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Race and Education. Some Thoughts, Post #pointergate

18 Nov

This is the first of two, maybe more, posts about education and the polarized debate surrounding it in Minneapolis. This post provides mostly background thoughts. Subsequent posts will deal more specifically with the recent Minneapolis School Board election.

A while back, right before the election, I said I would write up a fuller synopsis of the depressing Minneapolis School Board race and the broader issue of the polarization of the debate around education in Minneapolis. Then #pointergate happened. It wasn’t just that I was personally pretty preoccupied with that story and its impact on an organizational ally, Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), that kept me from writing this post. I saw in the first few days of that big story how united Minneapolis—and in fact Minnesota and the country—became around an issue having so deeply to do with racial divisions in society, and it was inspiring. And, as several friends mentioned on Facebook, it was nice to see Minneapolis coming together after the bitter divisions that the school board race surfaced (some might say caused, but I chose that word purposefully).

And so writing about difficult issues at a time of unity feels a little like knowingly taking on the role of Debbie Downer. Pointergate has made me think more deeply about the issue of education and the racial divisions of both our education system and the divisions caused by the proposed solutions to fix those problems. These posts are my sometimes sprawling thoughts on the issue of education in Minneapolis, why I think it has become so divisive, and how getting over our societal inability to deal openly with the issue of race is key to us moving forward collectively.

Naming race. This is my point of departure for connecting the two topics of pointergate and Minneapolis schools. What was so gratifying to many who fight for racial justice was the way in which a broad swath of the public immediately saw the story for what it was, the worst kind of race baiting. By blurring Navell Gordon’s face and merely identifying him as a convicted felon, erasing all context of what he and the Mayor were actually doing that day (getting out the vote in low income neighborhoods), KSTP made Gordon into the anonymous Scary Black Man, and people got that. In a state where it often feels exhaustingly difficult to discuss race, this remains amazing to me and it gives me hope. So often we are caught in the US in “OJ moments,” where the media story is about how differently different groups see the same situation. The universal condemnation of pointergate has been truly edifying on that point.

If you followed KSTP reporter Jay Kolls’ twitter meltdown on the first night of the broadcast saw that his defense was simple: I didn’t mention race! You guys are the ones bringing race up! It’s a particularly facile suggestion, that unless one actually mentions race then surely something isn’t about that. Kolls’ impulse, however, is a caricature of a real problem, an impulse to not mention race, to allow it to be subtext and not dealt and talked about openly. This seems especially true in Minnesota, where the mere mention of race seems, well, impolite.

Race and Education, Minneapolis and Everywhere

Very recent coverage of an issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools highlights, to my mind, the challenges and necessity of engaging deeply with race when it comes to education. On this week’s edition of the Wrong About Everything podcast, conservative Mike Franklin and I tussled over the recently announced suspensions policy of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The policy, which was immediately misrepresented and ridiculed as schools now need “permission” to suspend black and Latino students, actually states that the district will review, after the fact, the suspensions of students of color as a way of responding to an issue that is not unique to Minneapolis: the insanely disproportionate rates at which students of color, especially young black men, are suspended in public schools vis a vis their white counterparts. There are horror stories of children as young as pre-k receiving suspensions as discipline, even as studies show what seems so obvious: keeping kids from school does not help them learn. The less bombastic criticisms of the policy suggest there is a constitutional issue with only reviewing the suspensions of kids of color, made by Franklin on WAE and attorney Tom Corbett in the Star Tribune, suggest the policy won’t pass constitutional muster once the first white or Asian kid who gets suspended sues the district alleging her/his suspension is discriminatory because it wasn’t reviewed.

On the podcast Franklin suggests reviewing all suspensions, something I don’t disagree with but that I also think doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. His and others’ reaction seems to fundamentally rest on a discomfort with using race in the analysis at all. I’m left wondering, how are we to deal with issues of inequity and discrimination, if we do not look at race? And to Franklin’s credit, he does acknowledge that there actually does seem to be a problem with the suspensions of kids of color in MPS. I’m just not clear he or any other conservative would be satisfied with any proposed solution because it would necessarily require at some point looking at the race of students. (If you want to hear an in-depth, at times heart-wrenching account of the issue and its ramifications, listen to this episode of This American Life. It’s stunning.)

While I don’t pretend to have the perfect solution for this particular issue, the point I want to underscore is a simple one: discipline is just one of the many issues we cannot deal with if we try to do so without talking about race. We must deal openly with the fact that white kids and kids of color have fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in Minneapolis Public Schools and in Minnesota generally. That is the problem before us.

