Minimum Wage & Movement Politics: On the Fight For Indexing

22 Mar

This past Thursday the four locals of SEIU in Minnesota held our annual lobby day at the Capitol. The top lobbying priority for SEIU members talked to their elected representatives about is raising the state’s minimum wage and indexing that increase to inflation.  I emceed a rally that capped off our day in Saint Paul and quickly learned it is not easy to come up with a union chant that rhymes with “Index.”  I settled for probably the weirdest and wonkiest chant heard at the Capitol in a while: “What do we want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!”

On the surface, the fight for indexing the minimum wage –  ensuring that the increase that is passed becomes a base and that future increases match inflation–might seem a bit in the weeds. I have heard suggestions that “most people don’t understand it, so what’s the harm in just passing the $9.50 alone?”

After the rally, I was asked by someone pretty high up in state government if indexing was a line in the sand for the coalition. The person asked, “Can we take a victory and live to fight another day?”  This is actually a really good question.  I am one who often argues that, when it comes to politics, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Raise the Wage - INDEXEDSo why is the fight for indexing so important that the Raise the Wage Coalition has kept the charge going?  To answer this, it would be helpful to remind ourselves what it is we talk about when we talk about the minimum wage.

No one can dispute that, even if we raise the wage to $9.50, that does not get a full-time worker supporting a family out of poverty according to the federal government’s own definition of poverty.   What we are arguing about, friends, is a floor.

Now think about the effort that has been put together to convince a DFL legislature to pass a bill.  Last year the Senate passed a bill for with a $7.75 an hour wage, which would have put us barely past conforming with the federal minimum wage (right now, Minnesota’s minimum wage is significantly lower than the federal minimum wage). To get them to move to $9.50 Minnesotans across the state mobilized to make their voices heard.  Oh, and the president and governor of the same party as the Senate’s majority set the bar even higher than $9.50.

Some of the best organizing and policy minds in the state are intensely focused right now on passing this minimum wage bill.  The Raise the Wage Coalition has been impressively co-chaired by Shar Knutson of the AFL-CIO, Peggy Flanagan of the Minnesota Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), and Brian Rusche of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC). The people moving phone banks, working at the Capitol and on weekends in districts, generating emails and calls to legislators — these are leaders of some of the most important social justice organizations in the state — non-profits like CDF, the Wilder Foundation, and many more; clergy and faith groups like the JRLC, which unites Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim entities, as well as ISAIAH’s coalition of over 100 churches; community organizations like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Take Action Minnesta and many more; unions like Education Minnesota, AFSCME, SEIU, the AFL-CIO’S state and regional federations, and many more.

The best organizers of the social justice movement in Minnesota are working tirelessly for this minimum wage increase, as we must. It is an impressive operation, but we cannot forget what it is we talk about the minimum wage.  The best minds of the social justice movement in Minnesota are immersed in a debate about the floor. Our best organizers, leaders and policy thinkers are debating essentially how poor we as a society are willing to let workers live.

This is not the visionary work a movement for social justice.  Again, this work is essential and we should all be proud of the collective effort, but let’s not kid ourselves about what we are doing here.  The heavy lift everyone is undertaking is to debate a freaking floor.  A Minimum. Can you imagine if all of that effort were directed at rebuilding the wealth of communities that was extracted as a result of the financial crisis?  Can you imagine if we as a movement were focused not on debating minimum wages but instead asking what we are going to do as a society about those making maximum wages, the CEOs whose salaries are so out of whack in this country?  What if we were all focused on offense, on fights that take head-on the growing gap between the richest in the country and the rest of us?  What if we were debating how we bring more prosperity instead of how low we can go?

Now that would be a movement.

Dorkiest Chant Ever. "What do We Want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!"

Dorkiest Chant Ever. “What do We Want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!”


So the working poor do not have to see the power of their dollar diminish year after year

So we do not have to keep fighting this battle every few years.

And, for God’s sakes, so our most talented organizers and thousands of grassroots activists don’t have to move heaven and earth to accomplish small vision wins and can instead focus on the transformational victories working people in this country long for and desperately need.

We Can Do This.  We Will Do This.

There are encouraging signs.  We know the grassroots mobilization has had an impact.  We hear it from legislative aides exhausted from taking calls and answering emails.  We hear it from legislators themselves, some of whom are thrilled and some of whom are annoyed and say things like “you’re only hurting yourselves” (pro tip: a sign you’re winning).

The legislature just passed and the governor signed a tax bill that, in addition to reducing taxes on many middle and working class folks, also happens to reduce the amount the very wealthy in our state pay in gift and estate taxes.  The tax bill passed with a lot of urgency and fanfare.

Let’s apply the same urgency to getting this done so we can focus on transformational work.

I know we’re going to win this.  The people who mobilized are going to win this.  Let’s get this done and then harness that energy and move on to truly transformational work.

Minimum Rage: Update & What You Can Do

10 Mar

The Minimum Wage Conference Committee will meet this evening.  Below there is a list of ways you can help keep up the pressure to pass a $9.50 minimum wage, INDEXED to inflation.  But first, a talking point update.

