Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Call for Bi-Partisanship

If this election is to prove anything, it is that the public will not tolerate the continuance of political gridlock. Both Presidents G.W. Bush and Barack Obama came to office with the expectation of making our political system work. However, in each case these hopes were dashed on the rocks of partisan dissent. This has not only increased fragmentation but it has also fostered more extreme passion and anger than we have witnessed since 1968 when assassination and violence were the order of the day.

What our nation needs now is a brief respite from daily political assaults and more time to ponder where we are going. Lewis Carroll warned us in Alice in Wonderland that if we did not know where we were going, any road would get us there. We must pick a road.

Next January when a new President is inaugurated, the same divides will plague us and, likely, many of the same leaders will continue. How then will change occur?

Since I have publicly supported Hillary Clinton, I advance these ideas with the hope and expectation that she will be our next President and give them consideration.

As President, she will face a divided Congress or one that is unified for or against her. Further, no matter the extent of victory, it will largely be interpreted as a vote against her opponent and not a mandate for her.

If Democrats control Congress, the likely plan would be to quickly ram the Clinton agenda through Congress including appointments to the Supreme Court.

The problem with that approach is that it tends to lead to half-baked legislation and will likely result in political retaliation in 2018 and then more gridlock.

History has shown us that successful leaders know how to bring in the opposition and make them part of the administration’s agenda. Modern examples would include Bill Clinton’s partnership with Newt Gingrich which led to welfare reform and a balanced budget and Richard Nixon bringing in Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, as domestic advisor. In reality, virtually all Presidents have reached across the aisle to appoint the opposing party to cabinet posts, etc.

But none can compare to the impact of the partnerships formed by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Roosevelt reached out to his political opponent, Wendell Willkie, after the election of 1940, and asked him to serve as his personal representative to Great Britain. FDR truly respected Willkie’s commitment to internationalism at a time when Republicans were isolationists. With this appointment, the President put the world on notice that the United States speaks with one-voice. Further, the strength of this partnership helped Roosevelt pass his land-lease plan to aid Great Britain in 1941 and impose a selective service plan. It was a masterful use of power and, ultimately, led to true bi-partisan support for the war effort.

Likewise, President Truman reached out to former President Herbert Hoover to create a commission to modernize and create efficiencies in the federal government.  Hoover, perhaps the most talented manager to ever occupy the White House, had rescued Europe from starvation after World War I by creating and implementing a complex plan that literally fed millions of displaced and homeless victims of the war.

Following World War II, Truman asked Hoover to do the same and again he responded with the same success.

What was truly important about this partnership was that Truman, a very partisan Democrat, had reached out to Herbert Hoover who had been blamed for the depression and gave him an opportunity to serve with ability and pride. Both men gained but the world benefitted the most.

What Truman and Roosevelt understood was that bi-bipartisanship was a powerful weapon in building support with the public and using that support to move legislation through Congress.

Perhaps no one has done more work in this area than Doris Goodwin with her books on Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson.

Bi-partisanship works because the public embraces it and, in a two-party system, it is truly the only way to successfully govern.

The good news is that Hillary Clinton has a natural bent towards working with opposing sides. Fundamentally, she is far more oriented toward public policy than partisan conflict. As a Senator, Republicans praised her ability to work well with all.

But under the set of circumstances likely to prevail in January, limited bi-partisan tactics will not be sufficient for success. I would submit that trust will remain the overall concern. In today’s environment virtually anyone will be harmed by the relentless partisan attacks and media scrutiny. But is should also be remembered that all too often public servants regardless of party have engaged in highly dubious pursuits of self-interest. The problem of ethical behavior must be addressed in order to allow government to function. Rebuilding trust is a must.

With this in mind, I would suggest that the next President focus on at least two major bi-partisan efforts.

The first would be a commission to review and reform ethics in government covering all three branches of government with a sharp focus on not only current conflicts of interests but also those decisions made today that feather a public official’s nest tomorrow.