Why Do I Care?

People have asked me why education is an issue I have an opinion about. Some folks in the teachers’ union in Minneapolis have asked in a rather pointed way – this is our issue, why do you care? It’s a fair question I’m happy to answer because by some of the measures we traditionally define the issue, I don’t fit the bill of someone who should care about our schools. First, I have no kids (that’s best for everyone involved). Second, I’m the president of a union of janitors and security officers in the private sector. With the exception of security officers who work in Saint Paul Public Schools, SEIU Local 26 does not represent educators or support workers in schools.

So why do I care? The first reason is personal. Education opened doors for me that were not available to my parents, which is why they insisted that all of their children study and study hard. My siblings and I are the first generation of college graduates in our family, and my parents are very proud of that fact. And how did I, a kid from a family of very modest means, get a fancy Ivy League college education? First, a lot of debt that I will probably still be paying into retirement. But debt and scholarships is how I paid for it once I got in, and I got into a school like Yale because I was lucky enough to be educated in US public school system that succeeds where others do not, a school system where kids of color excel and where achievement and opportunity gaps are not the mammoth problem they are for here in Minnesota. My father was an enlisted soldier in the US Army, and so my entire schooling happened in Department of Defense Schools, first in Germany and then on a military base in Puerto Rico. Like so many who enter the volunteer army, my parents did so escaping poverty in the early 1960s. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam in combat. We were always very aware that the sacrifices our parents made they made so that we would have opportunities they did not.

The second reason I care is indeed professional. SEIU Local 26 is a union of janitors, security officers and window cleaners. The largest group, the janitorial division, is made up of members who come from all over the world. We have a fairly young membership. If you come to one of our member meetings, you will see small children running around; there is a lot of joy in the room. And when, over the years, I have asked members why they decided to make the difficult decision to come to a country whose language and culture is different from theirs, I most often hear my parents’ voices in theirs: I came to make a better life for my kids. For the members of Local 26, the “achievement gap” is not an abstract concept. Those are our kids.

In the next post, I will go more deeply into the polarized debate around education in Minneapolis and how an analysis of race, where we all challenge ourselves, is essential to solving the issues before us.

Wrong About Everything This Week – #pointergate and more!

17 Nov

logo smallFor those of you new to this blog through #pointergate, as you can see I don’t write very consistently.  I wish I had the time.

I do co-host a weekly podcast, “Wrong About Everything,” that is an irreverent, fun and bipartisan look at Minnesota and national politics.  t’s two Democrats and two Republicans, and the funnest part of my week is getting together with this group every Sunday to talk serious policy but also laugh and be silly with each other. You can find the show in iTunes, stitcher, or wherever you prefer to download podcasts.

On this week’s episode, we discuss Stanley Hubbard’s Mr. Burns impersonation in his MPR interview meltdown at

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

the end of last week, giving me a “Dear White People” moment where I give advice on what not to say when asked a question about race. We also have some fun talking about the (Mac)Gruber Obamacare Follies and ask, will the Republicans be able to stop themselves from saying crazy racist stuff when President Obama signs his upcoming Executive Order on Immigration.  Also, the silver lining to this year’s election fiasco for Democrats? The Return of our Republicans Gone Wild segment!

We didn’t discuss this on the show, but if you’re following #pointergate, don’t miss this takedown of KSTP from the St. Cloud Times.

Minneapolis School Board Race. Some Thoughts Before You Vote.

3 Nov

In Minneapolis this year, the race for the at-large school board seats has become one of the nastiest and divisive elections in recent memory. Trying to carve not even a middle path in this fight between the union and reformers, let alone a conversation, seems impossible, especially during the heightened tensions of an election. I’ll have a much longer post-mortem after election that will go into detail my frustrations with certain segments of both the reform and union crowds, but here I’ll just stick to my pre-election day thoughts that I hope some Minneapolis voters will find useful.

Let me begin by acknowledging that everyone running is seeking what is essentially a volunteer job, paying around ten thousand dollars a year (insane when you consider they manage a budget of almost 800 million dollars). It is also a thankless job with a ton of work, very little if any staff support, and the job description consists of trying to chart a way forward for kids in the midst of lots of adults yelling at you that you are not doing your job right. Kudos to all willing to put up with the current electoral vitriol they are sustaining only to win and accept that job.

