“The forests of the north, the iron of the northeast, the headship over the Great Lakes, and the diversified character of the north-south Minnesota as finally drawn would have been lost.”
Theodore C. Blegen*
As Minnesota approached its congressional approval as a state in the late 1850s, the exact boundaries were still in great dispute. The old fur trading interests and the lumberman preferred a north-south alignment from the Iowa border to Canada. The quickly accumulating new settlers were more agrarian in nature and envisioned an east-west alignment from the Mississippi River to the Missouri with the northern boundary no further north than present-day St. Cloud. They also envisioned a rail line going from Winona to St. Peter, which they thought should be our capitol, to help the new farmers spread west into the open prairies all the way to the Missouri River.
The north-south contingent had a powerful benefactor in Washington DC in Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The Democratic senator sided with the north-south alignment out of the belief that the headwaters of the Great Lakes were to be a great port and railroad junction – a belief that would be born out over time. States were given great latitude in determining their boundaries in the request to Congress, and in this fact laid a great problem for the north-south contingent. As time passed, more and more settlers that leaned to the east-west alignment were pouring into the state.
Douglas, along with Minnesota’s congressional delegate Henry Rice, moved quickly in 1857 to move a north-south alignment in the state’s authorization act by exaggerating the population of the territory. Douglas was able to expedite the matter by being chair of the committee responsible for admitting states. Rice was also able to pacify the new settlers by simultaneously passing a railroad land grant for a line between Winona and St. Peter. These statehood maneuvers by Minnesota followed soon after the very contentious Kansas-Nebraska compromise and in the midst of “bleeding Kansas” where proslavery southerners and abolitionist Northerners were killing each other on the Prairie. As a result, the authorization of Minnesota was never assured and squeaked by in a very contentious last-minute maneuver by Douglas that was opposed by his fellow Democratic senators from the South. Without the quick work of Douglas and Rice, Minnesota’s map would have been just a lost proposal.
Just as Minnesota’s statehood was plagued by a contentious drawing up of the map, so is the 2012 Legislative Session. As required after every ten years, Minnesota has to engage in the process of redrawing the internal map of the state to divide up its legislative and congressional districts to ensure equal representation. State law requires the Legislature to complete those maps by next Tuesday, February 21 or the matter then falls to the court for the purpose of ensuring an orderly electoral process. The Legislature did complete a map for new districts last session, but the governor vetoed it. There have been absolutely no negotiations this session on a map that the governor could sign. Therefore it looks like the drawing of our state maps will fall to the courts.
Given the budget surplus there is very little that needs to be done in St. Paul this year by the Legislature. Therefore, when the courts release the new legislative maps on Tuesday, it will be like a thunderbolt striking a drought plagued prairie followed by a wildfire of desire by the legislators to get out of St. Paul. These new maps will likely combine several legislators. It will also be the touchstone for potential opponents to announce their candidacies. The new districts will have to get organized into endorsing conventions which will likely start toward the end of March and continue through April.
Even Governor Dayton, in his State of the State speech this past Wednesday, seems to be already focusing on the next election. He offered no new major initiatives. The only initiative of significance was a request to pass his bonding bill, which is standard business in the even-numbered years. There were no mentions of new environmental initiatives and he only mentioned the PCA and DNR in the context of saying that his permit issuing efforts have improved. The only thing the press noted about the speech was that it was more civil than some of the previous interactions with the Legislature this session.
The State of the State speech seemed like the civil handshake of the captains of the opposing football teams at the 50-yard line before the coin flip, with the game being the election. If that’s the case, then the kick off is probably this Tuesday when the political playing field is drawn up by the judiciary. Once those district lines are drawn, opponents start announcing and endorsing conventions are scheduled, it will be difficult for legislators to focus on the mundane business of amending noncontroversial bills. The sense you get from the Capitol is that the real political game in 2012 is not the session but the coming election. The outcome of that election will depend on one very important map we will live by for the next decade.
*Theodore C. Blegen. Minnesota: A History of the State, 2nd edition 1975 (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) 218-219