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Suburbs now more vital to DFL majorities

Charley Shaw//November 14, 2012

Suburbs now more vital to DFL majorities

Charley Shaw//November 14, 2012

The suburban influence was apparent immediately after the vote with the election of Sen. Katie Sieben, left, as assistant majority leader. Iron Range Sen. Tom Bakk is now majority leader-elect of the Minnesota Senate. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Sweep of swing races there changes political equation for legislative Democrats

The new DFL legislative majorities that will take power in January owe a lot to the rejiggering of the geographic balance within their caucuses.

Democrats’ big win at the ballot box last week was driven by a near-sweep of competitive suburban races around the Twin Cities metro area. And while it isn’t the first time DFLers have done well in those areas, the outcome represents a sea change in the makeup of their majorities.

When the DFL held majorities in the past decade, prior to the 2012 redistricting that swelled the relative number of suburban districts, they did so on the strength of caucuses containing more outstate than suburban seats. Since then, a number of veteran legislators from greater Minnesota have departed, leaving either junior DFLers or Republicans in their place.

Moreover, the number of greater Minnesota seats held by DFLers, especially in the House, has declined. The suburban delegation in the Senate is now numerically larger than its outstate counterpart. And in the House, greater Minnesota has just a one-seat advantage over the suburbs.

There are 30 greater Minnesota Senate districts, 28 suburban districts and nine urban districts. And though DFLers made decent pickups in greater Minnesota races that have long been battlegrounds, the election cemented the suburbs not just as competitive turf for DFLers but as the places where Democrats can and should focus their efforts to hold the majority.

And that development, said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor, will affect the caucus’ politics.

A more fiscally conservative bent

“The battle for control of the Legislature has increasingly centered on pitched political warfare in the suburbs, particularly the older suburbs,” Jacobs said. “The good news for Democrats is they’ve become more competitive and have been able to prevail in some of those races. What happened to Edina is quite striking.
“The bad news for Democrats is that their majorities rest on a group of legislators who are coming from more moderate, even conservative, parts of the state.”

This is a new balance of power for DFLers. For much of its history, the Senate DFL has forged an alliance between Minneapolis and St. Paul and northern Minnesota. The suburbanites now are the largest regional contingent in the Senate DFL Caucus, with 16 members. And that’s even after putting Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, in the urban column following the redrawing of his district’s boundaries. There are nine Minneapolis/St. Paul senators and 14 greater Minnesota members.

The boost in the Senate DFL’s suburban delegation is significant. Senate Democrats had only 10 suburban seats after they were routed by Republicans in the 2010 elections. And that’s including Marty’s seat, which had more suburban territory at the time. The Senate’s suburban numbers are now at about the same level they were after the last DFL wave in 2006, which seated 15 suburban members.

The DFL’s greater Minnesota representation in the Senate has also been on a roller coaster. But they have not returned to their pre-2010 strength. In 2007, 19 DFL senators from greater Minnesota were sworn in. After seeing their ranks decline to 11 in the 2010 GOP wave, they are now back up to 14. While DFLers were able to win back most all of the suburban seats they had lost in 2010, the key regional centers of St. Cloud and Winona stayed firmly in GOP control.

House DFLers likewise gained the most ground in the suburbs this year. They now have 28 suburban members, a vast increase from the 16 members they had in their fold during the last two years. House Democrats now hold just about as many suburban seats as they did after the 2008 election.

There are some DFLers from first-ring suburbs who have had long tenures in the Legislature. They include Sens. Chuck Wiger of North St. Paul and Jim Metzen of South St. Paul and Rep. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington. But the freshman DFL House and Senate classes now include seats that DFLers did not initially expect to win, such as those filled by Sen.-elect Greg Clausen of Rosemount and Rep.-elect Will Morgan of Burnsville. One challenge for DFL leaders, Jacobs said, will be to bridge differences between suburbanites and the other geographical groups.

“I think conflict is going to be unavoidable,” he said. “In a way, the Democratic Party in the Legislature has come to include views that used to be [held] in a more moderate Republican Party. There are going to be, I think, some significant tensions over taxes and spending. This is not just personalities. What happens in the Legislature in terms of the decision-making, how they resolve these tensions, will determine a lot as far as how things go for Democrats in the mid-term elections.”

Chambers’ leadership split geographically

The suburban influence was apparent immediately after the vote with the election of Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, as assistant majority leader. Sieben, as a young woman and expecting mother, embodies the profile of the female vote that is crucial in state and national races in the suburbs. One DFL lobbyist noted Sieben’s suburban sensibilities in pointing to her legislation to prohibit expiration dates on gift cards.

“They won these seats with women voters, with suburban moms. Women who balance jobs and kids and aging parents,” the lobbyist said. “This is the demographic they swung. This is the demographic that always swings these seats. Going forward, they need to solve the big things, but also do all they can to send signals to moms that you’re listening to them, that you are focused on things that could be helpful to them.”

In the House, DFLers’ comeback produced more tepid results in greater Minnesota than in the suburbs.
The 2008 election brought 36 greater Minnesota DFL members to the House. Two years later, when they lost the majority, those ranks were depleted to 22 members. This year’s election saw House DFLers hit a midpoint between these extremes, with 28 outstate members.

Last week following the election, House DFLers chose urban legislators for its two top leadership slots: Speaker-elect Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, and Majority Leader-elect Erin Murphy of St. Paul.

While House leaders provide the gender balance that has always been important for many rank-and-file members, the urban silo that is the top leadership has frustrated some greater Minnesota members, including at least one female incumbent. Speaking to the Rochester Post-Bulletin, Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said she would have “much preferred having geographical balance.”

Retiring Iron Range Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, lashed out to the Star Tribune about the leadership picks.
“Twin Cities residents don’t know anything about farming, they wouldn’t know which end of the tractor to sit on,” Rukavina said in the paper’s Morning Hot Dish newsletter.

Other Capitol hands with rural connections looked more favorably on the Thissen/Murphy team, however. Thom Petersen, a DFLer and government affairs director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said the two leaders have built up a lot of support in greater Minnesota over a number of years.

“Being a rural guy, I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this. But I have no problem with Erin Murphy and Paul Thissen being the leadership,” Petersen said. “They spend a lot of time in rural Minnesota, especially Erin when she was out recruiting candidates, and Paul’s door has always been open on these issues. [He] has made the trips out to Farm Fest.”

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