Did the Senate Move? Yes, It Did. But…

We’re hearing that Senators feel like they haven’t been given adequate credit for moving from their original position of $7.75 to the House’s offer of $9.50 an hour.

Here is what is not to say when you call your State Senator, true as it may be

Seriously? Let’s set aside for a second the fact that the bill the Senate passed last year was embarrassing even then.  The $7.75 was barely better than the some Republicans’ position of simply conforming to the federal minimum wage.  What has happened between then and now?

Governor Dayton: "I'll settle for $9.50"

Governor Dayton: “I’ll settle for $9.50″

For one, Governor Dayton has talked about the $9.50 as a floor. “I’d settle for $9.50,” he has said.  Oh, and nationally, the President of the United States made the minimum wage a centerpiece of his State of the Union address, praising Minnesota company Punch Pizza for raising its entry wage to $10 an hour.  And then he signed an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay a $10.10 hourly minimum wage, an idea put forward by Minnesota’s own progressive champion Congressman Keith Ellison.

Did the Senate move? Well, yes, if we define “move” as catching up to the rest of the nation and state.

Now that you’ve got that out of your system…

Here is what you should when calling your Senator:

“Thank you for moving to the house’s $9.50.  Now let’s find a compromise that includes indexing the minimum wage to inflation and get this done!”


The issue holding up a bargain remains the question of indexing the minimum wage to inflation so that (a) the working poor do not see the value of their dollar decrease year after year and (b) we do not have to keep revisiting this political battle.

There has been some movement over in the Senate, with one Senator previously thought to be a hard no on indexing, Melisa Franzen, stating in a public forum that she is open to the idea.  That is a far cry from the line in the sand leadership had drawn, and that is a good sign. We hear there are several other Senators who feel the same way — that indexing is but one part of the final package and they are open to it as part of the solution that gets a deal done.

Senator Chris Eaton (DFL-40) Senate Conference Committee Chair  (651) 296-8869

Senator Chris Eaton (DFL-40) Senate Conference Committee Chair (651) 296-8869

From 1 to 5pm TODAY (Monday), in advance of this evening’s conference committee, SEIU, TakeAction, ISAIAH, NOC and others will be running a phonebank to reach voters and patch through their calls to Senators. If you can spare a couple hours this afternoon, email Kevin Hippert at for details about the phonebank.

But you don’t have to go there to call your Senator. It is especially important that conference committee members hear from their own constituents.  Call them and politely ask them to support you, their constituent, and not the official leadership position.  The conferees are important enough to getting this done that even if you do not live in those districts you can stand to give them a call.

Senator Hayden

Senator Jeff Hayden, Asst Majority Leader & Conference Committee Member; (651) 296-4261 sen.jeff.hayden@senate.mnm their constituents. If your State Senator is Chris Eaton (SD-40 Brooklyn Park & Center areas), Senator Jeff Hayden (SD 62 – south Minneapolis), or Senator David Tomassoni (SD-06 Itasica- St. Louis counties), PLEASE CALL THEM. Politely ask that they represent you, their constituent, and not the leadership position on a minimum wage indexed to inflation.

Others Senators should hear principally from their own constituents.  Go here to find your Senator, and then do not forget to update the people’s Whip Count at Bluestem Prairie.


If the conference committee does not finish its work tonight, there is a lot more fun to come.  DFL Senate District

Senator David Tomassoni, Conference Committee Member,(651) 296-8017;

Senator David Tomassoni, Conference Committee Member,(651) 296-8017;

Conventions are coming up, and groups like TakeAction, the AFL-CIO & SEIU and other organizations that do political work are planning to be at those in full force.  Visit the Raise the Wage (the broad coalition of faith, labor, and community groups) page for information on upcoming phonebanks across the state, and if you are a member of an organization supporting the campaign, call them to volunteer.  I know ISAIAH, TakeAction, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, SEIU and the state AFL-CIO have a lot of activity planned, but I know there are a lot more organizations kicking it up as well.

Minimum Rage: Is the Senate’s Line in the Sand Fading?

7 Mar 20140307-182742.jpg

By now anyone following the debate at the Capitol over raising the minimum wage knows that Majority Leader Bakk has drawn a line in the sand, saying the Senate did not have the votes to pass a wage increase that is indexed to inflation. There are some signs that maybe the caucus is not as firm on this position as Leader Bakk’s words suggested.

I’d been hearing this from several caucus members, and then this afternoon I got word of a DFL Lawyers Committee luncheon featuring a panel about the legislative session that included Senators Pappas, Bonoff, and Franzen. From the House Representatives Murphy and Winkler were also there. Senator Pappas said she supports $9.50 indexed, while Senator Bonoff I’m told said she supports the $9.50 but does not support indexing. The kicker, however, is what Senator Franzen had to say (I have confirmed this with two independent sources). Franzen said she was “hesitant but open” to indexing.

20140307-182636.jpgThis is a huge deal. If you read my first post on the subject, you saw I spent a bit of time on the politics faced by suburban Democrats. Senator Franzen is one of a handful of Senators known to be on the fence on the issue of indexing. Hers is the name t probably most discussed in the coalition working to pass the wage increase. Simply put, without her being a Strong No on indexing, there is no way the door is not still open to passing a minimum wage bill that does not see low-wage workers’ buying power erode year after year. We can do this.

