talks about and the visibility and impact the
Star Tribune has, that's the way to get positive public-policy
influence," the interviewer said.
Sturdevant responded that the Star
Tribune has a long history of working closely with the Citizens
League, the Civic Caucus and other organizations. "We're looking for
the kind of work you're describing" in the Civic Caucus report.
"Minnesota is so blessed by the quality of
its foundation community and business community," she said. "But
public mindedness is not guaranteed to us from the foundations. If
you turn to the foundations, what if foundations 25 years from now
look a lot different than they do today?"
An interviewer asked how it is decided
inside the Star Tribune which big questions should get
high-profile attention. Sturdevant responded that there is a really
strong firewall between the editorial department and the news
department. She is one of five writers in the editorial section and
those writers don't know how the decisions are made about which
issues to tackle in high-profile news series.
She noted that she did an editorial-page
series last year on Minnesota's growing rural/urban divide. She was
motivated by her belief that "one of the great assets of Minnesota
has been its ability to aggregate resources statewide and then
distribute them in a way that brings up the quality of education and
other public services in lots of places," she said.
The transportation issue needs
public-policy attention to help us navigate great technological
changes. An interviewer asked what the issues are that the
public-policy process recommended in the Civic Caucus report should
be used to try to resolve. "Now there's a tendency to bring all the
contending parties into a room and come up with a grand compromise
that will resolve the issue," the interviewer commented.
"Transportation finance seems a perfect issue for that. What issues
are ripe for the analytical process and coming up with actionable
Sturdevant responded that we've been stuck
on the transportation issue since DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich left office
in 1991. She said the state has been in a "bad place" since
Independent-Republican Gov. Arne Carlson (1991-1999) came out
against any increase in the gas tax. Sturdevant said with the
latest election, the gas tax is "off the table."
She asserted that great technological
changes are coming very quickly in transportation, such as
driverless cars and attempts to lower carbon emissions from cars.
"The transportation issue is changing quickly," she said. "Some
public-policy guidance apart from partisans would be really useful
right now to help us navigate through that change."
Today there tends to be a focus on
national issues, rather than Minnesota issues. An interviewer
made that point and said solving Minnesota's problems was the
priority from the time of Republican Gov. Harold Stassen (1939-1943)
until about 10 years ago, when the focus shifted to national issues.
"We need to talk about both local and national issues," the
interviewer said. "But let's fix Minnesota first,"
"Minnesota is our thing here," Sturdevant
responded, referring to the newspaper. The change in our politics,
she said, is that "national money is flowing into Minnesota politics
big time. If you think that was bad in 2016, wait till 2020, when
redistricting is upon us."
Should the Civic Caucus and other
organizations be looking at political and legislative reform?
"To what extent should political reform be on your list?" Sturdevant
asked. "To what extent should we say there's a Minnesota way of
doing things that had to do with limited campaign spending and
elevation of debates and forums and not so much with these hit
pieces that come in people's mailboxes?"
She said legislative calendar reform is
another issue that could be on the Civic Caucus's list of topics.
"It's the pay issue, but it's also how much time does this require?"
she said. "At some point, we must use the time more wisely than we
Another interviewer suggested the issue of
reformation of the current legislative process. She said 80 bills
passed in the last session versus 1,200 in an average session.
Sturdevant said she likes what former State Senator and Appeals
Court Judge Jack Davies is saying about bringing back single-subject
bills to replace the recent reliance on omnibus bills. She thinks it
will take a court case to bring back single-issue bills. The
single-subject rule for legislative bills is being violated all the
time, she said.
Do we need cooperation among existing
organizations? An interviewer noted several nonprofit
organizations in Minnesota that deal with public-policy issues: the
Center of the American Experiment, the Citizens League, Growth &
Justice, the League of Women Voters and the African American
Leadership Forum. He asked whether we need an entirely new
citizen-based organization in Minnesota or, instead, to improve an
Sturdevant replied by asking, "Or do we
need some sort of cooperation among those organizations? A lot of
institutions from the 20th century are now in a new realm with
social media being such a driver. They're asking, 'Can we come
together? Can we join forces?' The Citizens League is still a good
brand in this city and it still has something that this effort
needs: instant recognition."
Incoming Civic Caucus Chair Paul Ostrow
commented that he and incoming Civic Caucus Executive Director Janis
Clay are having that conversation with the Citizens League. They met
recently with Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw and
talked about meeting quarterly.
Should we try to bypass the legislative
process? Ostrow asked whether Minnesota could be the exception
to the nationalization of our politics. "Is there a role for the
Civic Caucus, the foundation community and the Star Tribune
to bring people of good faith together and bypass the legislative
process?" he asked. "People are afraid that it'll be exposed that
there's not as big a divide as people think."
Sturdevant responded that a lot of
government is run through the state Legislature in this state, so
trying to bypass the Legislature is not a good strategy. "It's
better to empower the people in the Legislature to put Minnesota
first," she said.
"The power to convene is an important
power," Sturdevant continued. "Social media drives so much, but
there's still a hunger to get people together for face-to-face
conversations." Ten years ago the Star Tribune had a program
called the Citizens Forum to bring people together to talk about
issues. "We should be doing more of that," she said. Some of the
organizations we've talked about already do some of that and the
Civic Caucus could partner with them.
An interviewer asked if the newspaper
could focus on good legislators and publish their ideas. He said he
knows a number of CEOs. "I don't know any of them who are actively
interested in the dark money. They're not that partisan. They would
like to see government work well."
The Civic Caucus should interview Rip
Rapson about its new report. Sturdevant recommended that the
Civic Caucus interview Rip Rapson, president and CEO for the last 10
years of the Kresge Foundation in Detroit. "I think there is a model
there, maybe," she said. (Rapson has strong Minnesota ties, having
served as president of the McKnight Foundation for six years, as
deputy mayor of Minneapolis, as legislative assistant to U.S. Rep.
Don Fraser and as a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's
Design Center for American Urban Studies.)
Voting patterns are very different inside
and outside of the metro-area beltway. Sturdevant asserted that
if you draw a ring around the I-694 and I-494 beltway, voting
patterns are very different inside and outside of that ring. "We
need to find ways to talk to each other," she said. "I want to
believe there's more of a middle ground than we see in our voting
Minnesota can still make public policy
work. Sturdevant noted that because Minnesota is a bit remote
due to its weather and geography, we've been able to be a little
different here. "I think that's been more of a plus than a minus,"
she said. "We still get along with each other here. We still have
CEOs with enlightened views. We can still make this work."
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,