Toxic politics may poison governance


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I expected Lisa Goodman to offer soothing words to an excitable journalist (me) as she prepares to end the longest-ever run of service on the Minneapolis City Council.

She’ll tell me, thought I, that the council’s slide to the ideological left in the Nov. 7 election was the predictable stuff of generational change. She’ll remind me that 26 years ago, she was deemed the leftist newbie, arriving on the council via the Paul Wellstone campaign and abortion rights activism.

Now, at the still-fairly-tender age of 57, Goodman is retiring from the downtown-plus-lakes Seventh Ward seat as a mainstay of the council’s moderate wing.

That wing looks to be a minority on the 13-member council that will take office in January. At least seven seats (it’s hard to get a firm count in an officially nonpartisan election) were won by progressives known to be critical of the policies of Mayor Jacob Frey. Four members of the new council arrive with the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America.

It will be a council divided enough to beg a bunch of big questions. Is Minneapolis still a one-party town? Is the venerable Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party splintering? Is this a city government that can function for the two years until the next city election, let alone govern well? And if it doesn’t, what message will that send to the rest of the state about both Minneapolis and the DFL?

“All of the people on the City Council are blue,” Goodman assured, referring to the customary color for Democrats on political maps. “We’re just not the same shade of blue.”

And, to be sure, generational change is a factor in the City Council’s trend line. Katie Cashman, the winner of the race to succeed Goodman in the Seventh Ward, is 30 years old. Six of the 13 members of the 2024 City Council will be under 35, as Goodman was when she was first elected in 1997.

The new council’s age and inexperience don’t worry her, Goodman said. But she is concerned about its ability to govern well. The issue she described is part of a larger trend in politically polarized America: “Too many people only respect the people who completely agree with them.”

Goodman learned long ago to withstand the barbs slung on social media by an increasingly emboldened public. But she worries that some latter-day public officials are only too happy to join that onslaught. They see a colleague who does not fully agree with them as someone to be disparaged.

It was the very point made by the city’s outgoing interim city operations officer, Heather Johnston, in a Nov. 14 letter to Frey. Johnston declined to put herself through the City Council’s endorsement process, which she said is one that “allows abusive, untrue comments to be made about people who have dedicated their lives to public service.”

Goodman has been on the receiving end of that treatment. She said she’s encountered “outright hostility” for disagreeing with those who would legalize homeless encampments, even though she long been a champion for low-income housing.

What Goodman describes is not unique to Minneapolis or to the left side of American politics — far from it. Just ask any college president about the difficulty they’ve had in the past month keeping campus conversations about Israel and Hamas respectful.

But one can argue that people elected to governing positions bear particular responsibility to tone down harsh rhetoric because of the damage it can do to the very institutions in which they serve.

“They don’t understand that they need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable,” Goodman said of the newer crop of council members. “When they don’t do that, there’s almost a complete breakdown in respect, and a breakdown in trust follows.”

A breakdown in sound policymaking and implementation can come next, I’ve observed. Good people decline to run for office. Good staff won’t stick around, or apply when jobs open. Government’s performance slips.

Eventually a lack of trust within City Hall oozes out into the body politic. Goodman fears that’s happening in Minneapolis.

“I hear my own friends losing faith in the city,” she said. “They say the city doesn’t care about neighborhoods, about basic services, about public safety.

“That’s what scares me most of all. One of the best things we’ve had going for us is that we’ve had clean, open government that gets things done. I worry that we’re on the precipice of losing that reputation.”

That’s a lot to load on a bunch of local politicians who don’t play nicely with one another. But one can argue that elected officials’ willingness to verbally brutalize those with whom they disagree violates something fundamental about the American experiment. Representative democracy only works if representatives respect and trust one another enough to submit to majority rule.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at [email protected].

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