Keep up the work, folks. Check the whip count at If your state senator is not yet listed, keep asking until you get an answer.

Minimum Rage: State Your Position, Senators

6 Mar Majority Leader Bakk

Progressives should thank the Minnesota Senate for making crystal clear why headlines are saying “Minimum wage talks break down.”  The issue separating the two DFL caucuses: indexing the new minimum wage to inflation:

“Inflation’s not going to happen. There won’t be a bill,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook. “If that’s the big hang up, it’s too bad because people could benefit from the higher wage.”

House Speaker Paul Thissen reacted just as bluntly to Bakk’s bluntness.

“The bottom line, to me, if the Senate wants to kill the bill, they should just tell Minnesotans directly and stop playing games with it,” said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

For those of us who support a minimum wage, indexed to inflation, the Senate did us a favor when Majority Leader Bakk stated:

Bakk said he would vote for a minimum wage bill with an automatic inflator but he could not get a 34-vote majority to approve it.

“I can’t get there,” Bakk said.

Majority Leader Bakk

Majority Leader Bakk

Senator Bakk has put this squarely on the shoulders of his colleagues.  He says he personally supports it — but they don’t–or at least not enough of them.  Many of us who think the logical next step is to call on DFL Senators to make their positions known. Let’s test that theory. Sally Jo Sorensen at Bluestem Prairie is keeping a whip count.   This is where you come in, dear reader.  Call your Senator.  It doesn’t matter if you live in a safe DFL district, swing, rural, whatever.  Until you see your Senator’s position is listed on the whip list, assume she is a NO and ask. Then ask again and again. Call, email, fax, send a messenger pigeon whatever.  Here is a link where you can do all of those except for the pigeons.

Bluestem’s whip count includes all Senators, DFL and Republican.  In this post I am focused on DFLers.  One, because I am one and, like many others I identify not just as a Democrat but a Progressive Democrat. To me it’s not about the party for the party’s sake. It’s about politics for the sake of people.  For those of us who identify with Paul Wellstone’s clarion call “”I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” this is a moment of truth.

What we talk about when we talk about the minimum wage.

I recently spoke before a meeting of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), where many service workers have been fighting for better working conditions for years. Although the janitors who clean the terminal, members of SEIU Local 26, earn $14.27 an hour and have healthcare, vacation, sick day, holidays, and other benefits–those who do the exact same work cleaning the inside of airplanes make poverty wages.  Most have worked for minimum wage (or close to it) for years, their latest wage increase having come back when the federal minimum wage was last changed.  This is also true of the people who get disabled passengers around the airport on wheel chairs and carts.  They have been calling on the MAC, which is the governing body of the airport, to institute policies that ensure that the airport–which generates hundreds of millions of dollars in income every year and owns hundreds of millions more in investments–not be a place where someone working a full-time job has to live in abject poverty.

We had heard from MAC Commissioners and the staff who they take orders from that they were really hoping the legislature would just take this problem off their backs by raising the minimum wage.  I was stunned when I heard this and reminded of how our political discourse is often so far removed from the reality of actual, living working people.

So let us remind ourselves what we are talking about when we talk about the minimum wage: We are talking about a floor– what we as a society have said is the bare minimum an employer can pay a worker and still be considered an ethical, responsible company.  Bare. Minimum.  If the legislature passes the highest number anyone has talked about — $9.50 an hour — that annual salary puts the average person still well below the federal poverty level.  People cannot sustain themselves or a family on these wages.  And, as our economy as transferred wealth from working and middle classes to the wealthiest, the myth of minimum wage workers being just teenagers is–just that– a myth. Minimum wage is the new normal for millions of Americans.

The minimum wage fight in Minnesota and the country is not visionary.  We are not debating what we need to do to build a society where all are treated fairly and have equal opportunity for success.  We are debating a floor.  The bare minimum.  Let us please remember this as people call on our legislators to be “bold.”  It’s only bold because we’re calling it that.  We’re actually just asking you to be decent.

Do this because it is easy. Let those of us in the movement focus on the bigger problems that are causing the embarrassing wealth gaps our country is facing.  Let us turn our rage there.

Our collective failure to act has already hurt us all, whether you are a low-wage worker  or not.  Unsurprisingly, employers who pay the minimum wage end up creating masses of people who can only live supplementing their income with welfare, food stamps, or other forms of public assistance. Steve Dornfeld at MinnPost’s lays out the case in “How taxpayers subsidize low wage workers,” even as the headline gets it all wrong.  It’s not low-wage workers we are subsidizing, it is to enormous corporations like McDonald’s, WalMart, and Target that taxpayers are doling out welfare.

Index This.

Just as we are asking you not to be bold but decent by raising the wage, indexing that wage for inflation boils down to a simple premise: Do you believe that the working poor should lose purchasing power every year as inflation rises?  If you have no problem with that, then you should not support indexing. Otherwise, adjusting the minimum wage for inflation, using the Consumer Price Index, just makes sense — economically and especially politically.  Do we really want to keep having this battle every few years?

