I have watched with both amusement and horror the battles between Michele Kelm-Helgen, Ted Mondale and the board of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Authority as they battle to control the billion-dollar construction of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium.
Mondale of course is the son of former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Kelm-Helgen is the third generation of a prominent political family. Her grandfather chaired Hubert Humphrey’s first campaign and the Democratic Party. Her father was chief of staff for Gov. Wendell Anderson and worked for Anderson when he was in the U.S. Senate. Both owe their current job of building the Vikings stadium to Gov. Mark Dayton, scion of a family that built a retail empire.
The tale makes you shake your head. Backbiting, resignations of highly respected figures, complaints about the inadequacy of six-figure paychecks, and name-calling are now business-as-usual at the scion-run Metropolitan Sports Facility Authority.
Both Mondale and Kelm-Helgen make tidy six-figure salaries — and both got substantial raises from Dayton this year. Mondale makes $162,000 for his full-time job, and Kelm-Helgen makes $127,000 for what some say is a part-time job. Nobody is clear what either of their jobs is exactly, although nobody disputes that one or both of them have a lot of responsibility. The result is that the authority is a total and public mess, with name-calling, resignations, salary disputes and legislative inquiries.
The one thing we know is that in these disputes, the scions will win, and the people who climbed the ladder through experience and merit are on the losing end — along with the taxpayers.
Nepotism in politics is as old as humanity. In fact, it used to be that violence and inheritance were the only methods of power transition. Merit and democratic consent have always been the exception, not the rule, when it comes to assigning power. When you study the history of almost any country but the United States, you are often studying the history of family dynasties.
Unfortunately, the most obvious failure mode of republics is the descent into the family politics we are seeing in the United States. The Roman Republic began with the overthrow of monarchy, and ended with the establishment of the Roman Empire, complete with emperors. The dispersal of power in the republic was a pause in the history of power concentrated in the hands of very few.
Minnesota and the United States aren’t there yet, but it sure looks like we are headed in that direction. Politics is a family business, and that isn’t good for any of us.
Think of the dynasties we have spawned in recent years. The Kennedys are the first and obvious one at the national level, the Mondales and the Humphreys in Minnesota, the Dingells in Michigan, the Murkowskis in Alaska, the Udalls in Arizona and Colorado, the Browns in California, and then of course there are the politicians who have used their money to acquire political power.
Here in Minnesota, the money comes from the Dayton and the Rockefeller fortunes, and around the country political parties actively seek out candidates with personal or family fortunes.
And political power is a handy way to acquire a lot of money. The Clintons may have left the White House “dead broke,” but they control billions now somehow. Harry Reid may have been born dirt poor, but he is immensely wealthy now after holding government jobs most of his life.
It all adds up to a growing oligarchy. And it is the oligarchs who scream the loudest about the inequality of money and power — which looks suspiciously like a smokescreen to hide how much they benefit from the system. It reminds one of the Latin American socialists such as Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez who railed against the wealthy while becoming immensely wealthy themselves. Ortega the communist formed a secretive company with Chavez worth hundreds of millions or billions.
The biggest problem with oligarchies isn’t just that they are obviously unfair and undemocratic. It’s that the interests of the oligarchs get farther and farther away from those of the electorate. Power becomes a right, and the electorate a group of rubes to be used and manipulated.
That’s how you wind up in a situation where a multimillionaire scion of a wealthy family can appoint the scions of powerful political families to control the expenditure of a billion dollars to provide the gift of a palace to a billionaire real estate developer.
It would be funny as a play written by an absurdist author. Unfortunately, it is the reality we are living with today.
David Strom is principal of Think Write Do, a public affairs consulting firm.