Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Jim Oberstar…Congress’ Best and What an Ally

Without question, Jim Oberstar will long be honored as one of Minnesota’s most effective members of Congress. He had an uncanny ability to get things done and never shied away from what may have appeared to be an impossible mission.

Early in my administration, we were beset with the problem of a takeover of Northwest Airlines and a subsequent request for the state to lend money in return for some long-term commitments. This came on top of trying to deal with a multi-billion dollar deficit and passing a highly controversial wetlands protection bill. Believe me, we needed friends, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle.

And help came. Shortly after the Northwest Airlines takeover, we reached out to Congressman Jim Oberstar because it affected his district and no one in Congress was more versed on transportation issues. He responded and came onboard with full enthusiasm and an endless array of solutions. Never once did he raise a partisan concern. No, he folded up his sleeves, joined the team, and made the ultimate package a bi-partisan effort.  What was impressive was his knowledge of the issues as well as the players involved. But at all times, his focus was on keeping the 20,000 plus jobs in Minnesota and preserving Minnesota as a hub. He was the Lou Gehrig of our lineup.

Later, in visiting Washington, I got to know him more as a person. He was a genuine renaissance man.  His education and intellectual curiosity was first rate. After graduating from St. Thomas University in St. Paul, he received his M.A. from the College of Europe in Belgium and was fluent in six languages including French.  But he was also a top-flight historian.  I suspect he had a hard time making a career choice being torn between teaching at a University or serving in Congress. From my experience, I can tell you he did a lot of both.

One day, he took me on a tour of Congress and pointed out where various historical debates occurred, the contents of the debates, and the colorful stories that surrounded those historical moments. I was dazzled by his brilliance and his retention of history.

Jim Oberstar was a superb example of the best in public service. He understood that partisanship and political competition was a means to attaining office but that the end goal was to develop good public policy.  To achieve that end, he was willing to reach across the partisan divide. I was honored to be his partner.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Nancy Brataas – Leader - Pioneer – Definer of Democracy

How many times have we mused about the “good old days” when our political system understood the role of compromise and measured success in terms of the positive impact it had on the common good.

Those days did not come about by accident but rather by truly hard work on the part of so many citizens who committed to the values of community espoused by the “greatest generation”. In Word War II, everyone pitched in from front-line fighting to kids collecting tin cans. It was “our “ war and hence “our” responsibility. That philosophy carried over into the life of leaders such as Nancy Brataas and we were the benefactors.

State Senator Nancy Brataas, who passed away this week, was a pioneer in building what became a broad-based and highly successful Republican Party from the 1960’s into the turn of the century. Many will remember her progressive record as an early leader in civil rights, the passage of the ERA, budgetary prudence and defining the role of government in environmental concerns. Others will recall the marvelous role she played in representing Rochester with her tireless pursuit of a University of Minnesota branch and building a strong relationship between the state and the Mayo Clinic.

When she passed, I received a lovely email from an old and dear friend, Mahlon Schneider, who led the fight on behalf of business for workers compensation reform. His observations of Nancy Brataas are meaningful, “Despite her party’s minority status for her entire 17 years in the Minnesota Senate, she was enormously effective because no one was better prepared on issues, consistently sought allies on the other side of the aisle and was passionate in her commitment.”

With the efforts of leaders like Mahlon Schneider of Hormel, Senator Nancy Brataas (R-Rochester) and Representative Wayne Simoneau (DFL-Columbia Heights) our administration was able to gain passage of this bi-partisan achievement. Those leaders knew how to move mountains.

But if I were to choose her most significant contribution it would be when she chaired the Republican Party and initiated a program known as “neighbor-to-neighbor”. This was an interesting approach whereby local Republicans organized on the precinct level and rang doorbells around their neighborhood seeking donors and identifying voters.  Everyone was involved from business executives to students. It was truly grassroots democracy at its best because it ultimately broadened the party and built the party from the bottom up. It made the party more responsive and caring for the well being of friends and neighbors.

Politically, this new party enjoyed enormous success. It was not just the victories it enjoyed on the state level with GOP governors from Elmer Andersen to Al Quie and into my administration nor the successes on the Senate side including Dave Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz, but heavily democratic areas like the city of Minneapolis even had a few Republican dominated City Councils.