Legislators have heard people testify about the dangers of putting the minimum wage on “auto pilot”.  Without indexing, however, the minimum wage is still on auto pilot.  Currently, every year the cost of living goes up a little or maybe more and, as a result, the purchasing value of the minimum wage automatically goes down.  We have built in a real wage cut every year for workers.  On autopilot. This is one reason why since the late 1970s real wages have remained flat, while worker productivity has doubled.  Without indexing, we simply make it easier for those at the top of the economic pyramid to take for themselves an ever larger share of the work done by those below them.

Indexing is also not an untested or utopian proposal.  About a dozen states index their minimum wage.  Blue states like Oregon and Washington index, but so do purple states like Colorado and Florida, and even red states like Arizona and Missouri.  All of these states recognize that indexing helps keep a level playing field, instead of every year tipping the economic scales just a little further against low wage workers.

Do not buy the “it’s the rural Dems’ fault” line; Or, Let’s Talk Politics.

A funny thing happens on the way to a progressive bill becoming law.  Urban Democrats start blaming their rural counterparts for the caucus wavering on a progressive position. Minneapolis State Senator Kari Dziedzic is but one recent example.  In an article about a constituent town hall, the reporter describes the Senator’s position: “To pass the measure, Dziedzic said, they’ll need to gain support from other legislators, especially some in rural Minnesota who worry that an increased minimum wage would hurt the economy.”

Let’s dissect that.  In the Star Tribune’s recent poll on the minimum wage, residents of greater Minnesota were more likely to support a higher minimum wage hike.  While those surveyed in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties favored a $9.50 raise vs. $7.50 by 32% to 21%.  Greater Minnesota respondents, however, preferred the higher number 43% to 29%.

As Bluestem Prairie would say, Quit place-baiting, people! Resisting that temptation, let’s really look at the politics of the minimum wage fight in different scenarios for Democrats.

Urban Democrats

As in the example cited above, the most likely person you might hear the “it’s the rural guys’ fault” is an urban DFLer. If urban legislators kept focused on their own districts, however, what are some of the things they should consider?

The Minneapolis-Saint Paul area, being overwhelmingly Democratic and progressive, gives us an urban legislative delegation of “safe seats.”  That term has always rankled me, if only because over the years we have seen some interpret “safe” to mean “the bar is lower.”  Nope, my friends, the bar is higher.  You have the luxury, the sheer good fortune of not only getting to be legislators — you get to be organizers! Many play that role, especially at election time, when city DFLers organize doorknocks and other campaign assistance for their colleagues in tougher races.  Let’s apply that same spirit to policy, shall we?

What your constituents want to hear is not “well, I support it, but…” They want to see your leadership; and you want to give them that.  If an indexed minimum wage fails, your constituents will likely ask you a variation on the old question, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”  What did you do when we fought this fight?  They will want to hold you accountable.  These are the kinds of issues that can make districts that are safe from Republicans maybe a little less safe for incumbents.

Suburban Democrats

The Star Tribune poll echoes those of other state and national polls.  Minimum wage increases are popular, and that is true across geographies.  That does not mean that they might not be for some politically risky — not because a majority of people in their district oppose a hike but because some particular, powerful and moneyed interests oppose it.  This is nothing to sneeze at.  Going against the Chamber of Commerce on any issue can mean a swing district is carpet-bombed by corporate money at election time, and the lit pieces do not even have to be about the minimum wage– in fact, they likely won’t be.  It won’t matter to that legislator what the message of the carpet bomb is if it causes a person to lose.

Our suburban DFLers are undoubtedly hearing by CEOs, lobbyists, representatives from the Chamber, who not only live in their districts but, more importantly, have a lot of money.

It is for these DFLers that we need our “safe” Dems to be real leaders.  When it is a big vote, it is an easier vote.  The more we give in to the notion that this is “controversial,” the harder it will be for these legislators.

One thing these and all Senators should remember: you are not up for reelection this year!  Whatever your fears are about voting for something that is actually popular with voters (but may cause Chamber of Commerce heartburn), remember that two years is a lifetime in politics.  They will find other things to be angry at you about, or ask you for other concessions you might be able to give, between now and 2016.

Now is the time to act.

Ambitious Democrats

A friend asked me last night, “can you imagine anyone being DFL-endorsed for statewide office who didn’t support this and fought for it?”  Why no. No I can’t.

That is all.

Minimum Rage. No, I mean it

Even as I state the case here to hold legislators accountable, let me say this.  There is no reason to express anger toward Senators–at least not yet.  We are in the middle of negotiations.  Part of the reason we need a whip count is we need to verify if it is true that there simply are not the votes.

When you call your Senator, state your position firmly but politely.  Resist the temptation to call anyone a sell-out or to question their integrity or motives.  At times like this progressives often think, “well, they should do this. They’re Democrats! It’s in the party platform!” And yes, I — like many others — posted the party platform on Facebook last night to remind people of the grassroots position on the minimum wage as a gentle reminder.

We must remember, however, is that this isn’t all about them.  Our job as progressives is not to get people elected and then watch them do great things.  Progressives vote for candidates as a means to an end, the end being policy that makes our world more just. But our job doesn’t stop at the voting booth.

