MINNEAPOLIS — An annual ritual for Forum News Service's legislative reporters in Minnesota is hosting a pre-legislative session forum for our state's political leaders. The event gives reporters a unique opportunity to ask leaders about current affairs and upcoming priorities for the session.
Much in pandemic fashion, this year's event had a different feel. Instead of gathering in a large group in St. Paul, reporters and politicians alike joined the forum online.
But that wasn't the only part that felt different.
It started out normally enough, with cool heads prevailing while acknowledging our state and our country are at a tipping point.
"It's clear that the country is divided right now, and I think what we as leaders, in a bipartisan fashion, is figure out how to come together," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
If heard in a vacuum, the average Minnesotan could have some hope for progress to be made this legislative session. People across the state are hurting, financially and mentally, from the onslaught of the COVID-19 outbreak. Perhaps 2021 could be the year of recovery.
But mere minutes later, leaders from the statehouse had more a hostile and combative tone than in forums' past. Accusations of lying came more frequently and with more venom. Harsh, pointed rhetoric became the preferred response to questions posed by the press corps, even after Daudt; Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park; Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake; Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury; and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz all preached about the importance of cooperation.
It was more of the same that Minnesotans have come to expect out of their elected officials. The only thing that makes it more bearable is if you happen to think one side on any given topic is right.
Seemingly simultaneously understanding the pointlessness of fingerpointing and ignoring that understanding, Walz emphasized the difficulty of the task ahead of Minnesota's lawmakers.
"How do we find common ground when we have people who will not say the election was fair?" he asked. "How do we find common ground when basic medical facts are disregarded? How do we find (common) ground when the leadership continues to perpetrate these falsehoods?"
Minnesota is the only state in the country with split legislative control, which would be difficult enough to navigate in normal times. Having to reach a compromise consensus in the Democratic House and Republican Senate on every single bill has ground St. Paul to a halt many times over the past few years.
The split Legislature is the tinder. Now, pour on the gasoline of the pandemic. And light the match that is the increasingly divisive language used by lawmakers since the start of the Donald Trump presidency.
The flames of partisanship are roaring and alive in St. Paul in the new year, even as the smoke stands to choke more and more innocent citizens caught downwind.
So much for the idea of recovery. Maybe the best Minnesotans can hope for in the upcoming legislative session is keeping the wildfire from burning us all.
Robb Jeffries is a Twin Cities-based editor for Forum News Service. Follow him on Twitter @robbjeffries or email firstname.lastname@example.org.