It seems today that few Minnesotans remember Eugene McCarthy, one of our great political titans of the 1950s and 60s. McCarthy was the son of an Irish Catholic cattle jockey who loved to tell stories and a devoted Bavarian mother who encouraged her four inquisitive children. Raised in the small central Minnesota hamlet of Watkins, the lanky 6’ 4” Eugene was a superb athlete playing semipro baseball and hockey for St. John’s College. He eventually became a professor at St. Thomas University in St. Paul where he plugged into a young energetic crowd of political leaders who would change the landscape of Minnesota politics under the newly minted Democratic Farmer Labor Party.
In 1948 when the new party was casting about looking for a candidate, they recognized that McCarthy would be able to energize the young people in the St. Paul congressional district. He was a very popular professor that enjoyed getting in front of people giving folksy speeches with the flair of an Irish storyteller yet full of intellectual vigor. As a result he had a devoted following of young students who propelled him to electoral success. In 1958 he would become the U.S. Senator joining Minnesota’s other political giant in the Senate, Hubert H. Humphrey.
These two distinguished leaders would enter into a battle for the hearts and souls of our country in the midst the Vietnam War in a plot that would easily fit a Greek tragedy. Both men would seek to become the Democratic candidate for president in 1968. As vice president to Lyndon B. Johnson, Humphrey inherited the label as the establishment man having to carry the burden of the previous administration’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. The poetic and charismatic Irish populist McCarthy became the peace candidate as the favorite of the anti-war protesters. These two forces clashed in Chicago for the 1968 endorsing convention that led to a break in the Democratic Party and eventually the election of Richard Nixon as president.
One thing McCarthy was always good at was a memorable quote and his above self-deprecating assessment regarding the importance of politics seems to be a fitting introduction to the 2014 Minnesota legislative session that kicked off Tuesday of this week. With the contentious election facing the governor and House members this year, politics will likely be on center stage in the legislative session.
The session has already taken on a dubious nickname as the “unsession”. Why? Because Governor Dayton and the DFL legislative leadership have set a priority of ridding the statute books of unnecessary and obsolete language. Most of the recommendations are of little importance, but apparently stripping out unnecessary statutory language will look like a success.
Most political pundits do not expect much from this legislative session. There will be some corrections to mistakes made in the tax laws last session that will eat up the majority of the expected budget surplus. There will likely be a small transportation package flowing from the president’s visit to St. Paul on Wednesday to promote transportation. Unfortunately, there is little being proposed in the area of environmental policy. Most of environmental activists are focused on the issue sulfide mining in northeastern Minnesota that does not require legislative action, but rather a battle regarding the question of permitting.
The biggest area of concern will be the bonding bill. The bill is projected to be at or above $840 million in spending. Conservation and environment projects have been on average about 22% of past bonding bills. The governor’s recent proposal has only about 16% going toward the great outdoors, but there is a strong expectation that the legislature will improve on that number with more dollars going to parks and trails and RIM easements for wildlife protection.
Conservation Minnesota will continue to play an aggressive role in the legislature protecting our great outdoors. We have a good team put together this session that knows how to play the legislative game and, despite not a lot of importance happening, we know it is still critical to be vigilant to ensure we continue to invest in our great outdoors for future generations. McCarthy is right that politics is a little overrated, but the great Irish crusader would likely agree that good policy preserving of our great outdoors is an important part of our heritage as Minnesotans.