Compare this approach of broad-based participation to today’s heavy reliance on bundled monies from the very few most of whom live nowhere near the candidate’s district and the resultant purchasing of public policy.

Nancy Brataas understood that the essence of democracy involved everyone having a stake in it with the expectation that candidates would be elected on the positive quality of their ideas and their genuine commitment to the well being of their community. This impacted not only the Republican Party but the Democratic Party as well because it compelled both parties to compete for the best and the brightest. It was that sense of purpose that allowed elected officials to work together to achieve positive and intelligent results for the people they served.

Nancy, thanks.  We all owe you a lot.

Friday, January 31, 2014

All Roads Lead to Christie…

As US Attorney, Chris Christie had the opportunity to witness the rough and tumble of New Jersey and New York politics. This territory is the former home of boss politics including the Hague machine of New Jersey and Tammany Hall in New York City. They were synonymous with patronage and corruption.

And while the big names of corruption are long gone, the remnants and memories linger.

I suspect Chris Christie understood the lessons of the past and applied them well. As US Attorney he went after those politicians who misused the public trust and rapidly became the Elliot Ness of New Jersey politics. Clearly, he was going to do what no predecessor could and that was to wipe out political corruption.

This became his path to the Governorship and he continued his aggressive pursuit against what he called “shadowy governments” – citadels of government power where unelected officials could dispense money and power with little accountability. The pursuit of justice expanded to include government unions and bureaucrats using abusive power over the public purse.

But, unlike Elliot Ness, Christie was neither modest nor retiring in his manner. No, he was the bull elephant who trampled the peoples’ enemies and took regular wipes at anyone including reporters or citizens who dared ask questions that he deemed inappropriate.

Was he a bully? Absolutely, but he was our bully and he was matching the power of good against the power of evil.  So it’s all right. To many, he was the resurrection of Theodore Roosevelt.

Immediately, he became an immensely popular political figure and his style was fully embraced not just by the political faithful including an increasing number of democrats but also by the national media housed in New York and Washington. He was their hero as well and he was a Republican.

This element of the media feeds daily on the politics of politics and what could be more attractive than a national collision between two giants – Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton.

But while Christie was dazzling the pundits with the bluster of his right hand, they failed to notice what he was doing on the left.  And therein lies the Christie problem. While going after the smaller “shadow governments”, little attention was being paid to the biggest of them all:  the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. With a budget exceeding $7 billion of federal and state monies it had not only money and power but it lent itself to easy control and operated in the shadows of public scrutiny.

By way of background, this was also the former home of Robert Moses who almost singlehandedly developed New York City and was said to have more power than the Mayor or Governor.  He was truly an appointed czar.

It is curious that so few paid attention to Governor Christies’ highly political appointments to the Port Authority nor to his veto of legislation requiring more financial and policy transparency.   After all, if he did not like the reform bill, where was his proposal?

Nor was there much attention when episodes of abuse were revealed including the firing of a prosecutor who indicted one of his political allies, the closing of a TV station that ran an unfavorable story, or the elimination of funding for a project favored by a University professor who ruled against Christie’s reapportionment plan. Even serious questions of mismanagement of Sandy funds were pushed aside.

No, the politics of politics was way more important than the substance of governance and that is why the national media focuses and advances the show horses of politics rather than the diligent and purposeful efforts of the work horses.

In this environment, Christie could thrive. The Port Authority rapidly became his political playground and the governance system had the one ingredient that is the milk of corruption – very, very little oversight.

While the Governor’s office dazzled the public at the capitol, they were also dealing with development projects at the Port Authority dripping with money and endless potential for campaign contributions which are so vital to the launching of a Presidential bid.

And what setup could be better? The Governor appoints the Chairperson as well as members to the Board.  Further, the organization legitimatized conflicts of interest.  How is it that a reform Governor would appoint a prominent New Jersey attorney as chairman of the authority knowing full well that his law firm regularly lobbied the authority for development monies on behalf of its clients?  Anyone with an IQ approaching room temperature knows this is a blatant conflict of interest. But for an anti corruption crusader to not only make such an appointment and then pack the Port Authority with his political operatives strongly suggests incompetence or dishonesty.

