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Minnesota Opinion - On defying public opinion on prison:

Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

From The Associated Press

On defying public opinion on prison:

As election day creeps ever closer, this weekend's package of articles about the Federal Medical Center should serve as a good reminder of what's at stake when voters go to the polls.

Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes Rochester made a mistake by allowing a federal prison to be established here. With nearly 500 employees, an annual financial impact of $60 million and barely a hint of security-related problems over the past 25 years, it's safe to say that FMC, along with Mayo Clinic and IBM, is a crucial cog in the southeastern Minnesota's economic engine.

But in 1983, things were far different. An "unofficial" vote showed public sentiment running 3-to-1 against the prison, and the Rochester City Council came within a whisker of authorizing a $250,000 expenditure to fight the proposal. ...

Fortunately, some elected officials in city and county government were able to peer through the public outcry and see a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Rather than taking the easy route and bowing to the court of public opinion, they stood firm, in one case even defying a death threat.

The threats of physical violence never materialized, but some who supported the prison plan were sent packing by still-angry voters during the next election.

This gets at one of the key questions of representative democracy: Are elected leaders duty-bound to support the views and wishes of those who put them in office? Or, asked another way: Are elected leaders duty-bound to act in such a way as to ensure their re-election?

We think not. The best leaders must have a vision for the future, a willingness to think for themselves and the backbone to take unpopular positions that are in the public's best interests. The best public servants are deeply aware that they are temporary employees, and that the office itself is much larger and important than the person who holds it.

Rochester is deeply indebted to those who stood firm against the tide of public opinion in 1984. And as we prepare to choose our next crop of leaders, we should think twice about electing anyone who promises to give us everything we ask for.

-- Post-Bulletin of Rochester