Our job is to create the political space for people who want to do something to do it.  If your Senator is wavering, that is why s/he needs to hear from constituents — not to be yelled at but to be reassured that we will have their backs.  We must create the political space for them to do the right thing.

Finally, some well-deserved props

I mentioned above that the Senate is not up for reelection this year.  You know who is?  The House Democrats who last year proposed a $9.50 minimum wage, indexed for inflation and who this year continue the fight.  They understand that this is both good policy and politically smart (look at those poll numbers again!) — but do not for a second believe that many of them are not receiving the same kind of pressure that suburban Senators are receiving.  As you can see clearly in the Star Tribune article quoted above, Speaker Thissen is leading.  Representative Ryan Winkler is leading.

If you have a little time after calling your Senator, give a jingle to your DFL State Representative and thank them and their caucus for standing up for working people.  We will remember what you did in the war, Representatives.

CALL OR EMAIL YOUR SENATOR.  Hell, call and email them.  Then pass that information on to BluestemPrairie for the constituent whip count.  Go. Now!

Representative Kahn Apologizes; now let’s build OUR community

20 Feb Representative Phyllis Kahn

Disclaimer: I wear several hats in the political world.  While I am president of a local union, I also do occasional political commentary from a progressive, Democratic perspective. I am, as well, a member of the Democratic National Committee and, therefore, an officer of the Minnesota DFL.  My opinion here is – just that – my opinion.  It is not a political statement about the race for Minnesota House seat 60B in that it is not an endorsement of a candidate. Neither SEIU nor I individually have endorsed in the race up to this point.

I. Representative Kahn does the right thing

Two days after she making an extremely inappropriate comment to press minimizing the violence that occurred at Cedar-Riverside on February 4, and one day after doubling down on that remark, State Representative Phyllis Kahn has done the right thing and apologized.  And it was not one of those “I’m sorry if you were offended” non-apologies.  Kahn wrote on her “Re-Elect Phyllis Kahn” Facebook page:

As I said last night at the caucus, I oppose violence in any form. It has no place in our democratic process. I apologize for the statement I made minimizing violence. That was not my intent when I spoke and it certainly never has been my belief. Violence of any type is entirely unacceptable. Our caucus on Tuesday night was a peaceful, positive step- and one that I hope will guide us throughout this process.

Representative Phyllis Kahn

Representative Phyllis Kahn

Thank you, Representative Kahn for doing the right thing and apologizing for an extremely offensive statement.

When I started writing this post it was titled “Representative Kahn Must Apologize or Resign.” Like many others, I was distressed when on Tuesday of this week MinnPost published an article quoting Representative Phyllis  Kahn as saying:

Kahn dismissed Omar’s injuries, acknowledging that she didn’t know whether Omar had been sent to the hospital and had the forms to prove a concussion. “I participated in the process when it was much more unfriendly to women than that,” Kahn said, describing a time she said she got the equivalent of a death threat. “Once that has happened, what’s a punch?”

Kahn was referring, of course, to the events of February 4, when the Cedar-Riverside caucus convened at the Brian Coyle Center was shut down when violence broke out. Ilhan Omar, a DFL activist, vice-chair of Senate District 60 and aide to City Council member Andrew Johnson was beaten badly enough that she was taken to a hospital, where she was treated for a concussion, lacerations to the face, and a sprained neck. “What’s a Punch?” was an astounding thing to say, and DFL and social media circles were buzzing with horror.

Seemingly refusing to see Omar as anything but a political enemy, Kahn showed callous disrespect for someone who was injured, and in the process seemed to be condoning or even encouraging political violence and violence against a woman. When the MinnPost article was published, February 18, I assumed we would hear a flood of denunciations from public figures demanding  that the Representative apologize. When Wednesday past without that happening, that evening I posted on Facebook:

A full day has gone by since a DFL elected official minimized violence against a woman with “what’s a punch?” and this is not scandalous? Would we ever stand idly by if a Republican were to say something like that? No, we would be calling on that person to apologize or resign.

Again, to be clear – I am supporting no one in the race for 6OB and SEIU has made no endorsement, but this is beyond electoral politics. Phyllis Kahn must apologize, and DFLers must demand that she do so.

The evening of the 19th, the Cedar-Riverside Caucus was re-convened and, instead of seeking reconciliation, Representative Kahn seemed to double down, miniminizing the violence even further.    MPR reported:

Kahn also questioned the extent to which Omar was injured.

“I’m just pointing out there should be some evidence, and if it’s true, then it’s true,” Kahn said.

When a reporter suggested that her remarks sounded less than conciliatory, Kahn said, “I’ll let her friends and associates be concerned about her health.”

I understand the reluctance some of Kahn’s colleagues, some of whom have told me privately they were appalled by her statements, to denounce her words publicly.  Kahn is an institution in the Minnesota House.  She has been a trailblazer for women’s rights in her long, storied career.  As a profile in Governing says:

Among the 45 laws she’s succeeded in passing are milestones such as the state’s first computer-crime law and the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act, the nation’s first law to mandate nonsmoking sections in public places such as restaurants. But she’s best known as a champion of women’s rights issues. She won landmark victories cracking down on anti-female violence, creating gender-equity for sports funding, and establishing a woman’s right to keep her own name after marriage.

