The DFL’s Shot at Something Really Big

DFL leaders including Lt. Gov.-elect Rudy Perpich and Gov-elect Wendell Anderson (seated, facing camera) celebrate victory in 1970—the last time a Minnesota election produced a government capable of redistricting.

Forget Trump and Biden for a moment, and consider what the election means for Minnesota’s congressional map.

I realize that most Minnesotans, when they ponder the upcoming election—if they ponder it at all—think in terms of the White House and Congress, but there’s something else at stake on November third that has been mostly overlooked. For the first time in a long time, the DFL has a realistic chance of gaining full control of state government going into a redistricting year. To do so, the Democrats need only flip a single legislative chamber—the Senate—since they already control the governorship and are likely to hold onto the House. If they succeed, they will be able to draw new congressional and state legislative boundaries however they choose and, if they’re so inclined, do it in a way that locks in their electoral advantage for the rest of the decade. Such a scenario would also ensure—well, maybe—that the courts won’t have to step in and do the map drawing.

The last time Minnesota’s legislature and governor agreed on a redistricting plan was 1971. They managed to do so despite the fact that Republicans (then known as Conservatives) controlled both legislative chambers and a DFLer, Wendell Anderson, was governor. The two parties, for some reason, saw fit to draw up maps that were acceptable to both sides.

Since then, divided government has consistently led to redistricting gridlock.

In 1980, Democrats retained control of the state House and Senate in the November election, but had no choice but to continue working with the incumbent Republican governor, Al Quie. With government still divided and the Democrats unable to agree among themselves on a new plan, the job of redistricting eventually fell to the courts. The new, court-ordered maps took effect in March 1982.

In 1990, the Democrats controlled state government across the board and hoped to retain control going into redistricting, but incumbent Governor Rudy Perpich lost to Republican Arne Carlson in the November election. After a year of failed redistricting efforts, the House and Senate finally passed a plan in January 1992, but Carlson promptly vetoed it. State and federal courts (including, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court) stepped in. The maps weren’t finalized until February of 1993, a few months after the 1992 off-year elections, during which a federal court’s temporary plan was in place.

In 2000, Minnesota government was partisan muddle, and it stayed that way after the election. Republicans controlled the House. Democrats controlled the Senate. And an independent iconoclast, Jesse Venture, was governor. Not surprisingly, redistricting did not go well. The House and Senate never even produced a plan for Ventura to sign. A five-judge panel issued a new map in March 2002.

In 2010, state government did a complete flip after the election. The House and Senate went from Democratic to Republican. The governorship went from Republican to Democrat, with Mark Dayton defeating Tom Emmer. The legislature passed a redistricting plan during the 2011 session, but Dayton vetoed it. Once again, the courts stepped in. A special redistricting panel adopted a new plan in February 2012.

The lesson here: If you’re a Minnesotan and you want to avoid another redistricting debacle, find out who’s running for state senate in your district, and vote for the Democrat. You might actually get your wish.

Freedom’s NOT Just Another Word for “F#@% You”

Brainerd fluoride opponents, 1979. Photo via Minnesota Historical Society

Self-proclaimed liberty lovers have always had a problem with public health.

If you want to sample COVID-19-era grievances in Minnesota, just make your way to the Twitter accounts of some of the state’s most prolific social media “freedom fighters.” (I’m tempted to identify a few for your reading enjoyment, but I’m no masochist.) These days, Minnesota’s self-proclaimed liberty lovers seem most exorcized about Gov. Tim Walz and his brandishing of dictatorial powers. A few samples:

If @GovTimWalz tries to enforce mandatory mask…there’s going to be push back…go ahead arrest me… fine me…put me in jail…but there will be a response for draconian rule and violating the Constitution.

The Sheepeople of America have dropped to there [sic] knees over the Corona Virus which has a death rate of the Flu…If you’re to [sic] stupid to believe this [is] not a plan for destroying American capitalism then you deserve to be exploited and abused in Socialism….I will never kneel.

Liberals get so pissy when people won’t buy their crap. It’s why they need the power of the government to make you buy it. They already run the schools, Hollywood, sports, the culture….it’s not enough until YOU comply. Well, fuck off, I’m not complying.

For these people, freedom, not public health, is the primary concern. They believe personal liberty should supersede all efforts to contain the coronavirus. And while they may feel oppressed by liberal sheepeople intent on muzzling them with masks, they can at least take solace in the knowledge that resistance to public health initiatives—even those judged now to be huge successes—has always existed in Minnesota.

But unfortunately for them, their side usually loses—at least in the long term.

For decades after the development of vaccines, a persistent minority of Minnesotans resisted any efforts by authorities to institute mass vaccinations. As the anti-vaccination St. Paul Globe saw it, too many liberty-loving Minnesotans were happy to “assert the right to jab a virulent virus into the person of his neighbor, willy nilly.” In 1903, anti-vaccination activists used the language of personal freedom to win the repeal of an existing state law requiring children be vaccinated against smallpox. But that early anti-vaccination victory was short-lived. Twenty years later, a severe smallpox outbreak hit the Twin Cities, and suddenly vaccines didn’t seem so bad.