But like all scandals, this did not occur in a vacuum. It was clearly an event waiting to be discovered. Christie did not invent the murky environment of the Port Authority nor did he create the centralization of power concentrated in the Governor. That all preceded him and likely was home to considerably prior abuse by both parties.

Nevertheless, how could such a system of concentrated authority not draw more attention much earlier? Here we have a Governor empowered to appoint the Attorney General – the chief legal authority of the state and have virtual control over this immense Port Authority.

Where was the independent financial oversight for both the federal as well as state monies? Where were the legal checks and balances?

Where was the Governor of New York and his appointees to the Authority?

And there will be an increasing number of questions involving the Hurricane Sandy money. Where was the federal financial oversight relative to the hundreds of millions of dollars given by national taxpayers?

Why is it that we were doused with endless pictures of a GOP Governor embracing a Democrat President with a huge supply of federal hurricane dollars and endless campaign rhetoric of bi-partisan cooperation but not one word about the legitimacy of how that money was spent?

In all instances – state and federal – where was the oversight – both in terms of financial as well as management?

As to the balance of the scandal, it will no doubt widen and steadily become increasingly apparent that that all roads lead to money and power and, ultimately to Christie. Will he fall?  That is most likely.

But that is neither the sole tragedy nor the end of the story. The latter will only come when we respect and insist on competency over celebrity and insist on the imposition of honest standards of management in public service.


The vast sprawl of the federal government has not had a major overhaul since the Hoover Commission was formed by President Harry Truman. This bi-partisan effort involving two Presidents helped open the door of cooperation between Presidents and is one of the key examples cited in the widely acclaimed book, The President’s Club.

Today, we are very much in need of bi-partisan cooperation at the very highest level and we are also in need of serious management overhaul of government. This would be a perfect time for President Obama to reach out to former Governor and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney for the purpose of heading a similar type of commission. Frankly, we need Romney’s management skill sets and we need the President to restore trust in the competency of government.

If the Christie scandal is to have any meaning it is that we must enhance at all levels of government an appreciation of divided power, true transparency and oversight, and an appreciation for the quality of leadership over the celebration of sizzle.

Leadership can make it happen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Too Tangled a Web For Haste…

In the mid-1960’s, I had the pleasure of serving on the Minneapolis City Council. It was a remarkable experience in that it provided immeasurable learning experiences that helped form a foundation that was most helpful in future years.

The city had a system of diffused power that often frustrated mayors and sometimes the council. But it worked and, in some areas, it worked exceptionally well.

For instance, most projects that involved debt went through a series of hearings before any finalization. The Planning Department had charge of the long-term city plan and was very sensitive to community needs, aesthetics, etc. The Committee on Long Range Improvements (CLIC) focused on the viability of the project and placed its funding and implementation on a 20-year plan. In addition a financial review by the Board of Estimate and Taxation was conducted before it went to the City Council and Mayor.

The system worked because it highlighted transparency, diffused power, and compelled separate aesthetic and financial reviews. It was no accident that Minneapolis enjoyed the highest credit rating – AAA.

But recently, there have been efforts to consolidate power, weaken oversight and dim the lights on transparency.

This is becoming increasingly evident in the city’s Downtown East Project which involves a private-public partnership and an investment of over $400 million. Located adjacent to the new stadium, the proposal includes the building of parking ramps, a park, apartments, office space and retail. The developer is financing some $350 million of the project with the City of Minneapolis borrowing $62 million for a park and a parking ramp and various small items.

Now that is the simple part. The reality is that the inner financial arrangements between the city, the state, the Vikings, the developer, and the Minnesota Sports Facility Authority (MSFA) are far more complicated than any Rube Goldberg device.

For instance, the financial report submitted to the City Council on December 5, 2013 outlines that the MSFA will pay $17.9 million towards a parking ramp with the City paying $32.6 million. The developer will be responsible for bond payments for 10 years but possibly longer if certain revenue targets are not met. However, ownership will reside with the MSFA with the City retaining development rights.

