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Art of compromise is the heart of politics

Published (6/1/2010)
By Kris Berggren, Sue Hegarty, Patty Ostberg and Lauren Radomski
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In a bi-partisan gesture, Rep. Marsha Swails, left, and Rep. Carol McFarlane, right, give each other a “high five” after the conclusion of a May 3 conference committee that meant the completion of a bill the two co-authored that would establish a collaborative governance council. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)The House chamber can be a stage for public displays of disaffection as end-of-session pressure builds — grandstanding, sniping at opponents, making accusations, shouting, telling heart-wrenching stories, even tearing up from fatigue, emotion or both.

What happens in the public eye, however, doesn’t tell the whole story of how laws are created. Behind the scenes, lawmakers tend to ease up on the posturing. They know the art of compromise is the heart of politics.

Whether they’re political “frenemies” or real friends with divergent approaches to solving the state’s problems, finding common ground is key to making laws that work, say lawmakers, and so is having personalities that click despite political differences.

During a meeting over coffee and muffins after the 2009 session, Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood) and Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul) began to chip away at resolving the huge problem of funding health care for the poor, particularly the 34,000 covered by General Assistance Medical Care.

“He’s funny, so we didn’t talk a lot of politics. We just got to know each other,” Murphy said.

Murphy, a nurse, learned Dean’s wife is a doctor. They also discovered they had both lived in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood.

Dean and Murphy, who had not collaborated before on legislation, agreed their work would be policy-focused, nonpartisan and geared toward a bill the governor would sign. Both knew neither person would be entirely happy with the outcome.

Dean believes people are tired of one party pushing through legislation that prompts overrides, lawsuits or unallotments.

“I think they like divided government that doesn’t necessarily work great for either side,” he said.

Less controversial bills also benefit from bipartisan support. Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) teamed up with Rep. Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake) to promote statewide K-12 physical education standards they say are a win-win for schools, students and even the state’s long-term health. They say research links participation in fitness activities with better standardized test performance and fewer behavioral problems.

HF3115, sponsored by Norton, would require the state to adopt such standards. Dettmer sponsored a similar bill three years ago when Republicans were in the majority.

“When both of us can come to the table and work our own caucuses, that ultimately benefits the kids,” said Norton.

“We both have a real interest in promoting fitness,” said Dettmer, a physical education teacher and U.S. Army fitness trainer, adding that having the standards will help the state qualify for some federal grants it’s now leaving on the table.

The two put in some sweat equity last summer, co-chairing a task force on childhood obesity with Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka), who sponsors the companion, SF2753. The bill was amended May 16 into a health care law signed May 25 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, HF3055/ SF2908*, sponsored by Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls) and Sen. John Doll (DFL-Burnsville).

Sharing common ground

Another pair of lawmakers may be politically polarized but they’re linked quite literally by common ground.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) and Rep. Mary Liz Holberg (R-Lakeville) collaborated on a bus rapid transit bill for Interstate 35W, the roadway connecting their communities, at the start of his legislative career in 2003.

Holberg gave Hornstein a tour of her district and convinced him to dust off copies of transit studies rather than seek to spend thousands of dollars on a new study. After a series of successful meetings, the pair put together a plan to deal with traffic congestion along the corridor.

Rep. Holberg and I disagree on fundamental issues, but we’re able to maintain a very friendly and respectful relationship,” Hornstein said.

Holberg credits their success to focusing on getting things done for the common good. “It’s more about personalities, not what party you’re from. We can agree to disagree on a lot of issues,” Holberg said. “He was willing to look at cost-effective options.”

“There are so many different divides here — fault-lines in the Legislature that need to be overcome. I think it’s as old as the state itself. It’s not going to simply go away. But, I think we can temper the polarization by investing in some intentional relationship building,” Hornstein said.

However, the relationships themselves occasionally cause concern, say Reps. Marsha Swails (DFL-Woodbury) and Carol McFarlane (R-White Bear Lake). Although each is a proud member of her party, they say some in their caucuses are skeptical they’re so chummy.

“We like being seen together because we know it drives everyone a bit crazy,” said Swails, who grew up in a Republican family, before switching to the DFL party later in life. “But I also know that there’s lots more that unites us than divides us.”

The two made several trips around the state to visit shared service cooperatives doing the work they’re promoting in HF2840/ SF2511*/CH319, sponsored by Swails and Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope). Signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, it establishes a collaborative governance council to recommend ways local government units can combine administrative services, purchasing, programs and technology in order to save money and maintain access to resources.

Former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, now a lobbyist, lauds the pair as a model of the kind of collaborative governance they advocate.

“They recognize that both of them bring something to this effort. They basically capture the best ideas of everybody in what is a more collaborative style and a more inclusive style (which) generally gives a longer standing to policy that’s worked out,” he said. “The more fingerprints on the results, the longer lasting they are.”

The women agree the road trips cemented a friendship that began when they sat next to each other during new member orientation in 2006. Along the way they shared stories of their grandchildren (Swails has two, McFarlane four); saw new parts of the state; and even played bingo at a motel restaurant they chose over an expensive resort where a conference was being held.

McFarlane says some people are surprised “a pair of grandmas” put together a bill that has united unions and management groups in support.

“Marsha and I have been able to allow conversation that sometimes doesn’t happen in this environment,” said McFarlane. She said that’s partly because they see what’s good for the whole state, not just the party or some groups.

That attitude could help in the coming years, when bipartisanship may be needed most, Dean said, as the state’s mounting deficit forces future lawmakers to consider reforms to service delivery across all areas.

“The decisions aren’t going to get easier. They’re going to get harder,” he said.

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