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These comments are responses to the Civic Caucus interview with

Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL Party Chair
April 15, 2016, 2016

Can political parties focus on policy issues
when their main function is to win elections?


There was a time when the role of citizens in their democracy was much more than voting, according to Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. In the past, people were more engaged in issues and in policy discussions. People brought policy issues to a number of institutions, including the political parties, for discussion. But, he says, the days of political parties and elected officials engaging in serious debate about major reform and major public policy are gone. He compares today's discussions with the type of meaty debate that took place when the "Minnesota Miracle" passed in 1971. There was a different culture back then, a different sense of what the objective was and a different sense of what success meant.

He says now when elected officials discuss issues like education, they're just talking about the "small potatoes" of an increase here or there, rather than looking at larger, systemic change. He admits that parties have not helped create a more civil discourse on issues. Nor, he says, have the media.

Martin says political parties have one main function: to elect people who share their values. But he believes parties cannot force their elected officials to toe the party line and can't be in the business of just trying to make the other side look bad. If each party takes tools for compromise off the table when trying to solve serious problems like transportation funding, there's no room for solutions and the conversation is set up for failure. Then legislators admit at the end of the legislative session that they didn't get anything done, but they made sure the people on the other side didn't, either.

Martin believes Minnesota should have a presidential primary, but should keep the caucus system for statewide and local offices. But the political parties need to reform the precinct caucuses to improve participation. Otherwise, he says, the "diehards" representing the extremes within a party are often the only ones who show up and they endorse candidates with extreme beliefs like their own. 

For the complete interview summary see: Martin interview

Individual Responses:

Tom Spitznagle
Mr. Martin is exactly correct in his observations about the political process. But he is the party chair and in a strong position to do something more than just talk about it. Interesting to note also that he took a few opportunities to bash members of the other party. And so it goes with the political class nothing of any substance will change just more talk.

Vici Oshiro
Generally I agree with Ken Martin. And I find Ken a much better State Chair than I expected. Don't know how much of that is his growth and how much was my failure to appreciate his potential. Probably some of both.

Challenge to Civic Caucus: This discussion reveals correctly how much has changed. Can you identify the causes? I think you were trying to do that here, but didn't get nearly deep enough. I suspect some of it reflects change in involvement of business leaders and the emergence of globalization.

Charles Lutz
Fine interview with Ken Martin. Hope you can schedule one also, same subject, with Republican Party Chair Keith Downey. (Note: Mr. Downey was invited but was unable to attend.)

Dennis Carlson
This was a good interview with honest answers from Mr. Martin. I certainly agree with many of his insights on die-hard caucus leadership, the need for having a presidential primary, and the evolution (sorry state that it is) of party politics.

In my experience working to improve education (with legislators on both sides of the aisle), if legislators vote for what is best for their community and go against the party, they really pay a price. Not only do they get verbally attacked and berated behind closed doors by leadership, they also can lose their committee leadership positions, and ultimately their party endorsement and campaign money. That is really playing partisan politic hardball with good people trying to do the right thing for their constituents. Both parties really make them pay a price for going against their caucus leadership.

In education, we need systemic change in special education funding. Either pay the bill or change the law. It is a tremendous unfunded mandate and is creating significant conflict at the local level between parents and administration - all over the country. Also, there has been considerable progress with early college credit options (including PSEO) at the high school level with some school districts. But there has been no real "system" response or state direction given. There could be so much more planning, cooperation, and increased support for this effort. As a result many, many students will not secure a 2- or 4-year college degree and we will certainly not meet the needs of our ever changing skilled work force.

I really find the whole political landscape very depressing. I realize a lot of this is because it looks like Trump will be the Republican presidential candidate. I agree with much of what Ken Martin had to say, however, it is exactly people like him and Keith Downey that need to sit down together and provide leadership for our major political parties. Maybe Civic Caucus could convene such a meeting or task force. Party leadership needs to focus on getting much needed results in infrastructure funding, education reform, and creating an environment that attracts the best to run for office - not ego-centered demagogues that are in it only for themselves and their "brand."


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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.

  John S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje (Executive Director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (Chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman


The Civic Caucus, 01-01-2008
2104 Girard Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55405.
Dan Loritz, chair, 612-791-1919   ~   Paul A. Gilje, coordinator, 952-890-5220.

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