Respect for that career, however, is no excuse for silence. Some would argue that respect for her legacy is precisely what should have led her friends to intervene with the Representative.  I believe some of those colleagues did step up today, resulting in tonight’s much-appreciated and much-needed statement.


II.  Now can we all stop calling this a problem in the “Somali Community”?

One of the things that has been most distressing about the news coverage and commentary about the events at Cedar Riverside is the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, people talk about this as a problem “in the Somali community.”  Can we just stop, please stop this. Just. Stop. As Carla Kjellberg writes in a hair-on-fire blogpost, “THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM WITH THE SOMALI COMMUNITY. IT IS A PROBLEM WITH OUR COMMUNITY.”

Exactly. This is our community.  Our City Community. Our Minnesota Community. Our DFL Community.

Why has this situation pained me, personally?  Because I am a member of the DFL Party. Because  I am the President of a union with hundreds of East African members, many of them deeply engaged in the political work of the union and engaged in this race. Because  I abhor political violence and I want the communities that I live and work in to be democratic, pluralistic, and welcoming to all. For all of these reasons and more, It is in my and our self-interest that we get to the bottom of what has happened so that everyone I know and love in this state  can live in peace and exercise their political voices without fear of retribution.

When even well-meaning commentary, such as former Mayor Rybak’s statement at the re-convened caucus, suggests that the first caucus reflected badly on the Somali community, we are failing to take collective responsibility, failing to call on all of us to look at ourselves.   And this focus on the “Somali community” has been politically convenient for the Rep. Kahn.  It has allowed her to absolve herself of any role in the discord, saying: “This is kind of a fight between different parts of the Somali community. I’m essentially irrelevant to it, in terms of any real part of instigating, or encouraging, or anything like that.” That is simply not good enough.  When your supporters are dropping homophobic literature against Mohamud Noor critical of his support for marriage equality – whether you want them to or not—it is your problem.  And when political violence breaks out on your behalf it is your problem and you must denounce it unequivocally. Tonight’s apology is a very good start.

It is not simply in an abstract sense of community that I say this is not just a Somali problem.  By talking about it this way, we are missing an important part of this story. In the process are also missing some important elements of this story. In her Star Tribune commentary about caucus night, Ilhan Omar writes:

“…a small group has decided that one Somali elected official is enough and now the community should sit down and be quiet. This small group is aided and abetted by influential people outside the community who do not have our best interests at heart. I have now been called an “outsider” and worse by those who attacked me.” [emphasis added]

That seems like a pretty clear line of inquiry for the media that has been writing about this story.  Who are these people?  The most obvious figure to look into is Brian Rice, the powerful lobbyist who – it is well-known—helped Abdi Warsame organize during the redistricting of Ward 6 and who was a strong backer of his city council candidacy.  What say you, investigative reporting media?

III.  No, things were not simpler when the caucuses were “composed of the Teamsters”

From the outset, Representative Kahn has had things to say about the controversy that were, at best, odd.  First, despite the fact that the disruption had meant that no delegates were selected in this heavily Somali precinct, rather than join the chorus demanding the caucus be reconvened, Kahn instead seemed to cast doubt on whether it was appropriate to do so:

According to Kahn, state law only permits postponements of caucuses for weather-related reasons. “Can you say a bad social climate is the equivalent of bad weather?” she asked.

This statement added fuel to the argument many in the community were making, that the violent disruption was precisely designed for that desired outcome – to ensure no delegates were chosen.  The best way to defend herself from that charge would have been to call herself for a reconvening of the caucus. That would have been the high road, given the wide recognition that Noor had overwhelming support there.

And then there was this unforuntate gem:

“We used to have better control when the caucuses were composed of the Teamsters,” Kahn said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “This was a pretty big fight.”

Some tried to suggest to me that Kahn was making a joke. Obviously, the guy calling himself a Thug in Pastels is not averse to having fun with the stereotype of union thugs.  The “Teamster” era is juxtaposed as different from Cedar-Riverside in that this one was a really big fight. If it’s a joke, it’s a really offensive one.

What was even more disturbing was the tone deafness about the racialized image conjured up by that particular turn of phrase.  You cannot get away from the fact that the Ghosts of Caucuses Past are, well, very white ghosts. This not-so-coded language has contributed to the discussion of the situation at Cedar-Riverside as a problem of the Somali community and therefore of the Somali character.  And to view this as a question of the Somali character is – there is only one way to say it— deeply racist.

(Let me be very clear about what I am and am not saying.  I am not saying Representative Kahn as a person is a racist – so please spare me recitations of her admittedly strong legislative record on civil rights.  What I am saying is that she has been irresponsibly careless with her language and, in so doing, evoked racist imagery.  I am talking about her words and her actions; that is all any of us can be judged on.)

IV. Apology Accepted. May We Learn as We Move Forward

I reached out to Ilhan Omar about Kahn’s apology.  She had this to say:

I appreciate Representative Kahn’s statement apologizing for her unfortunate and painful choice of words regarding the violence of February 4. Her comments have spurred an outcry from many leaders across Minnesota. What occurred that evening was not just painful for me but for our entire community. We can only heal when we all accept that violence has no place in our political process. I thank Rep. Kahn for making that clear with her apology tonight.

