Guest speaker: State Rep. Steve Sviggum, Republican, former Speaker of the
Attendance: Verne Johnson, chair; Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (by
phone), John Mooty (by phone), and Jim Olson (by phone)
A. Context of the meeting— The Civic Caucus has been learning about the
elections process in Minnesota to see if polarization and paralysis in state
government are related in any way to how people seek office, are endorsed,
nominated and elected. On several occasions in recent weeks the role of the
legislative caucuses has come up. Today we're meeting with Rep. Steve Sviggum,
who served as House Speaker and head of the House Republican Caucus until the
2007 legislative session.
B. Welcome and introduction— On behalf of the caucus Paul welcomed Rep.
Sviggum and introduced him. Sviggum, in his mid-50s, has the distinction of
already having served in the Minnesota House for more than half his life.
Sviggum was born in 1951 and was first elected in 1978. He was reelected to
his 15th term in November 2006. He served as speaker from 1998 to 2006.
Previously he was House minority leader for six years. So he headed up his
legislative caucus for 14 years. He's a graduate of St. Olaf College and a
farmer/educator. Sviggum has recently been named a fellow of the Humphrey
Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and will start
teaching there in the fall.
C. Comments and discussion— During the comments of Sviggum and in discussion
with the Civic Caucus the following points were raised:
1. The difficult role of Speaker — Speaker of the House is a demanding,
controversial position, Sviggum said. He was a lightening rod for issues. We
say in our lives that friends come and go. With the Speaker, enemies
accumulate. He could have filled his schedule 24 hours a day.
2. Legislative caucus serves as a balance to special interest
groups— The courts have ruled that independent expenditures are a part of the
process. No limits exist on independent expenditures. In the last campaign,
Education Minnesota (a teachers union) spent $2.9 million on independent
expenditures; AFSCME (a public employees union) spent $1.9 million; and casinos,
$1.2 million. Other special interest groups are jobs now, transportation,
Sierra Club, trial lawyers, and the family council. Special interest groups
usually focus their independent expenditures on 30 to 40 districts where races
are close. The legislative caucus becomes a balance to counter the special
3. Legislative caucus fills a void because political party activity has
evaporated at the local legislative district level— The legislative caucus
decided it had to control its own destiny. Political party activity largely has
disappeared in many legislative districts. Without the legislative caucus
entering the picture, there'd be no support for finding and supporting—in the
case of Sviggum's caucus—Republican candidates. They need to find good people
to run, and the candidates must have support, that is, leg work, field staff and
financial contributions. Elections are best served by having good people to
run for office and the citizens having good choices on the ballot.
4. Personal role of the Speaker in fund raising — As Speaker, Sviggum
said he personally raised most of the money for the House Republican caucus,
which was $2.4 million in 2005-2006. He said that his legislative caucus has a
campaign steering committee of about seven or eight legislators who make
decisions on how the funds are to be distributed among candidates. If the
caucus weren't involved, the special interests like education, labor and
business would largely determine whose campaigns would receive financial support
through their independent expenditures with special interest advocacy.
5. Personal role of the Speaker in recruiting candidates— He said he
has driven all over the state repeatedly—often getting home in the wee hours of
the morning—to encourage candidates. He remembers, for example, one day he
left the Legislature at 2:30 p.m., drove to Thief River Falls for an 8 p.m.
meeting with a prospective candidate, and then drove back to St. Paul, arriving
at 5:30 a.m., just in time to shower and shave and get ready for the next day.
Some people would think that the legislative caucus is trying to enhance its
power. But they're just trying to encourage good people to run.
6. Caucus control over legislators disputed— Sviggum said it is
"absolutely wrong" to assume that legislators who were elected with significant
legislative caucus support are then obligated to simply support positions of the
caucus. He said that every member has a strong independent streak. They see
themselves responsible to the voters of their district. They realize the
importance of the legislative caucus, of course. The legislator from Kenyon,
for example, knows that he or she must get support from other districts to pass
legislation. Without that kind of cooperation and collaboration nothing would
pass. A caucus can be seen like a "team" (football, family, business etc.).
You recognize and respect differences of opinions and positions and hope and
work for each other's success (in this case Minnesotans' success).
7. Polarization-paralysis problem challenged— Sviggum challenged
claims by others that the Legislature is plagued by excessive polarization and
paralysis. The Legislature today is far more open than it was 40 years ago when
decisions were made by a few white men, maybe in a bar in St. Paul. No one
wants to go back to those "good old days", Sviggum said. The irony is that the
approval rating amongst citizens of the Legislature has gone down— but we'd
never go back or accept the "good old days".
Newly elected legislative caucus leaders in the 2007 Legislature have
the responsibility of stimulating cooperation among members of their caucuses.