This raises a host of legal and practical issues. For instance, can a city bond for the development of property it does not own? Who is liable for the ramp debt if the developer defaults? How did a financially minority participant gain ownership?

And then we have the $18 million the city will borrow for the park. The remaining funds are listed as coming in the form of grants from “other” governments, and $1 million from the Vikings listed as a “charitable donation” which will receive “recognition consistent with those standards.”

The park will be used by the MSFA for up to “forty days a year” and the Vikings will be allotted the park for Viking games and an additional ten days per year. Hence, again the MSFA has legal use of the park without any specific contribution listed toward the purchase and development of that park. And the Vikings will gain exclusive use without any payment unless that “charitable donation” is really a business deal.

And to make this even more interesting is that the MSFA will have a liquor license for use by the Vikings which will become another profit center for them.

On November 22, 2013, the Star Tribune quoted the city’s chief development official, Jeremy Hanson Willis, as declaring, “It’s one of the largest and most complicated development projects that has come before us in many years. So there are many issues still under discussion that need to be resolved.” (Emphasis is mine).

However, instead of heeding this note of caution, the Mayor and Council want the deal fully approved by December 13th – this Friday.

Toward that end, scrutiny and approval from CLIC and the Board of Estimate and Taxation are being bi-passed.  Further, in order to lower the number of votes needed for this public debt package, the proposal will go to the Port Authority which is actually the City Council but approval for debt will only take a simple majority of seven votes instead of the normal nine required for debt issuance.

Two members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, Bob Fine and Carol Becker, have expressed their outrage with the latter using the word “sleazy”. They like others are concerned that the traditional checks and balances are being thrown aside in the rush to approve this most complicated and poorly understood project.

Time and again history has shown that secrecy and haste are the enemies of good government and good public policy. Nevertheless, the state and city seem to persist in both.

Look at what has already transpired.  Numerous critics have lambasted the legislative closed-door process including two writers currently or formerly with the Star Tribune.  Jon Tevlin referred to the stadium deal as “transparent as the Berlin Wall.” Nick Coleman on observing the House-Senate Conference Committee on the stadium bill declared, “Yes, as we all learned in school, the corrupt days of smoke-filled rooms are gone. But that’s only because smoking is no longer permitted.”

Even the vice-chair of the Minneapolis Audit Committee is alarmed: “Unfortunately, the lack of transparency on critical spending decisions over the past several years has only increased the lack of trust our citizens have in City Hall.

I could go on but sadly there are other difficulties as well. On December 6, 2013, a MPR reporter, Tim Nelson, disclosed that the state may have to change its stadium financing plans due to the fact that electronic gambling will probably produce $89,000 for fiscal 2013 (June 30th) rather than the originally anticipated $72 million. Now that will probably be covered by the cigarette taxes that were to be used for the reserve fund for the stadium. The bottom line according to Nelson: the fund is expected to be drained by the end of June 2016 – about two weeks before the stadium is completed. Suffice it to say, the financing for the stadium is still a work in progress.

On top of that we have the fact that Minneapolis lost its AAA credit rating last summer. Much of this is due to the pension liability which has been largely solved but continues to demand according to the Center of the American Experiment ten percent of every tax dollar with debt service taking another 8 percent. These are high fixed costs and should strongly suggest more oversight and caution on debt issues and not less.

Simply put, what we have here is an expensive, complicated arrangement that ties together the state’s stadium package with this development. It may well be a fine project because it does reinvigorate downtown, create jobs, bring in added revenues and tie in light rail with the stadium. These are all excellent positives.

However, what elected officials have to understand, particularly in private-public ventures, is that the private sector will always hire the best talent and advance their best deal. They are successful because they know how to make money. This is not the public sector’s strong suit.

With that in mind, we should consider the reality that the stadium package and this downtown development are tied together both financially as well as in user terms. And there are all too few people who understand the intricacies involved.

