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Mariani leaves his comfort zone on criminal justice reform

Kevin Featherly//December 20, 2018

Mariani leaves his comfort zone on criminal justice reform

Kevin Featherly//December 20, 2018

Chairing the Public Safety committee was not Rep. Carlos Mariani’s first choice.

“In all fairness, no it wasn’t,” the St. Paul DFLer said not long after being tapped to lead the newly rejiggered House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance & Policy Division. “It was not where my head started,” he said.

But he says he gladly accepted the challenge: “And it will be a challenge.”

Over the past four years, the GOP-led iteration of Public Safety had jurisdiction over everything from the judiciary budget to granular law enforcement policy.

The Judicial Branch components are ported over to a new Judiciary and Civil Law committee, chaired by Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul. Public Safety will focus tightly on the Public Safety and Corrections departments’ policies and budgets—and all that they entail.

That’s not entirely foreign terrain for Mariani. He spent the 2011-12 biennium on the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee and served on Judiciary in 1993-94. Last May, he was among the nine members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus who criticized GOP attempts to increase penalties on law-breaking protesters. The same group blasted the president’s Muslim travel ban.

But the 27-year incumbent is grounded in education, anti-poverty and human rights issues.

In 2002, he organized a 24-hour hunger strike trying to convince Republicans to extend welfare benefits to some parents. Last year, he was one of two Puerto Rican state legislators—the other was Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina—who spoke out against federal government inaction on Hurricane Maria relief.

In his four previous chairmanships Mariani has overseen education and community development policy. He has never led a finance committee. “I am going to be on a pretty steep learning curve,” he said.

Not everyone is thrilled about that prospect. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, has served on Public Safety since 2015. While he likes Mariani, he questions DFL leadership’s decision to hand the gavel to someone who admittedly wanted a different assignment.

“It’s a bit disheartening to hear from the incoming chair that this isn’t what he wanted to do,” Zerwas said. “I think you need someone who is 100 percent committed and passionate to take on those big, big issues.”

House Speaker-designate Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, shares none of those concerns.

“My very specific vision for this committee,” she said, “is to do really good bipartisan work to move the ball forward on criminal justice reform.” Mariani, she added, is uniquely qualified to do that.

‘Difficult conversations’

Mariani has lost some—though by no means all—of the boyishness that he brought to the House in his 1991 freshman year. A soft-spoken nonprofits manager in his professional life, the 61-year-old Chicago native retains all the “shy earnestness” that a 1996 Star Tribune article attributed to him.

“My style isn’t a blast you, in-your-face style,” Mariani said earlier this month. “I can do it if I have to. But I have spent a lot of my energy building relationships and making sure that folks can stay focused on what they need to stay focused on.”

That quality is partly why Hortman handed Mariani the assignment. “He knows how to bring people together,” she said.

In making that choice, Hortman skipped over the DFLers on the committee, including Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, who expressed an interest in the gavel. Instead, he will chair a Corrections subcommittee attached to Public Safety. He has said he is quite happy with that assignment.

Hortman also passed over Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, an attorney, but named her an assistant majority leader. Ray Dehn, DFL- Minneapolis, has served on public safety since 2015, but he was chosen to lead a subcommittee on elections.

Rep. Dave Pinto, a St. Paul prosecutor, made himself something of a progressive star last session by maneuvering the GOP-led House Public Safety committee into hearing two pieces of otherwise verboten gun legislation. In 2019, he will lead a subcommittee on Early Childhood Finance and Policy.

The committee’s former minority lead, Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, has left the Legislature, as has Rep. JoAnn Ward, a three-term Democrat from Woodbury who served on the committee.

Mariani senses that Hortman picked him, in part, to elevate racial equity as a key component of the criminal justice reform debate.

“I am comfortable with it and there is no doubt that is part of what she is doing,” he said. “I think she feels a deep sense of social justice that needs to be addressed here.”

Hortman agrees and says that Mariani is the right person for that role.

“Carlos’ expertise is having difficult conversations—in particular across racial and ethnic lines,” she said. “He is a person who can increase levels of understanding from different groups, across those lines towards each other.”

Mariani will need his diplomatic skills to lead the “difficult conversations” to come, Hortman said, and she has high confidence that he will. “He really is a very eloquent member of the caucus,” she said. “He is really empathic and extremely respectful of the people he deals with.”

Mariani said he is comfortable managing conversations involving disparate views and credits himself with some skill in that department. “There is a bit of a science to that,” he said. “There is a little bit of choreography that is involved here, a lot of patience.”

He might need Busby Berkeley-level choreographic skills to adjust gracefully to his new set of stakeholders. He’ll no longer face off with educators, school administrators and Education Department bureaucrats. He’ll be dealing with police chiefs, sheriffs and jailers—tough-minded law-and-order types.

Mariani said he has no desire to browbeat anyone in that camp. He’d rather communicate coolly and civilly among those with whom he disagrees. He knows how tricky that can be, but said it is crucial that he succeed; not only to convince citizens and stakeholders that reform is needed, but to secure the votes needed to pass legislation.

“The issue is how you have that kind of conversation with folks without getting a reaction that shuts their ears off.” he said. “‘Hey Carlos, are you calling me a racist?’ That’s not the conversation that is going to get us anywhere.”

Nonetheless, he said, it also is critical that the “broad law-and-order sector” consistently is informed about how legacy cultural practices and structural racism affect communities of color in a public safety context.

“We have to be really grown up here and really aware of those dynamics,” he said. “It’s difficult, no matter what area you lead. In education, it was difficult, too.”

Big picture

Asked about his priorities, Mariani tends to think high level rather than reel off individual bills he wants to pass.

It is safe to assume that his committee won’t push bills to punish protesters. “You’ll probably just find that we just don’t do that,” Mariani said. “It’s counterproductive.” He also expects gun safety legislation—a key Hortman policy priority—will get their day in his committee.

He is fully onboard with Hortman’s criminal justice reform emphasis. But he also wants to increase access to services and housing for the poor—issues aren’t native to Public Safety and which would require intricate orchestration with other committees.

Beyond that, though, he doesn’t offer many specifics.

That’s partly, he admits, because he has a lot to learn about his committee. But it’s also partly because he tends to be a big-picture thinker. And he is glad, he said, that he gets to focus on a new big picture.

“Sometimes we get so locked into a particular policy area that we just sort of dry up in terms of enthusiasm and innovation,” he said. “Even as big a challenge as this public safety assignment is going to be, that is the thing that really turns me on right now: ‘This is going to be relatively new for you, Carlos.’”

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