This commission should largely be citizens outside government but possess the stature and knowledge to be effective. I personally cannot think of anyone more qualified than our own Kathleen Blatz, a Republican, who served with great distinction as a legislator and Chief Judge of the Minnesota Supreme Court. She would work extraordinarily well with someone like former Senate Democrat leader, George Mitchell.

Simply put, confidence and trust in public service must be restored and we, the public, must hold all public servants to the highest standard of integrity.

The second task force would be responsible for a Hoover-type overhaul of our sprawling and complicated federal government and our growing debt burden. With two million employees our government is too large, too opaque and too duplicatory to continue without a massive overhaul. And the growing cost of debt is squeezing out our flexibility to properly fund needed programs. Consider that 65 percent of our budget is mandatory and debt costs equal seven percent and are growing.  We are now in a crisis.

One Republican with a superb background in management and finance comes to mind: Mitt Romney. He has an excellent background in both the private and public sectors. What particularly comes to mind is the remarkable job he did in reforming the Winter Olympics. He was truly superb.  More importantly, he has the confidence of the broad Republican Party and will work well with President Hillary Clinton’s appointees. Erskine Bowles would be a solid Democratic appointment. His work on deficit reduction was top notch.

Finally, I would suggest that the new President reach out to Senator John McCain as an advisor on foreign affairs. Whether McCain is re-elected or not, he is an incredibly valuable asset. His voice is essential on a bi-partisan stage.

Hillary Clinton has spoken out clearly on being President of all Americans. Now, she should openly discuss how she will bring us together in a way that maximizes cooperation and good fellowship and minimizes bitterness and anger. It must be a summons of the best and brightest for public service with the understanding that all public servants understand that they are the temporary stewards of the public good.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Night to Remember.

On a lovely spring evening in May of 1991, Susan and I awaited at the Governor’s Residence the arrival of Arkansas First Lady, Hillary Clinton. She was in Minnesota traveling extensively to promote school-to-work programs designed to better prepare academically undernourished children for the challenges of the job market.

When she arrived around 10 p.m. after a most exhaustive day, she and Susan embraced like old friends and quickly went to their favorite topic: children. Slowly, I began to evolve into a piece of furniture realizing that my hopes for an energetic discussion about Bill’s plans to run for the Presidency were being crushed by this enthusiasm for children.

After awhile, they went to the kitchen to rummage around for leftovers still immersed in their policy discussion. The only thing that broke their stride was Hillary’s delight that we had diet cherry coke.

Although I was the forgotten member of the trio, I began to marvel at the knowledge and genuine passion these two remarkable public servants had for helping children. In their quest for an enduring solution, they must have covered just about every children’s’ program that existed.

I know how much this meant to Susan who at that time was working with Ron James, CEO of US West, on the Action for Children Commission to put together a host of reforms designed to prevent problems for children in order to offset the dreadful price of faulty outcomes.  There is no doubt in my mind that their final report Kids Can’t Wait was heavily influenced by this discussion with Hillary.  And we all continue to benefit. I personally learned a lot about the union of warmth, intelligence and passion.

It may appear to many to be a small example of how well Hillary Clinton works across the political isle, but to the thousands of children who were helped by this partnership; it remains a very large deal.

Now, Hillary Clinton may well be the President who carries these aspirations of children into the Presidency where it will help millions more.  I truly hope so.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bob Dayton…Delightful – Successful – Minnesota’s Finest

Over the decades, Minnesota has been blessed with a vast array of community leaders that truly defined our unique quality of life. Many were businessmen who saw beyond the bottom line and understood that success could only become a meaningful reality with the involvement and commitment of all.

Bob Dayton was one of those giants. Yes, he was born into privilege but he gave back to all of us so much more and he did so with modesty and humor. He will be sorely missed

I cannot recall a conversation with Bob when he was not excited about some project and throwing all of his enthusiasm into it. Others willingly came on board because we all knew the journey would be successful and fun. It made no difference if it involved building sports facilities, funding the arts, creating scholarships or refurbishing the Governor’s Residence, Bob was enthusiastically involved.

