One-party control does not always equal unity

tumafeature“Let’s call it the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.”

Hubert Humphrey
August 1943*

In 1943 Hubert Humphrey had recently graduated Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota and was barely scraping by with a wife and a family.  The young man from South Dakota was utterly immersed in politics in his new home of Minneapolis.  This young activist found himself in the middle of an intersection in time where Minnesota politics was changing rapidly.  Never one to shy away from political intrigue, Humphrey took advantage of a clear need after the 1942 Republican Party election success for restructuring of the Democratic Party in Minnesota. He would eventually parlay his restructuring of the party into electoral victories for mayor of Minneapolis and eventually the U.S. Senate.

It was evident to many after the 1942 election that a merger needed to occur between the Democratic Party which was only the third largest party in the state at the time and the more dominant Farmer Labor Party which was an ever evolving coalition of labor activists, prairie populists and other various progressive movements.  Many of the national Democratic leaders felt the ragtag band of Farmer Laborites should give up the ghost and join the National Democratic Party.  Yet the Farmer Labor Party was the more dominant party over the previous two decades in Minnesota politics, holding far more statewide and local offices than the Democratic Party.

It was Humphrey who took the last of his family savings and headed to Washington, DC in July of 1943 to convince party leaders to take seriously an idea of a new coalition movement in Minnesota. That effort was followed up in August of that year with several key leaders from the two parties meeting in Minnesota to consider the possibility.  Humphrey was one of the leading voices calling for a merger recognizing the proud heritage of Minnesota’s diverse progressive movement and as a result the new coalition party was organized.  It was in that meeting he coined the name for the new party: Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL).

From its birth the DFL party has always been a diverse and broad ranging coalition of many different, often competing, political and regional points of view.  That reality is no different today, with varying interests vying within the party from Iron Range politicians, inner-city progressives, suburban moderates, labor activists, teachers, rural progressives and farmers.  This diversity is a strength for the party on Election Day in this very independent-minded state, but that same diversity can also be a weakness when it comes time to govern.

Therefore, one-party control of both legislative bodies under the DFL banner does not necessarily translate into unity. The fractures in this loose coalition become most evident at this time in the legislative process when the committees are putting together their various competing legislative proposals. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of environmental funding. It was most significantly displayed recently when the House Omnibus Legacy Funding Bill that invests the constitutionally dedicated Clean Water, Land and Legacy funds did not receive its scheduled floor vote last Saturday.

It is tradition in the legislature that great latitude is given to the committee chairs on major funding bills to build a coalition that ensures a passage of the committee’s omnibus bill. Unfortunately, the chair of the House Legacy Finance Committee, Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis), has appeared to fail in building such a coalition to pass her bill on the floor. Rep. Kahn is no stranger to controversy. She is the longest serving member in the Legislature, having first been elected in 1972. She is a fiercely independent liberal progressive representing the area around the University of Minnesota. As a proud Brooklyn Dodger fan, she is also not afraid of a little brinksmanship and a good old political street fight. And a street fight she is in.

Rep. Kahn has chosen with her omnibus bill to, in part, attempt to diminish the influence of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC). This citizens’ council by law makes recommendation on how to expand the one-third portion of the Legacy Amendment sales tax proceeds dedicated to the Outdoor Heritage Fund to be “spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife”. These recommendations are submitted to the Legislature to go through the normal legislative process for final approval.

The Legislature has always made adjustments to the recommendations depending on additional discovered evidence or different legislative priorities, but they have been mostly minor adjustments. The LSOHC has traditionally made mostly annual recommendations as opposed to the normal two-year recommendations the Legislature make. Rep. Kahn essentially makes the Council irrelevant for the time being by taking most of their annual recommendations and extending them for 2 years. She also makes an effort to move more of the dollars to the metropolitan area. She points out that the LSOHC has provided only 10 percent of all funds to the entire metro area despite the fact that the metro area provides 64 percent of the taxes that fund the Legacy money.

As a savvy legislator, Rep. Kahn knows that as author of the bill delay will work in her favor if the advocates for outdoor heritage expenditures want to see these $100 million per year of investments move forward. The LSOHC only recommends; it is only the Legislature that can fund these projects. Therefore, even though the majority of legislators at this stage support the LSOHC recommendations, they may be forced to compromise to actually see a bill passed this year.

The fracture within the expansive coalition we call the DFL party over investments in the great outdoors and the reality that our legislative session is coming to an end in less than 4 weeks is of great concern to Conservation Minnesota. As one of the lead organizations that helped pass the Legacy Amendment, we are generally supportive of the citizens’ recommendations coming out of the LSOHC. It would be a mistake to short-circuit the citizen counsel by not allowing them to do their work on an annual basis. It has been unfortunate that Legacy funding has been caught in several games of legislative brinksmanship in the past. Therefore, it is our hope that this latest round of brinksmanship does not result in critical investments for the great outdoors being delayed. I think Hubert Humphrey would be disappointed with that result from the political party he helped birth.

* “Hubert Humphrey, a Biography”, Carl Solberg, Borealis Books 2003, page 95

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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