As we await the police and DFL investigations into the violence that occurred that night, I hope our community — our city, state, DFL community — absorbs and learns important lessons from these events. We must take political violence extremely seriously and denounce it quickly and without hesitation.  We must also resist the temptation to see our immigrant communities’ problems as only their concern.  New people entering the political process is a wonderful thing.  It means we cease being fractured communities. If we are going to truly become one, democratic community, when one corner of our world has a serious problem, it is our problem.

On Punditry and Outrage

19 Jan 20140119-125501.jpg

I have fun doing political commentary, perhaps for the same reason I bargaining contracts: I love to argue, and I hate to lose.

Although I prefer to think of myself as a progressive political commentator, there is no denying that most often I appear on shows like TPT’s Almanac, KSTP’s At Issue, or debate segments on Fox9 as a Democratic Pugilist – which I enjoy, because I think the party doesn’t have enough public fighters. That’s the feedback I often get from Democrats, to keep giving the other side hell. (A woman once came up to me at the State Fair and whispered in a raspy voice, “You speak for me.” Scared the hell out of me until I realized she was referring to Almanac).

These shows are all very different, encouraging varying degrees of combativeness. Almanac is the most Minnesotan and polite (if you re-watch some of political panel conversations during the marriage amendment debate, lean into the TV and look closely as topics sometimes got a little personal or heated. I swear you can see butts clench on the couch). In one on one debate segments on the news, producers might remind you to be unafraid of interrupting your opponent. At Issue has two different commentary segments, “Analysis” and “Face Off”. Except for one time when another Democrat didn’t show up, I have only ever been cast in the “Face Off” segment. (Apparently no amount of pastel shirts or vests will convince Tom Hauser I am anything but a boxer – which I am completely fine with).


On Fox9 with Michael Brodkorb. Come back to the Five and and Dime, Heidi Collins, Heidi Collins.

The best thing about doing these shows, despite my penchant for combat, has been getting to know a lot of different Republicans when the cameras are on and when the lights go down. They’re just people – deeply flawed people who are wrong about everything – but they’re just people. Kidding, some are quite nice. Wrong, but nice.

I was in a bipartisan group of politicos early last week talking about manufactured outrage, how sometimes partisans get deeply engaged in a public fight not because it’s important but because in the hand to hand combat of politics, winning the day often reigns supreme. When an opponent is down, you strike. You might define selective or manufactured outrage as when one side gets riled up about something that is outrageous – outrageous! when the other team does it but totally acceptable when yours does. Of course, manufactured is in the eye of the beholder. In that discussion, one of the Republicans thought the Democratic outrage about Chris Christie’s bridgegate was as manufactured as Republican outrage over the media coverage of it. I find it actually outrageous that public entities be used to ham-handedly for political retribution, but I understood his point.

I was reminded of this conversation later in the week after taping the debate segment for At Issue, up against Brian McClung, former Pawlenty spokesman and bigtime GOP consultant. (The show taped Friday, airs Sunday morning). The topics: the DFL Senate’s plans for a new Senate office building and the controversy surrounding Governor Dayton’s use of the state plane (thanks, Tom!) If you have not followed the plane controversy, the Governor flew a campaign staffer on the official plane with him to an event. The legislative auditor found that this was a misuse of the state plane and the Governor’s campaign reimbursed the state for the cost of the flight. The auditor also found that the law governing use of the plane was murky and suggested it be clarified. In the segment, McClung claimed that Governor Pawlenty, never ever – not once – used the state plane for political purposes. Having remembered past controversies about this very issue, I cried BS. Even Hauser seemed a little surprised by the assertion — not that no campaign staffer had ever been flown on the plane but that T-Paw had never once done anything political while using the state plane. Huh.

On August 3, 2006 the Star Tribune reported on the tit for tat between the Pawlenty and Hatch campaigns over the use of state resources – in Pawlenty’s case, the use of the state plane:

The latest shots come close on the heels of DFL Party complaints that Pawlenty crossed the line when he made a fly-around on a state plane Monday to publicize a health-care savings initiative that some critics dismissed as trivial.

Two years ago, Pawlenty came under fire from DFLers for posting his childhood pictures and other favorable personal information on his official governor’s office website. He removed the pictures.

“Unlike Governor Pawlenty, we do not use state money inappropriately for travel,” said attorney general’s office spokesperson Leslie Sandberg. Hatch’s posting of the material on his campaign website was “totally appropriate,” Sandberg added. “He should be able to put any publication on his campaign website, including information produced by GovernorTim Pawlenty.”

And it wasn’t just partisans who found the use of the state plane inappropriate. The Albert Lea Tribune editorialized:

Yet on Wednesday, the governor jumped in a state plane and flew around state — stopping in Rochester, Mankato, Duluth and St. Paul for press conferences. Why? To announce that 60 state transportation projects will start this year, due to funding available from the federal stimulus package and Minnesota’s 2008 transportation package.

We asked the governor’s office Friday what the plane cost for Wednesday’s trip was. Though we asked three times, his office did not tell us what the cost was. However, a spokesperson did state, “The governor takes serious the responsibility to be available to the whole state, not just the people inside the Capitol building.” Sounds like a good PR answer, right?