Central to his leadership and accomplishment was a combination of optimism and hard work. He fully believed that nothing was impossible and knew that successful people would participate if they had confidence in the final result. With Bob on board, the outcome was never in doubt.

From a more personal perspective, he appealed to the best in us. He understood that we all have instincts for the good and he had the rare gift of being able to tap into the redeeming part of us.  As a result, we felt better.

Oh, I enjoyed his humor, his can-do approach and his genuine love of our splendid Minnesota community. I am thankful for his friendship and for all he has done.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Unfairness Trumps in TV

January 7, 2016 was a frigid night in Burlington, Vermont particularly with the winds coming off Lake Champlain. Nevertheless, America’s media was there in full force to cover the event. No, it was not the anticipated arrival of Queen Elizabeth nor the return of a manned spacecraft from Mars.  Donald Trump was coming to town and his campaign had distributed more tickets to supporters than the theater could hold. Now, that is a crisis and the ever-alert TV media was right on top of it. The local constabulary was interviewed and they issued all the proper and expected words of assurance that all was under control.

Further, we had the media’s finest reporters on hand to make certain that we, the public, did not miss a single step as Donald Trump descended from his plane.

Following another performance of rambling observations, America’s best and brightest political analysts came forth to give us the true meaning of the event.

So it goes in the life of Donald Trump and the interpretative media that follows him. I am largely referring to the non-news-news cable TV stations such as Fox on the right and MSNBC on the left. Their obsession with Trump and his meandering mind has less to do with politics and political bias and everything to do with ratings and money. They gain market share thereby creating more profit and the commentators and analysts not only achieve financial success via exposure but it also sells books and drives speaking fees.  In brief, it is a pathway to wealth and they do not disclose a thing.

Their power has also helped reshape how our nation picks its leaders. I would contend that they are on a par with the benefactors of the court decision known as Citizens United which empowered the wealthy with increased political clout.

This rigging of coverage has clearly impacted the ability of other presidential candidates to get their message out. Simply stated, the allocation of time accorded them is a fraction of the limelight heaped on Trump. How can candidates with experience and accomplishment succeed in a media environment that rewards outrageous celebrity and then expresses surprise that the candidates they failed to cover perform so poorly in the polls?

Rather then acknowledge openly the role of TV ratings and money, these self-appointed political experts marvel at Trump’s ability to gain free media. That is akin to Al Capone wondering aloud why old Chicago’s judges and police were corrupt.

In the process, this misbehavior has contributed to the advancement of the absurd notion that experience and accomplishment are liabilities. Certainly, a rational person needing brain surgery does not seek the services of an orderly on the grounds that he lacks experience and, therefore, must be highly qualified.

Now, some will say that many of these commentators and analysts are critical of Trump and his message.  This is certainly true. However, the fact remains that they are enablers in that they willingly give Trump an unfair advantage in getting his name and message out to his audience while drastically limiting the ability of other candidates to get their persona and message to their audiences. And the driving force behind this fundamental unfairness is ratings and money.

Our Constitution grants the media special rights because our founders understood the vital role news plays in a democratic society. Having news coverage determined or even influenced by ratings (money) is a direct assault on the ability of a people in a democracy to be properly informed.

It is time the spotlight went on the ratings game which is really what determines coverage. Walter Cronkite held that news should be about the seeking of truth governed by appropriate journalistic standards of fairness. Today, it is more about generating controversy and, all too often, obscuring the truth in the pursuit of profit.

This all goes to the heart of what is essential to a democracy. We deserve better – we must have better.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Raw Politics and the Office of State Auditor

Most of the media has concluded that this last legislative session was a failure largely due to the usual Republican – Democrat refusal to compromise. But that is not quite accurate. After all, the Senate is controlled by the Democrats and they passed the same provisions as the Republican House that a Democrat Governor finds offensive. That would seem to suggest poor legislative management on the part of the Governor or a host of significant policy differences between the Governor and his own party in the Legislature.

One example of this not-to-subtle intra-party war is the provision in the State Departments Omnibus bill that effectively renders the office of State Auditor an empty shell. Its powers of auditing local governments is essentially eliminated and its staff unemployed.