Iris Strib Editorial EndorsementAnyone who knows me knows I am not unbiased in this race. Iris Altamirano is not only SEIU-endorsed, she is a good friend and someone who worked as political director and internal organizing lead at Local 26. She has been on strike lines, is extremely smart, and her story is the one of so many Minneapolis Public Schools students. There are three viable campaigns for two at-large spots: Altamirano, Don Samuels, and Rebecca Gagnon. Ira Jourdain is also vying for a spot, but his campaign has been lackluster, though he has a base of support in the hardcore left of the teachers’ union. Samuels is the darling of education reformers and Gagnon the darling of the mainstream of labor and the teachers’ union. Altamirano’s is the only campaign that has actively sought to build a conversation across groups and differences of opinion. That is what we need in a new school board – as she says, a new conversation, led by people willing to challenge all sides to do better and focus on kids.

Minneapolis kids are in crisis, especially kids of color. We have the greatest racial disparities in outcomes in the entire United States. Let that sink in. Worse than Mississippi, worse than Alabama, worse than Texas, where Iris Altamirano grew up.

Iris knows the plight of Minneapolis kids; she too was expected not to succeed. She is the proud daughter of a janitor who worked at her high school. When the superintendent of that school found out that Iris had been accepted to Cornell University, he did not celebrate her as the first student of any race to be accepted to an Ivy League from his district. No, he pulled her mother aside in the hall she cleaned every day and asked her, “Why your daughter?” Iris’s mom replied in her accented English, “Why not my daughter?” Iris and her mom cracked the code. They figured out a way for her to be successful in a system stacked against her. She has since then dedicated her life to changing that system. She will be the first Latina elected to the School Board and the only member with a direct connection to the largest community of immigrants in the city.

If Samuels and Gagnon get elected together, the school board will be bitterly divided, polarized—and the polarized debate has helped no one, especially kids. (More on that in the post-mortem).

DFL-endorsed Altamirano came in a strong third in the primary, but there are only two spots open on the board, and she is clearly the underdog. She is up against former City Council Member Samuels, who last year ran for mayor and won the highest number of second third choice votes and support across the city. He had a network of donors ready to go and the passionate support of some key stakeholders, including former Mayor Rybak. As soon as he announced, electing Samuels became the top priority of the “reform” crowd.

Then you have the incumbent, Gagnon, for whom the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation re-wrote the rules of endorsement in order to support her, choosing for the first time not to screen candidates and instead support the “DFL ticket.” That meant labor could put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the DFL while she could say she is not beholden to labor. (That is literally why it happened; it’s how she wanted it). It is abundantly clear that, if the rules of the game are re-written to fit one person, that person is your priority. Having been a strong supporter of labor, especially the teachers, on the board, re-electing Gagnon is the top priority of most the “union” crowd.

Coming out of the gate, Altamirano was neither group’s top priority. Unlike Gagnon, she is not wealthy enough to feed her campaign with thousands of dollars. Unlike Samuels, she is not known citywide. Although she comes out of the labor movement, organized strike lines and helped thousands of workers in the Twin Cities make their jobs better, no one has rewritten any rules to support her. The DFL endorsement was valuable; that and Altamirano’s tireless work got her a decent close third in the primary. Third place doesn’t get you on the school board.

Post-primary Altamirano continued a strategy of talking to everyone and began gaining their support. Reformers who donated to her did not give in as high quantities as they did to Samuels, and although she does not agree with them on all issues, they have seen in her someone who will at least listen and talk. Likewise, teachers and other union folks have invested in her campaign. She has run on her organizing experience, even when many in labor have attacked her viciously (and I do mean viciously) simply because she does not believe that being pro-labor means you have to close off communication with everyone else and be open to ideas wherever they come from.

Her work to engage people across groups has garnered her high praise. Just today, the 2014 Educator of the Year, Tom Rademacher, endorsed Iris, writing: “The conversation needs to change. I respect Iris Altamirano for her willingness to talk to everyone working to make schools better. Iris seems to understand that our biggest problems need allies more than they need enemies, and has refused to take the easy way out of picking a side in an argument and scoring easy points attacking others. Again and again, she has refocused the conversation through this campaign on finding solutions and staying centered on our students. She has my vote for Minneapolis School Board.”

In a surprise to the establishment, newcomer Altamirano also received the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Are there also people supporting her candidacy financially—principally through independent expenditures that she legally has no control over—who progressives disagree with on a whole host of issues? Absolutely. Why should you support her anyway? Because, in a world where money flows into elections to absurd degrees, Altamirano has been upfront about the fact that she is talking to everyone. If any of her critics who also cannot afford to self-finance their campaigns would care to run for office in the current campaign finance climate, I look forward to watch their learning curve.