We then asked the governor’s office specifically what value Minnesota citizens gained from his PR trip around the state announcing the transportation projects. His office did not answer this question either.
Now, the governor does fly in a state turbo prop, which is not as costly as a business jet. Yet it still costs significant money plus the salaries of the crew, etc.

However, did Pawlenty’s PR plane trip around around the state benefit Minnesota citizens?

In the age of video conferencing, we question the appropriateness of flying around the state to announce these transportation projects. This trip appears to be more of a PR trip to polish the governor’s image. This PR trip is even more ironic considering that the state’s 2008 transportation package, which helped fund the projects announced Wednesday, was passed over the governor’s veto.

Pawlenty appears to be not following his critique, calling on state government entities to control their spending, become more efficient and make sure it is really needed.

The governor’s PR trip this week reminds one of the big bank and auto company presidents flying private jets to Washington to lobby for bailout funding. They just do not get reality some days.

We agree that all government entities need to review their spending and operations in light of the state deficit. However, that applies to the governor as well.

Flying around the state for a PR trip to announce transportation projects does not pass the simple test — Is this necessary for the betterment of the state’s citizens? The answer is no.

It also strains credulity that Pawlenty – or any governor, for that matter – would not have ever combined an official trip with a campaign one. Whether we like it or not, it happens all the time. You fly out for an official event during the day, then a local supporter hosts a fundraiser for you in the evening. Whatever you think of it, it happens. Governor Pawlenty’s office was notoriously sparse in detailing his schedule to the public, but as the above incident shows, he was not shy about mixing official business with campaigning.

So why did McClung need to reach for the smelling salts while discussing his outrage over Governor Dayton’s use of the state airplane?

To be clear, I believe – and the Governor’s office agrees – that having the campaign staffer on the plane crossed a line. But the line is, as the auditor stated, murky, and the Republican outrage is, well, silly. Manufactured and selective, if you will.

What I Wish I’d Said

Ever have a very annoying conversation with someone and it’s only until later, while driving home maybe, that you think of the perfect thing you should have said to the asshat? Well, it’s even more frustrating when that annoying exchange is taped for public broadcast. The situation I think about most often was when I was on the Friday Roundtable on MPR’s “The Circuit” with fellow panelist Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic. At one point George said he agreed with my rant about CEO salaries. I let it slide, instead of saying, “You know, you could have done something about that.”

Anyway, what I wish I’d said on At Issue during the airplane debate: At one point Hauser said that the airplane issue and the state Senate building would make good 30 second ads. What I should have said:

Have at it. I’ll take those ads up against those Governor Dayton will be able to run touting a state that, unlike the Wisconsin of Republican Poster Child Scott Walker, is creating jobs and continuing a path to recovery:

Three years into Mr. Walker’s term, Wisconsin lags behind Minnesota in job creation and economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Walker promised to produce 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, but a year before the next election that number is less than 90,000. Wisconsin ranks 34th for job growth….

Along with California, Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing state economy, with private-sector job growth exceeding pre-recession levels. Forbes rates Minnesota as the eighth best state for business….

And ads showing the stark difference between the lives of Minnesota working people versus Wisconsin’s? I’ll take those:

In Wisconsin — which, like Minnesota, has historically been known for broad health care benefits for the poor — the authorities this spring are ending coverage for tens of thousands of parents like Ms. Gradine who earn more than 100 percent of the poverty level and pay modest monthly premiums, a cost Ms. Gradine’s employer had covered. Meanwhile, the state is allowing tens of thousands of people without children who make even less to receive Medicaid coverage for the first time.

For Ms. Gradine — a 41-year-old mother of three children under 20 earning $32,557 a year and receiving some child support — the Wisconsin-Minnesota divide is stark. If she lived in Minnesota, officials there say, she would be eligible for that state’s newly expanded coverage for the working poor, which would require her to pay a $21 premium each month. As a resident of Wisconsin, however, Ms. Gradine will need to buy private insurance, though experts say she may qualify for federal subsidies that will reduce her monthly premiums.

Ms. Gradine, who describes herself as a Republican and whose refrigerator bears a snapshot of her wearing a “Scott Walker” sticker, so far has not signed up for insurance. She knows she needs it — she has tendinitis in her right arm and abdominal adhesions — but she also says the federal online insurance marketplace seems confusing and time-consuming.

“It might be simpler to just move over to the Minnesota side,” Ms. Gradine said. But her children are settled, she said, with friends and teachers and activities in Superior. “If we come to a place where we have to cross that bridge for good, I would look at that,” she said. “But I’m not there yet.”

That’s from “Twinned Cities Now Following Different Paths,” in the New York Times.

Many, many thanks to my Fairy Blogmother Sally Jo Sorensen of Bluestem Prairie, whose thorough research always helps me gear up for battle. I’ll add the “At Issue” link when it’s available online.


Here is the link to the video of At Issue.  Face Off begins about 8 minutes from the end of the show.

End Poverty Wages at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport

29 Nov

The University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service prepared this report about Wednesday’s service workers protest of poverty wages at the MSP Airport.


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