Further, Zygi Wilf did remarkably well in negotiating the stadium package with the state and city.  Brian Lambert, a MinnPost columnist and longtime Twin Cities journalist, estimates that Mr. Wilf will probably have around $20 million of his own money in this $900 million plus package. I suspect he will make a profit just on the stadium piece alone when naming rights and its profits are thrown in. He is immensely skilled in real estate and financial matters.

By now, the public is aware of the state-city’s appalling lack of due diligence in examining Mr. Wilf’s financing. For instance, after the package was approved, one leader acknowledged surprise at the disclosure of a long-standing lawsuit against Wilf and was taken aback by Wilf’s announcement that he would impose a seat license fee as part of his “contribution” to the deal in spite of the fact that the approved package permitted it.

The public is also aware that Mr. Wilf will not likely win the “model citizen of the year” award after the New Jersey Court found him guilty of civil racketeering and fraud in cheating his partners.

Now for months, the Council and public have seen only the sizzle of the project with appealing sketches and verbiage about jobs, revenues, etc.  That may all be accurate. But the financial details with all of its moving parts were only released on December 5 and December 9. Of all the red flags waving, that is the most important.

How can a City Council digest this complicated financial arrangement in a matter of days sandwiched in between Thanksgiving and Christmas and with six members of the Council and Mayor departing and looking for jobs?

This not only weakens accountability but also denies the public any kind of understanding and participation. Frankly, it is totally reckless.

Good projects improve in a democratic society when we have truthful and open disclosure and a thoughtful and thorough examination of all the elements involved.

I pray that good judgment will prevail and that the incoming Mayor and Council will hold public hearings and do it right. Public service is at its best when it truly embraces the public good and earns the public’s trust.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Sounds of Silence

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the moment that we lose perspective of the future. It is entirely possible that in three or four years from now we will be reading about the sale of the Vikings football team for a profit of $100 or $200 million as a result of the new stadium financed virtually entirely by the taxpayer and the fans. And, yes, there will be stories of how Zygi Wilf outfoxed and outmaneuvered those representing the interests of the public.

However, on the other side of town in a newly refurbished Orchestra Hall there will be no sounds of Brahms, Copeland, or Sibelius but rather the stillness of silence.

We will publicly wonder how we could pass a Legacy Amendment (by way of disclosure, Governor Wendell Anderson and I served as co-chairs) designed to properly fund the outdoors and the arts, pour hundreds of millions into a facility that ultimately moved Wilf from millionaire into billionaire status, and then stand by while our own world class symphony orchestra disintegrated.

We will understandably ask - where were our priorities? How could we go so overboard for one and yet be so detached from the other? Since when do the arts not play a major role in defining our quality of life and is it not that some quality of life that attracts business job growth? And then, will we wonder about our leadership?

What is hard to comprehend is why the Legacy Amendment, the over generosity of the public in the stadium deal, and the lack of progress in the stalemate at Orchestra Hall do not pose an opportunity for the Governor, the Mayor, and legislative leaders to come together and figure out how some money can be moved in order to permit us to retain the Vikings (with an increased share of participation from Wilf) as well as a treasured world class symphony. We owe this to ourselves and to our future. Let’s get moving

Monday, July 1, 2013

A White Bear Lake Success and Challenge

July 4th is always a special day in that it creates a national sense of unity. In so many ways, it is our country’s great Red, White, and Blue get-together featuring barbecues, parades, bands and a true sense of participation.  It is about us as a community and remembering those who made it all possible.

On June 20th I had the opportunity to share another type of community event; the building of the World’s Longest Sundae in White Bear Lake. My assignment was to serve as a Judge for the Guinness Book of Records.

The brainchild of John Lupo, owner of Grandma’s Bakery, brought together all the leadership of the White Bear Lake community from the Mayor and Council to the local Chamber of Commerce. Everyone participated. Now imagine trying to build a sundae that exceeds the length of three football fields. This undertaking required precision planning, timely delivery to prevent melting and hundreds of hands to scoop and top without any spaces in this contiguous ice cream delight. What incredible teamwork.

Yes, a new record was established and White Bear Lake won. But, frankly, that is not what was either important or most memorable. No, it was the outpouring of support and participation from the entire White Bear Lake community.