In sum, whoever of the other two frontrunners you like, Samuels or Gagnon, Altamirano should be your other choice. If you want someone who will lead a new conversation, vote for Iris. If you are passionate about Rebecca Gagnon, you should also support Iris. If you are passionate for Don Samuels, you should also support Iris.

This race has been hard on everyone involved. Both the reform and the union side have engaged in tactics I find deplorable (more on that later). If the each group’s work gets Gagnon and Samuels elected, each will have elected the candidate they really wanted and the opponent each deserves. Minneapolis will have the most divided and divisive school board in memory, and we will have a much more difficult time healing from this election and focusing on kids.

Children at the Border: This is what Progressive Leadership Looks Like

23 Jul

The situation at the border is horrific. Thousands of unaccompanied minors are arriving to the United States and turning themselves in to Border patrol agents. I have no doubt that if these images we’re seeing from the border came from an other place in the world, we’d be calling it what it is, a refugee crisis. The Beltway reaction has been largely political and cowardly. Anti-immigrant politicians have tried to seize the opportunity to reframe the immigration debate around border security after losing so much ground since the 2012 elections, when the Latino vote walloped the GOP for being anti-immigrant and obstructionist on the question of immigration reform.

The debate has opened rifts in the GOP, exposing e party’s problem with expanding its base. Discussing the issue, Bill Kristol said to Latina Republican Ana Navarro, “You’re not as Republican as me” (psst, Ana… He means you’re brown).

But Democrats haven’t fared much better. The president quickly called for quick processing and deportation of minors. As did Secretary Clinton, who heartlessly said the children “should be sent back.”

The White House played dirty with Maryland Governor O’Malley when he stated, “It is contrary to everything we stand for to try to summarily send children back to death.” They leaked a conversation the governor had with White House senior adviser Cecilia Muñoz, suggesting that the a Governor had hypocritically told them he didn’t want the border children sent to Maryland. If you read the Politico article this story was leaked to, however, it is clear that is not at all what the governor said. He was advising them not to send children to a specific facility in Maryland, an area that is extremely conservative and where children are likely to receive the same harassing welcome they’ve seen in some parts of Texas and California. Days after the call with Muñoz, that facility was hilariously sprayed with misspelled graffiti: “No illeagels here. No undocumented Democrats.”


O’Malley 1, White House 0.

The other bright light in all of this: Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts. Announcing that his state would welcome a group of unaccompanied minors and fighting back tears, he said, “My faith teaches me that if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him but rather love him as yourself.” See his entire emotional speech at Mother Jones.

What Patrick and O’Malley are showing is leadership. I’ve heard that some in DC have seen polling showing that the border security frame is making American reactions to the crisis less than humanitarian. Leadership means looking at polls like these, understanding what’s right and what’s wrong about an issue, and deciding to do your best to change that popular opinion. By leading.

Aren’t Dinosaurs Just Jesus Ponies?

21 Jul

logo smallThat was the question of the week on the Wrong About Everything podcast, asked by Denise Cardinal when talking about crazy Minnesota House candidate Bob Frey‘s even crazier theories about evolution and the coexistence of humans (to the present!). If you haven’t followed the story, get your patoot over to Bluestem Prairie.  The blogger who runs that site insists she’s a crabby old hag, but we think she should at least add “researcher extraordinaire” to that title somewhere. She has all kinds of good stuff up about not just Frey’s crazy theories about evolution and the origin of AIDS but also how he screwed over homeowners for a living. What a guy!

MNGOP House Candidate with his Jesus Pony femur

MNGOP House Candidate with his Jesus Pony femur

Also on the podcast, we talk about Hillary’s book tour, Elizabeth Warren at Netroots, the Republican boys blather on about coal (ie., they explain why they hate the Earth), and we do a Know Your Government segment that uncovers the deep dark secrets of the Met Council (GOP panelist Brian McDaniel is a former black-booted thug appointee to the unelected SuperGovernment Council under Governor Pawlenty).

Wrong About Everything, Episode 7

14 Jul

20140702-085531-32131345.jpgIn this week’s episode, we get serious about the border crisis and then very unserious about the Ghost of Sexting Presidents Past, Minnesota Republican Candidates Gone Wilde & much more.

Download the latest edition of Wrong About Everthing here.

Wrong About Everything is now on iTunes

8 Jul












We either made it, or their standards are really really low.  Who cares ?  We’re on iTunes!  You can download it there.

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

7 Mar

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

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!