The roots of the Civic Caucus trace back to 1950, when four close friends at the University of Minnesota-Verne Johnson, Charles Clay, Raeder Larson and Jim Olson-began the first of six decades of weekly meetings to talk about public policy. All pursued noteworthy careers in business, law and academia, but maintained a lifelong passion for public policy and for making Minnesota a better place.
In 2012, the Star Tribune described Johnson as a "public policy giant," referencing the deep imprint Johnson left through his time as executive director of the Citizens League, as director of corporate planning at General Mills and through his founding of the Civic Caucus, which he launched and nurtured with passion over the last decade of his life. The Star Tribune credited Clay as a forefather of the Metropolitan Council. Clay also served as a board member and president of the Citizens League. All four founders exemplified a passion for Minnesota's civic sector and their weekly policy sessions served as an incubator for many solid and creative policy proposals.
In 2001, the passing of Larson brought the group to a decision point. Could the three continue their weekly discussions, was it time to abandon the whole thing, or what else could the future hold? Then came an inspiration. Although the Internet was relatively new, Johnson recognized its potential. Through tools recently available (e-mail and a website), electronic participants were added to the weekly sessions and the group began e-mail distribution and an online archive of its discussions and interviews. They expanded the core participants, began building an e-mail list and developed a website.
The Civic Caucus was established as a Minnesota nonprofit corporation in 2004 and subsequently approved as tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Johnson was the first chair of the Civic Caucus. He liked to say he held the position for 60 years and was never deposed. Paul Gilje was the first executive director. Upon Johnson's death in 2012, Dan Loritz took over as chair. In 2017, Paul Ostrow became chair and Janis Clay became executive director.
Since its first interview in 2005, the Civic Caucus has worked to foster in-depth dialog, seeking informed nonpartisan solutions to a broad range of Minnesota public issues. It has conducted nearly 600 thoughtful interviews of civic and business leaders, innovators, elected officials, researchers, academics and thought leaders from Minnesota and around the nation. The interviews, as well as over 20 position reports, are all accessible on the Civic Caucus website.
Significant time is devoted to each interview, usually 75 to 90 minutes. Well-organized notes are prepared, including concise summaries, to best convey content to non-attendees who do not have the time to listen to or watch a lengthy program. To ensure that summaries accurately reflect the views of the interviewees, they are always given full opportunity to review and approve content prior to distribution.
The Civic Caucus distributes its summaries, as well as its occasional reports, free of charge to over 6,800 civic-minded e-mail readers and to nearly 300 media outlets statewide. The e-mail list is updated regularly to include elected officials statewide, candidates running for elective office, academics, business people and other civic-minded people who wish to subscribe to the e-mails.
In September 2015, the Civic Caucus began a review of the quality of Minnesota's public-policy process for anticipating, defining and resolving major community problems. On November 27, 2016, the Caucus issued its resulting report, Looking Back, Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process. In 2017 and early 2018, the Civic Caucus held follow-up interviews on its report; conducted interviews with the major, announced candidates for Minnesota governor; and conducted interviews focusing on Minnesota's legislative process. The Civic Caucus has the flexibility to focus on important policy issues as they arise to deepen understanding of those issues
Verne Johnson imprinted on the Civic Caucus his passion for learning and redesign, always seeking positive and creative solutions to thorny policy issues. The organization continues to focus on the foundational elements needed to help Minnesota remain competitive: human capital, physical infrastructure, education, transportation, health care and, of course, the public-policy process itself.