This was a coming together of all people – all races, ages, nationalities, political persuasions. It was the total White Bear Lake population defining for all of us the meaning of community. It was about what “we” together can accomplish and what together we can give (thousands of dollars raised for the fight against cancer). There were no egos, no shouts of “I” but rather a meaningful sense of fun – the fun of togetherness held together by mutual respect and gratitude for community.

Driving home, I could not help but reflect on this event and then position it against Washington and our rather dysfunctional government. It seems like they are incapable of doing anything together including just getting along with each other.

Now imagine the White House declaring a day-off for all involved in order to allow the President and Congress and their staffs to build a sundae or some comparable project that will match that of White Bear Lake. I am dead serious. More than anything else they would learn about teamwork; the meaning of group accomplishment, and the value of “we” over “I”.  They may even have a few laughs together.

Why not?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

And then there were none….
The withdrawal of Jim Graves from the 6th District race for Congress has drawn considerable comment as well as some interesting emotional responses ranging from bitter disappointment from moderates and democrats to relief from the right. 

If possible, some perspective is needed. 

First of all, political observers were truly taken by surprise because they looked forward to the marquee matchup of the year:  Bachmann vs. Graves. This was to be the Joe Louis vs. Joe Wolcott fight from my time or, for a later generation, Ali vs. Frazer.   It was the bout. Everyone was in the process of picking sides and getting involved.  In a sense, we were already emotionally invested.

All of a sudden, Michele Bachmann embraced term limits just two weeks after running re-election ads on TV and then Jim Graves pulled out after announcing in April that he would be in.  The battle of the year – the Super Bowl of politics – was no longer. How could they do that to us?

After eight years of Michele Bachmann dominating the Minnesota scene and emerging as a Tea Party favorite on a national level, many Democrats, independents and Republican moderates felt they had a real shot at bringing Bachmann down.  After all, she was hurting from the wounds of legal inquiry with the likelihood of more shoes to fall.

And Jim Graves was now the ideal candidate; talented, successful in business, strong people skills, modest, and genuinely committed to building a better community.  Old Timers may remember the radio show, “Jack Armstrong – the All American Boy”.  Well, that would be Jim Graves.

I supported him in last year’s contest when he came within a whisker of winning.  But I also support his decision to withdraw from a Bachmann-less contest.  In politics, you rarely get more than two shots at opportunity and after that you are labeled a loser and cruelly assigned to the graveyard of the past.  The result is you have to pick your shots carefully and Graves did.

When few others would come forth to challenge Bachmann in 2012,  Jim Graves volunteered. His campaign was little more than his family and some truly dedicated friends. But the upper echelon of power in the DFL was noticeably absent both on the elected and party levels. He was not given a chance and political insiders try to not identify with likely losers.

In the closing days of the campaign, the polls tightened and more followers came on board. Had they been there earlier, Graves could have won.

If there can be a victory in defeat, Graves achieved that in his loss to Bachmann and this is what propelled him into the big time limelight. He had all the markings of a winner for 2014 but that would only be if Bachmann were the candidate.

In eight years, she had become the dominant national force of Far Right politics and the 6th Congressional District tilted in that direction.  But increasingly, more of her supporters cooled as a result of her extreme comments and faulty interpretation of facts. By 2012, she was vulnerable and Graves proved that. (See Michele Bachmann...A Lady in Decline).

Now without Bachmann on the ticket, Graves’ chances collapsed and he wisely understood the folly involved. For those who remain disappointed, they should direct their energy toward the real problem: the gerrymandering of Legislative and Congressional Districts in order to deny competition and insure incumbency. That is the enemy of democracy.

As to Jim Graves.  I hope he remains active and runs again for public office. He is the type of business leader we so desperately need: pragmatic, visionary, caring and committed to governance. I look back at so many solid business leaders who contributed so much to our well being at the local, state and national levels and hope he will follow suit. Look at the names and you realize what excellence is about: Elmer L. Andersen, Bill Frenzel, Wheelock Whitney, John Yngve, Roger Scherer, John Johnson, George Pillsbury and on and on.

The simple fact is that we need our best in public service and Jim Graves represents that.