Frequent trips to Sweden, home country of Rep. Ryan Winkler’s wife, have influenced the Golden Valley legislators’ thinking about governing in Minnesota, but in an unexpected way. Many American liberals hold out successful European countries, with their expansive social programs and stable economies, as progressive models for America to admire.
But Winkler has come away from those trips thinking that the economic and social conditions in Sweden are found only rarely outside Scandinavia, and are hardly imaginable in Winkler’s own country.
“I like to say Sweden works well for Swedes,” Winkler said. “It’s very homogenous, and there’s a great deal of social conformity there that just didn’t fit with us here.”
In July, Winkler will again follow his wife to Europe, though this time for good, or at least for the foreseeable future. Jenny Winkler has been promoted to vice president with Reizdor Hotel Group, a partner of the Minnesota-based Carlson Cos., and the family is moving to live full-time in Brussels, Belgium. The move means Winkler is resigning his legislative seat after nine years.
Through four-and-a-half terms, the liberal lawmaker, who works in private practice as an attorney, has earned a reputation as one of the most caustic wits in the Legislature. That trait was on display as Winkler made his farewell speech during the special session, as a set-up made it sound like he was ready to apologize for any insults to his Republican colleagues — before twisting the knife.
“You deserved it,” Winkler said. “All of it, and more.”
The line got a big laugh from his sleep-deprived House colleagues, though Winkler is the first to admit not all of his attempts at humor play well on both sides of the aisle.
Capitol Report: Are you a product of living in a time of increased partisanship, or is that just your personality?
Winkler: I think if you look back at my public statements, I have often been willing to say things that many others aren’t willing to say, and it hasn’t always been Republicans who have been on the other side of my observations. So, I don’t think it’s anything partisan in nature. I do find that I don’t have much patience for the political, uh, B.S. that passes for debate some times, and I try to cut through that. I know, at times, that has irritated people I’m talking about. But I’ve also heard a lot of comments from people that they find it refreshing to have somebody tell the truth as they see it.
CR: Did you ever find that something you’d said made it harder for you to make a deal with someone?
Winkler: Never. But, you know, I’m not sure people would tell you that either.
CR: You’ve also had some friction with the DFL majority in the Senate. What’s been the source of that?
Winkler: I’m not aware of any friction. I’ve been critical of what the Senate has done sometimes, decisions they’ve made. I’ve also been critical of the [Gov. Mark] Dayton administration, the [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty administration. But I’ve also been complimentary of them, too. My last speech in the House I went out of my way to compliment the Senate majority for having worked hard for budget reserves, and maintaining a good fiscal house for the state, and said that was a very progressive thing to do.
CR: It’s been evident in the last few sessions that the DFL is split on some issues, like gun control, abortion and environmental issues, while Republicans are mostly in sync. Is that a problem for the DFL?
Winkler: I think it’s a problem for Republicans, that they don’t have much for divergent views within their caucus, or in their party. And, as a result, they don’t appeal to as many different types of Minnesotans as Democrats do. Yes, having division of opinion can be a challenge when it comes to governing. But in terms of representing the people of the state, I think the Democratic Party comes a lot closer. Republicans really only can appeal to one set of people, and that is people who distrust government, and don’t like the look of the future of this state and this country, which is far more diverse than its past.
CR: This year, you were critical of a lot that happened, or didn’t happen, though you had Democratic control of the Senate and the governor’s office. What went wrong?
Winkler: From my perspective, both the Senate majority and the governor were working too independently of each other. If they wanted to prevail in advancing an agenda they could agree on, they could’ve done so if they were united on what that agenda looks like. But we saw two separate, totally independent directions. And of course, there was a breakdown in personal relationships from the very beginning of session that I think doomed it, making the House Republican caucus the wedge between them.
CR: If you weren’t leaving now, under this situation, how long do you think you would stay in the House? Would you have considered becoming a career legislator?
Winkler: I never considered being a career legislator. I think it just depends what kind of legislator you want to be. Some people want to become expert in certain issues, and to do that, it takes a long time to really learn the issues, and understand where the levers of influence are within those areas. House Republicans are very junior, and have really little policy or institutional experience to guide them, I think they fall short there. On the other hand, Democrats have stayed in much longer, and it can be difficult to get new or mid-career Democrats into positions of leadership, because there’s so much seniority stacked-up. I think it’s a question of balance. I don’t think there’s any optimal answer. For me, nine years was a good amount of time.
CR: In your announcement, and your retirement speech on the floor, you hinted that you want to stay involved, or have some sort of future in the issues you’re interested in. Do you know what form that would take, and would you run for office again?
Winkler: I don’t know what form that will take, and I don’t know if I will run for office again. I love electoral politics, and I love the influence of public policy, and I don’t think that’s going to go away just because we’re pursuing this opportunity with my family. But in politics, so much depends on circumstance and opportunity that it’s really hard to say what the future will bring.