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Manual for bridging partisan divide

Minnesota now has its manual for bipartisan lawmaking.

Dave Bishop tapped his two decades as a Republican state representative from Rochester to write a how-to book for anyone trying to get past a partisan divide to get something done.

David Bishop

David Bishop

Finding Common Ground: The Art of Legislating in an Age of Gridlock,” published in December by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, is steeped in Minnesota history and personalities of the 1982–2002 period when Bishop was in office. But the lessons he draws from his experiences are valid today for any legislative body, even outside Minnesota.

It’s the rare insider-y tome that’s also a lively read, mainly because Bishop has a point beyond mere retelling of old war (and peace) stories. He brings the same pragmatic approach he used at the Capitol in getting bills passed to the task of making his sentences serve his purpose: guiding the reader in the ways, disciplines and joys of working across the aisle.

In “Finding Common Ground,” Bishop marshals stories of legislative efforts on which he labored into a dozen case studies. They range from successes small and large — including local tax authority to fund flood control in Rochester, the state lottery and the bailout for Northwest Airlines — to failures including a motorcycle helmet requirement and a vasectomy waiting period intended to match a proposed abortion waiting period (a bill he terms a “tease”).

Readers will likely find that some of the specific issues feel fresh today while others are more musty. But Bishop relates them all vividly, setting scenes and recalling dialogue, always with a sharp eye for legislative lessons.

Bishop_Ground_cvr.inddStar Tribune columnist and author Lori Sturdevant contributed a foreword to the book, and it carries an afterword by former Rochester Post-Bulletin reporter John Hughes, who is now editor at Bloomberg News’s First Word and the current president of the National Press Club.

Sturdevant tallies Bishop’s output as a centrist Republican: more than 200 bills and amendments signed into law over 20 years in the House, with 14 of those years in the minority caucus.  Anticipating the objection that in Bishop’s era the gap between the parties was smaller, she asserts that the challenge he writes about — working on legislation across the aisle — has always been tough sledding.

Hughes, whom Bishop credits with helping him restructure the book’s text, describes Bishop as a legislator laser-focused on the nuts and bolts of getting bills passed, including the oft-neglected task of lining up support, vote by vote. He paints a portrait of Bishop in persuasion mode, “prowl[ing] around the Capitol complex with vanilla-colored file folders that were bulging with paper scraps … ready to whip out a newspaper article or other document, which he would foist toward a lawmaker or lobbyist he encountered in the hallway. “

A current lawmaker also has praise for Bishop’s skills. “Dave Bishop, whether he was in the minority or the majority, was very effective,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who was first elected in 1991, overlapping with about half of Bishop’s time in the House. “He was an extremely effective member of the minority. He knew how to get legislation passed. He was an amazing legislator. Dave Bishop could make a deal. He was just fun to watch. We could all learn a lot from Dave.”

Reached while on holiday travels, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who read the book’s manuscript for Bishop before publication, said she stood by the blurb she gave “Finding Common Ground”: “Dave Bishop’s book should be required reading for all legislators. He is right — severe partisanship does threaten the very nature of democratic government. His concentration on details like humor, persistence, bill wording, and vote counting, with historic examples, is priceless.”

Along with lessons for today, Bishop’s book makes mention (or more) of several people who continue to toil at the Capitol, including Reps. Kahn and Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, veteran legislative staffers such as Bill Marx, and longtime lobbyists like Jerry Seck. Other names Bishop mentions are familiar because of family ties to current lawmakers, including Harry Sieben, uncle of current Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport; and Robert Sheran, father of current Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato.

Upon his retirement from the House in 2002, Bishop offered Session Weekly a 3-D chess analogy for how the legislative process worked. The board, he said, has three layers — one each for the Senate and House (where the black and white pieces represent the majority and minority) and the governor, whose pieces represent different proposals.

In 2002 Bishop spoke to Politics in Minnesota for an article about retiring lawmakers. He said that being a member of the majority caucus — with responsibilities such as chairing the House Ways and Means Committee — gave him less time for the work he loved: legislating. “I had to be a team player,” Bishop said. “I wasn’t as well rewarded [with legislative victories] as I had been when I was in the minority.”

Even before his new book, Bishop had not succeeded at making himself scarce around the Capitol.

He served in other capacities at the Capitol after his retirement, such as a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund Advisory Task Force.

His post-Legislature endorsements crossed the aisle as well. Bishop was one of several Republicans who had served in the Legislature in the past to endorse Tom Horner’s Independence Party candidacy for governor over Republican Tom Emmer in 2010 (earning him a two-year ban from the Minnesota Republican Party). And he wasn’t beyond endorsing a DFL candidate either (such as Ann Lynch, who represented Rochester in the Senate).

Bishop was one of 10 most-missed former GOP legislators named by this publication’s Capitol Insiders panel in 2012.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press has scheduled two events to promote “Finding Common Ground.” The first is a book talk and signing at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Apache Mall in Bishop’s hometown of Rochester on Jan. 16, 2016, from noon–1:30 p.m. The second will be at the State Office Building on March 9, 2016 — the day the Legislature reconvenes its session — with time and other details to be announced.


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