Around that same time, opponents of another public health measure—the chlorination of Minneapolis’s water supply—were making similar arguments. Over the years, Minneapolis had experienced multiple typhoid epidemics caused by polluted Mississippi River water. But in 1910, the city started treating its drinking water with a disinfectant, hypochlorite of lime. Libertarians, more tolerant than others of fecal contamination, argued against the treatments, but the Minneapolis Tribune dismissed them as “well poisoners” and “child murderers.” It didn’t take long for even the most adamant chlorination skeptics to admit that non-lethal drinking water was probably in everyone’s best interest.

The pasteurization of milk was another public health priority that Minnesota’s leave-us-alone contingent attempted to undermine. When several Minnesota communities, including Minneapolis, instituted compulsory dairy pasteurization to control communicable diseases, opponents mobilized. One of their most common arguments was that housewives should be free to purchase unpasteurized dairy products. The inability to buy raw cream struck one Minneapolis Star reader as especially “undemocratic.” Although opponents succeeded in stalling the movement for a few decades, “universal pasteurization” became state law in 1949.

But libertarian opposition to public health efforts may have reached its apex in the early 1950s, when communities throughout Minnesota started adding cavity-fighting fluoride to their water supplies. Prominent conservative activist Donald F. Raihle spoke for many like-minded Minnesotans when he called community fluoridation a violation of “the fundamental principle that no person or agency shall have authority over the body of a human other than himself.” Raihle and his fellow fluoride fighters continued to agitate throughout the 1950s, but their efforts ultimately proved futile. A state law passed in 1967 mandated fluoridation in most Minnesota cities. Brainerd, the state’s last prominent fluoride holdout, started treating its water in 1980 under court order.

Of course, libertarian opposition to public health measures never completely vanished. Anti-vaxxers, raw milk-drinking “food freedom” fighters, and fluoride conspiracy theorists still make their presence felt with various degrees of effectiveness. But they remain, at best, minority voices. As polls taken during our current public health crisis suggest, most Minnesotans continue to believe that tempering personal liberty makes sense if the goal is an undeniable public good—like, I don’t know, saving lives? It’s possible that the Minnesotans who believe Tim Walz is tyrant shepherd leading his flock into liberal captivity will ultimately win the battle of public opinion, but the historical record suggests they won’t.

Mississippi Bests Minnesota

Mississippi just got rid of its state flag. Why can’t Minnesota?

There’s a saying, especially common in the Deep South—“Thank God for Mississippi!”—that suggests that, no matter how bad things are where you live, they’re probably worse in the Magnolia State. It’s an all-purpose put-down that applies to everything from educational achievement scores to infant mortality rates. Here in Minnesota, we rarely stoop to such belittlements because we automatically assume our state’s superiority. But perhaps we should reconsider our arrogance. After all, Mississippi just got rid of its racist state flag. We’re still stuck with ours.

Minnesota’s state flag has never been particularly beloved. It features a cluttered design that’s impossible to make out from a distance. In fact, 19 years ago, a collection of flag experts (yes, there are such people) voted Minnesota’s flag the fifth worst in the nation, design-wise, behind only New Hampshire, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Kentucky. Like those other loser states, Minnesota chose to incorporate its state seal in its flag’s design. And it’s the seal that poses the problem.

The state seal, based on a sketch by soldier and artist Seth Eastman, dates back to the late 1840s, before Minnesota was even a state. Its original design featured, in the foreground a farmer plowing a field, with a rifle and ax leaning against a tree stump. In the background, an Indian man on horseback rode into a sunset. There was nothing subtle about the message: Minnesota was to be a land of white people and its indigenous residents were to go away. A poem by Eastman’s wife, Mary, left little doubt about the seal’s prevailing theme of white people’s Manifest Destiny:

Give way, give way, young warrior,
Thou and thy steed give way;
Rest not, though lingers on the hills
The red sun’s parting ray.
The rock bluff and prairie land
The white man claims them now,
The symbols of his course are here,
The rifle, axe, and plough.

The seal appeared on Minnesota’s first official flag in 1893, and has remained its central design element ever since. There have been a few changes, including, most significantly, a course correction for the Indian rider instituted in 1983. He now rides to the south instead of the west, which is apparently meant to neutralize objections to the “riding into the sunset” message.

Critics have periodically tried—and failed—to change Minnesota’s flag and remove its racist imagery. This year, a bill calling for a study of its design died in legislative committee. When it comes to its flag, the North Star State remains a state of inertia. But at least we’ve given the good folk of Mississippi an excuse to say, “Thank God for Minnesota!”