Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Minnesota Legislative Vet Puts Premium on Listening
Stately oil paintings of dozens of past governors line the halls of the Minnesota State Capitol. No such portraits exist of legislative leaders. But in the offices of the Senate majority leader, tiny photographs of past leaders are bunched together in a single frame. The last photo shows the current leader, Democratic-Famer-Laborite (DFL) Roger Moe, looking a youthful 36 years old.

The year was 1981.

Twenty legislative sessions and six election cycles later, Moe still reigns over the 67-member body. The son of farmers from northwestern Minnesota, Moe took charge of the DFL caucus at a time of huge budget shortfalls caused by a recession.

""It was an extremely stressful time," Moe says. "We had many, many special sessions. It was a very difficult time for the state."

And a trying time for Moe, who was attempting to move out from under the shadow of his predecessor, political heavyweight Nick Coleman, DFL Majority Leader from 1971 - 1981.

Moe succeeded, in part, by adopting a style of leadership based on inclusion. "Maybe it was just a case of misery loves company," he says. "(I tried to) get as many people involved in the process as possible and kind of share the blame."Although born of political necessity, Moe's practice of listening to legislators from both parties, sharing ideas and building consensus, has produced thoughtful legislation, he says.

Moe points to the 1990's, when the public demanded lawmakers get tough on criminals. In many states, the result was a boom in prison construction that resulted in empty cells when crime rates fell. A bipartisan Minnesota Senate, he says, took a "balanced approach" by also spending funds on prevention and victim rights programs.

"Many states overreacted and now they are still in a prison building binge.Very costly. And as you know, the last thing you can have is an empty prison," Moe says.

As legislators have become younger and more diverse (more than one-third of Minnesota Senate members are women), the importance of inclusiveness hasincreased, he says.

"The generations being elected now in government are not the kind of folks who adhere to some of the old rules of kind of get in line, wait your turn, seniority rules," Moe says. "From day one, everybody feels that they should be playing a part and so the rules have changed a lot."

Republicans also appear to have a say under Moe's regime. Duane Benson, former Senate minority leader, has been quoted as saying Moe "puts the Republicans to sleep" during sessions. In a 1997 Minneapolis Star Tribune article, Benson said, "He hears their bills, he puts them on conference committees, he makes them think they've got a role to play."

Although Republicans won control of the Minnesota House of Representatives two years ago, the GOP hasn't threatened the DFL's comfortable majority in the Senate. In the most recent election, Moe and his colleagues won 39 seats compared with 27 seats for Republicans (and one Independent member who is unaffiliated with Governor Ventura's Independence party).

Moe didn't fare as well in his first bid for statewide office. In 1998, the legislative veteran signed on as the lieutenant governor candidate for Hubert H. (Skip) Humphrey III, son of the former vice president. The pair finished a distant third in the election that "rocked the world" by sending Jesse Ventura to the governor's mansion.

With the 2001 legislative session set to begin in January, Moe faces several challenges. Economic forecasters are predicting $924 million in surplus revenue by the end of the 2000 - 2001 fiscal year, prompting calls from Republicans for across-the-board tax cuts. Such rhetoric leads Moe to call again for a "balanced approach" of "middle-class tax cuts" and "investments" in popular programs.

And then there's Ventura.

In recent weeks, Moe has criticized Gov. Ventura's part-time, broadcasting gig with the rock 'em, sock 'em XFL football league. The league, which begins play in February, will have Ventura away on Saturday nights during the legislative session. Moe's central objection: Being governor is a full-time job and his salary of $114,506 reflects that fact.

Ventura has brushed off Moe's criticism.

Despite the difference of opinion, Moe expects little political fallout in his relationship with Ventura. "As a matter of fact, I think I've probably been one of his best friends in the legislature in terms of getting his programs passed."

The original article is here. (Photo by Todd Melby)