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Christopher Lee, now 26, has spent half his life in institutions. He acknowledges that he hasn’t always been a cooperative patient. “I had a lot of problems with managing my emotions,” he said. (Staff photo: Paul Demko)

Mailed fist in a velvet glove

From the perspective of a conservative, there are few things to celebrate in Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget.

Dayton proposes tax increases, spending growth, and a vast and newly intrusive program of monitoring Minnesota’s children. It shortchanges Greater Minnesota in a way that smacks of political retaliation against regions that were not enthusiastic about Dayton’s re-election.

As a political observer, though, I frankly admit that I appreciate something about Dayton’s budget: It demonstrates to Minnesotans who are paying attention how even the most benign-sounding politicians — politicians such as Mark Dayton — wield power. It can serve as an effective lesson in how political power is used and abused.

Political power is, in fact, power — the use of the mailed fist to compel others to do as one likes. Political power wielded by “compassionate” politicians is simply enclosing the mailed fist in a velvet glove.

Dayton’s budget is striking for how openly Dayton is bullying his opponents. Dayton is taking aim at those who displease him with the subtlety of a tank commander.

Two of many examples jump out as particularly striking: 1) In a budget that dramatically expands spending, Dayton proposes cutting off funding to the Minneapolis Parks Board, and urges the Metropolitan Council to do the same; and 2), despite proposing a dramatic increase in spending on higher education, Dayton has chosen to squeeze the (mostly rural) Minnesota State College and University system in favor of the Twin Cities-based University of Minnesota.

The Minneapolis Parks Board has earned Dayton’s ire because it has been a stumbling block to his plans to expand the light rail system to the western suburbs. The traditionally coddled and well-funded Minneapolis Park Board has been doing what it always has done — fought for its prerogative to preserve and beautify Minneapolis’ parks, and they usually win their battles because they represent some of the wealthiest and most influential constituents in Minnesota.

The Parks Board sees current plans as a threat to their parks and the comfort of their constituents, and is fighting to alter them.

But fighting the governor is the political equivalent of running into a buzz saw, should he choose to strike back. And strike back he did — threatening to cut off not only state funds, but funds distributed by the Metropolitan Council, who are accountable only to him.

The mailed fist, even hidden by the velvet glove, hurts quite a bit when it strikes. And who knows what kind of regulatory cudgels Dayton’s commissioners could use to make life more painful for the Park Board or even its members, should they choose to? The threat is clear, and the pain could be quite real.

Dayton’s attack on MNSCU, too, is an exercise of raw political power that has the potential to harm hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans, most of whom are anything but wealthy and powerful.

The University of Minnesota is the state’s “prestige” state university, and over the years it has benefited from substantial largesse and the unwavering support of the political and cultural elite. It is based in the Twin Cities, the center of wealth and power in Minnesota, and it is the primary “research” university in the state.

MNSCU, though, does an outsized proportion of the work preparing the average middle- and working-class students to enter the workforce. As buttresses for Minnesota’s economy, they are arguably more important that the mighty University of Minnesota itself. The university may be the more “refined” institution, but it is hardly the most economically vital.

Yet Dayton chose to ignore MNSCU in his budget proposal, despite increasing higher education spending by nearly $100 million. Dayton cited a dispute between the faculty union and the MNSCU administration as an excuse — as if such disputes aren’t the most common occurrence at institutions of higher education. Faculty and administration are like cats and dogs when interacting.

A more plausible explanation is right under our noses: The University of Minnesota serves, is represented by, and benefits Dayton’s most reliable constituency. The highest DFL vote totals form nearly a bull’s-eye radiating out from the University of Minnesota, while MNSCU campuses are mainly based in increasingly Republican Greater Minnesota, and many of their working-class students are current or future Republicans. A blow to MNSCU is a blow to the economic and political power of Dayton’s political opponents, by reducing their ability to climb the economic ladder.

There is nothing new about this kind of politics; in fact, it is the rule and not the exception.

Unfortunately, too many Minnesotans focus on the velvet glove, while pretending that the mailed fist just underneath isn’t prepared to harm them should they dissent from the dictates of those who wield power.

That is naïve. The more expansive and expensive government becomes, the more it can impose costs for dissent. It has always been thus, and living in America the costs are usually in convenience and money, not liberty and life.

But even here, woe to he who annoys the king.


David Strom is principal of Think Write Do, a public affairs and communications consulting firm. He is also a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.

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