Legislative caucus leaders cannot act arbitrarily.
8. Problem of electing all Senators at the same election— Currently
all state senators are elected at the same time every four years. He believes
the law should be changed to that one-half of the Senate would be elected every
two years. He recalled that in 2004 the Republican-controlled House passed
bills, but the DFL-controlled Senate refused to take action. House members
were up for election in 2004 and needed to show a record to the voters, but the
Senate wouldn't be running until 2006. Such an impasse would be much less
likely if some of the Senators would have been up for election in 2004. DFL
majority Senators actually stated: "We don't need anything, were not up for
9. Ability to maintain close relationships across party lines— It was
noted that a legislator in a previous meeting of the Civic Caucus said that it
is difficult for a Republican and a DFL legislator to work together during the
session when each knows that the other's legislative caucus will be raising
money to defeat the legislator in the next election. Sviggum said that
informal gatherings of legislators are much easier within the confines of ones
own legislative caucus. If he's going to go out for dinner, spending $20 of
his own money, he'd be much more likely to go to dinner with someone from his
10. Balancing the best interests of the state with the best interests
of a legislator's district— In response to a question about the need to consider
bold action that benefits the state, Sviggum said that some legislators lose
sight of what's in the best interests of the state and vote the interests of
their locality only, without an ability to cooperate or compromise for
everyone's best interest.
11. Support for Robert Fulghum's philosophy— As a guide for legislative
behavior, Sviggum said he philosophically thinks that Robert Fulghum had it
right in his book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergaten": play
fair, clean up your own mess, don't hurt anyone. Every day work a little, play
a little, sing a little, write a little and pray a little - "Balance".
12. Need to balance interests— Sviggum disputed that far left and far
right policies are dominant. He said that a leader can't govern from either
end. He doesn't want to be perfectly in the center, but balance is needed.
13. Sviggum's suggested legislative changes— Sviggum highlighted three
changes he would support:
—Rotate terms of the State Senate, so that one-half of the
seats would be up for election every two years, rather than the entire Senate
running every four years.
—Don't allow ex-legislators to immediately become lobbyists as
soon as they leave office -"Revolving Door" legislation.
—Establish a bipartisan commission to be responsible for
14. Possibility of limiting independent expenditures— Civic Caucus
members said they recall David Schultz saying that limits on the size of an
independent expenditure for an individual candidate could be imposed. Sviggum
said it is his understanding that the Supreme Court decision wouldn't permit
limits. In continuing discussion he said that perhaps limits could be imposed
by law on legislative caucuses, but he doesn't see how such limits could be
imposed on special interest groups.
15. Reinvigorating the political parties at the local level?— Sviggum
said he doesn't see a great deal of confidence in political parties among
citizens and that local involvement in party affairs attracts very few people.
16. Absence of "middle ground" voters at precinct caucuses— A member
commented that participation in the biennial precinct caucuses (the grass-roots
party meetings that lead to candidate endorsement) seems heavily concentrated
among persons on the far left or far right politically. The member asked
whether changes might be considered that would enlarge the influence of people
in the middle.
Sviggum said he supports the concept of multiple party endorsement for a
given office, such as, for example, giving party endorsement to all candidates
receiving at least 25 or 30 percent support for endorsement. He also would
advance the date of the primary election.
He said he'd consider an idea of increasing the size of legislative
districts and having some candidates run at-large within such districts. A
Civic Caucus member mentioned one idea that three House members could run
at-large in the same district, with a requirement that each political party
would not be allowed to nominate candidates for more than two of the three
at-large seats. Such an idea would guarantee at least one minority party
candidate would get elected, irrespective of the political makeup of a district.
However, others, including Sviggum, felt such an idea might be prohibited under
the Minnesota constitution.
Sviggum said he supports a unicameral Legislature. It would be more
accountable to the citizens, he said.
17. Make changes in legislative caucuses as campaign bodies?— If one
accepts the fact that legislative caucuses are likely to continue to be dominant
players in local legislative campaigns, Sviggum was asked whether any changes
should be made, statutory or otherwise, that would make the campaign role of the
legislative caucuses more visible to the people of the state. He said he has
not thought about any possible changes.
18. Comparison with other states— While acknowledging problems in
Minnesota, Sviggum said our problems are not like those of several other states,
where legislative leaders are under indictment or in prison for their illegal
19. Thanks— On behalf of the Civic Caucus, Verne Johnson thanked
Sviggum for meeting with us today. He informed Sviggum that a draft of the
summary of today's meeting will be distributed to Sviggum as soon as it is
prepared. After Sviggum has made any changes, the summary will be circulated
among some 500 persons on the Civic Caucus email distribution list.
T he Civic Caucus is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.