When the Minnesota House passed a $444 million tax cut bill on March 6, all but two members voted for it. One of those nays belonged to Rep. Ryan Winkler.
Why did he vote against a tax cut? “Because I am a Democrat,” says the Golden Valley DFLer.
The final tally on that vote was 126-2, so many Democrats voted to cut taxes that day. In fact, only Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, accompanied Winkler in his thumbs-down vote. Gov. Mark Dayton ultimately signed two rounds of tax cuts into law totaling $550 million before the session ended.
Winkler, who is wrapping up his fourth term in the House, finds that baffling.
“Every other year we have been fighting to balance the budget, to make some investments on things like early childhood education, holding down tuition, all those kinds of things,” he says. “We finally balance the budget, create a surplus — and the first thing the Democrats want to do is cut taxes. I just don’t understand the logic of that.”
Perhaps the single most progressive member of the Minnesota House, Winkler is in office to do battle. He even uses battlefield analogies to describe the state of Minnesota politics.
In the Civil War, he points out, generals sought out secure high ground in hopes that the battle would come to them. To rush up a hill held by the enemy was to sustain tremendous casualties.
To Winkler, that pretty much sums up the DFL politics of the moment. By appealing to voters on tax cuts rather than government’s power to make life better for the poor and middle class, he says, the DFL this year charged up a choice GOP hillside.
“If we are fighting on the Democratic hill of the middle class and expanding opportunity for people, a better quality of life and better jobs, we are winning,” he says. “As long as we are fighting on the Republican hill, we are losing.”
What’s worse, he says, no one will be fooled. “There is hardly a voter left in America who would give a Democrat credit for cutting taxes,” Winkler says. “And do you know why? Because the voters are smart.”
So is Winkler. But he doesn’t cloak himself as an intellectual Brahmin, à la Daniel Patrick Moynihan. True, Winkler is an urbane, smart-talking lawyer from Golden Valley who favors dense historical texts. But he is also a kid from Bemidji with a yen for hockey, deer hunting and the dry-dust country songs of Merle Haggard.
“He has a really important statewide perspective that comes naturally to him, because it is who he is and how he grew up,” says his friend Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins. “I just think he is one of the real superstars in the DFL constellation.”
Simon, the DFL’s new nominee for secretary of state, is a more moderate Democrat than Winkler. He acknowledges occasional differences with Winkler, though they have teamed up on campaign finance reforms and other initiatives in the past.
“I think Ryan is self-aware enough to tell you that he is aggressive,” Simon says. “But I think he believes that is often what is necessary to get results. And I don’t think that people can argue often with the results.”
Indeed, while lacking a chairmanship in a proper legislative committee, Winkler’s fingerprints have been on as nearly many high-profile progressive initiatives over the last two legislative sessions as anyone, with the possible exception of DFL Sen. Scott Dibble, who spearheaded the 2013 gay marriage bill.
Winkler generated a lot of publicity — and some controversy among fellow members — for pushing a student-generated bill to do away with legal protections for legislators if they get busted for drunken driving. That did not pass, but Winkler aims to revive it next year.
He has also been a key voice in the push for greater campaign finance disclosure. A bill he authored in 2013 passed and was signed into law, though 2014 efforts for further reforms failed. Again, he pledges to push on. The same is true for the Toxic-Free Kids legislation he authored in 2014, a bill aimed at protecting children from exposure to dangerous chemicals.
His greatest victory this session — with a huge assist, he says, from 2,000 grass-roots activists — was the minimum wage increase. That bill, for which he and Rep. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis) were lead authors, was signed into law on April 14. It raises Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 by 2016, and is the first such increase since 2005.
That was the culmination of two years’ concentrated effort, during which Winkler was chair of a Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs. The committee met only infrequently, but Simon says Winkler used it as an effective perch from which to tout the minimum wage issue around Minnesota, generating publicity, discussion and public support for an increase.
A report commissioned by the select committee, “Making Work Pay in Minnesota,” was released the day before the legislative session adjourned. While not intended to influence 2014 legislation, some observers think its findings — that Minnesota is a high-under-employment state where median income has fallen 9.5 percent since 2000 — will resonate in future income-inequity debates.
“Any fair-minded observer would say that Ryan has achieved a tremendous amount in a relatively short period of time, with very few of the formal tools like a committee chairmanship to do it with,” Simon says.
Prime of life
At 38, Winkler is in the prime years of his career as a lawyer; he works for a biotechnology company that is trying to bring a cancer drug into clinical trials. But the commitments of being a legislator have curbed his opportunities for professional advancement, he says.
“I view myself as someone who could be doing other things,” he says. “And so, if I am here, I want to get something done.”
Winkler makes it no secret that he wants more substantive decision-making duties. “I like the idea of using influence to make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “And the more influence you have, the more difference you can make.”
There are those who think that Winkler’s influence could eventually spread to the highest levels of Minnesota politics. Two years ago, the Daily Kos, a liberal blog with a national following, predicted Winkler would be Minnesota’s governor within 10 years. His star has hardly dimmed over that time.
Does Winkler covet such a title? “Who knows?” he says. “I wouldn’t ever say no to anything like that.”
Hamline University political science professor David Schultz has known Winkler since Winkler was his University of Minnesota law seminar student. In 2000, he says, Winkler wrote “one hell of an interesting paper” on using the Internet for political fundraising, a piece that eventually got published in the Minnesota Law Review.
“I thought this was an exceedingly sharp student who has really great thoughts about the political process,” he says.
The intervening years have only enhanced that perception, Schultz says. Like Winkler himself, Schultz sees bigger things for his former student.
In the shorter term, Schultz thinks Winkler has his sights on an enhanced role within the House — if the DFL manages to hold its majority status in the November elections.
“I think he wants a committee chairmanship,” Schultz says. “But even more so, I think he has his eyes on something such as an assistant majority leader at this point, where he could actually be in a position of molding legislation.”
Long term, Schultz doesn’t see Winkler aiming for a U.S. Senate seat while DFLers Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken occupy those seats. But he believes Winkler has the juice to make a strong run at some other statewide elective office someday — perhaps secretary of state or even governor.
Simon agrees: “I think he would make a strong candidate for higher office.”
Speaking at the recent state DFL Convention in Duluth, Winkler gave hints of what his platform might look like, should he ever wage such a campaign.
“Will we stand up for an economy that percolates up, rather than trickles down?” he asked delegates. “Will we stand up for expanded collective bargaining rights? Will we stand up for paid sick leave? Will we stand up for quality universal child care? Will we stand up for a secure retirement? Will we stand up and march forward on the path that the Minimum Wage Coalition blazed for us this year?”
In some essential sense, Winkler is clearly dissatisfied with politics. He is adamant that both parties are wrong when they fixate on economic growth as the cure-all for solving the problem of stagnating wages. His argument mirrors that of French economist Thomas Piketty, who asserts in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” that capitalism usually favors returns on investment for the wealthy over income for everyone else, generated by economic growth.
For Winkler, that means government must step in and use its clout, both as a legislative body and as a major employer and purchaser of services, to push wages upward. That, he asserts, should be the job of the DFL party.
Asked if he would like one day to offer that proposition to voters in a run for higher office, he offers a firm “Maybe.”
“The nice thing about politics as a career,” Winkler says, “is you get moments of truth. Either you get things done or you don’t. If you didn’t do it, then you go do something else. If you did do it, you keep moving on.”