This major policy was contained in a House bill that received a public hearing and was ultimately passed. However, in the Senate there were no comparable public hearings or a vote. Instead, it emerged from a late night conference committee in the closing hours with Democrat leaders in support.

Now, why would Senate Democrat leadership accept a Republican proposal to virtually eliminate the office of the State Auditor which is held by a Democrat incumbent?

The answer likely has little to do with the issue of privatizing the office by permitting local government to contract out their audits and all to do with the incumbent’s stance on mining leases and, particularly, the proposed copper mine located in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. It should be remembered that in addition to an audit responsibility which charges the State Auditor with oversight of the more than 20 billion dollars spent by local governments, the State Auditor also serves as a constitutional officer elected by the people of Minnesota. As such, she serves on the State Executive Council, the State Board of Investment (pension investments), Land Exchange Board, and a variety of other state boards. One major issue that regularly arises is the management of state lands including the issuances of mining leases.

For the past several years, there has been a heated controversy involving Polymet Mining Corporation of Canada’s proposal to open pit mine near Babbitt on the eastern edge of Minnesota’s Iron Range.  There is believed to be a large copper, nickel, and other valuable mineral deposits beneath a wide stretch of forests and lakes in the area.

Understandably, it pits jobs (around 350) against the protection of the environment including the flow of harmful mining residue into the waters that flow into Lake Superior.

Rebecca Otto, as State Auditor and as a member of the Executive Council publicly announced her opposition to the project and instantly became a political target for the Iron Range legislators.

She was challenged in the Democratic Party primary and mining was a dominant issue. Otto won an easy victory and that should have been the end of this matter.

However, it appears that it resurfaced in the fading hours of this legislative session when the Republican House bill was accepted by the Democratic leadership in the Senate. All indicators are that this was largely the handiwork of two Iron Range legislators with power and long memories; Senate Majority leader, Tom Bakk of Cook County and Senator Tom Sauxhaug of Grand Rapids.

This episode represents a most dangerous threat to our state’s constitution in that it constitutes an effort to intimidate an elected official. What’s next? If the Attorney General disagrees on a policy matter with a segment of the legislature is it acceptable for the legislature then to privatize her office and render her powerless?

We, the people, created these offices and we fully expect them to be treated with respect and fairness by our other elected branches of government. There is no reason in a democratic society for such a gross abuse of power.  In this matter, the people have spoken via an election and the legislature has the obligation to honor the will of the people.

May I add that the same goes for the House Republicans and their continuing battle to privatize the office of State Auditor. In this case, the Republican candidate for State Auditor had the full opportunity to make the case for privatizing the office and changing the responsibilities of the office. Discussing policy differences is what elections should be about.    At the polls, the people spoke and spoke loudly in support of the incumbent and the preservation of the powers and responsibilities of that office.

Now, if the legislature wants to study the office and review concerns about the management, costs, competition, timeliness, etc. that is entirely proper. Apparently, that is what both houses of the legislature intended until the raw power play occurred in the closing moments of the session.

As a former State Auditor, I am deeply upset by this flippant and mean-spirited approach to an office that belongs to the people. The value of the office lies in the fact that it provides not just a financial audit but also a strong compliance review as well.  This means matching financial transactions against the law. That is a real strength of that office. It is designed to prevent financial scandals.

Private firms do an excellent job on the financial and management review front. But compliance work is where the office of State Auditor excels and that is where the taxpayers’ interests are protected.

Overall, Minnesota has a well-respected system of local government. I doubt that there is any better in our nation. Part of the reason for this success is that we take the oversight function seriously. We want it to be independent and professional. The office of State Auditor was designed with that goal in mind. And overall, it has worked well.

If the legislature has concerns about the office, then a study and public hearings are entirely appropriate. But what the legislature did is wholly unacceptable and the Governor should flatly refuse to close the special session until this matter is properly resolved.

It may also be well for the legislature to take a hard look at itself. They may find some room for improvement.