Minnesota sends diverse delegation to Congress

WASHINGTON -- Michele Bachmann said she got to know Keith Ellison during a recent weekend retreat for lawmakers near the nation's capital. That meeting in Williamsburg, Va., could be one of the few between Bachmann and Ellison, who are freshmen m...

WASHINGTON -- Michele Bachmann said she got to know Keith Ellison during a recent weekend retreat for lawmakers near the nation's capital.

That meeting in Williamsburg, Va., could be one of the few between Bachmann and Ellison, who are freshmen members of Congress but have little in common politically.

Bachmann, a conservative Republican, and Ellison, a liberal Democrat, represent both sides of the political spectrum. Their Minnesota colleagues in Congress are spread across that spectrum.

"I know darn well that we're going to have wild disagreements," but the delegation will find areas of agreement, said Bachmann, whose 6th District includes northern Twin Cities suburbs. She spoke during a recent Capitol Hill interview.

Political diversity in Minnesota's House delegation reflects differences among the urban, suburban and rural congressional districts, said Greg Thorson, a University of Minnesota Morris political science professor studying polarization in Congress.


A delegation representing a range of political views is not unusual, Thorson said. However, aside from legislation like homeland security funding, there could be few issues on which the members will collaborate, he said.

"That is the type of bill that could promote unity from the Minnesota delegation, but I do think that's the exception," Thorson said.

The state's congressional delegation doesn't often get together to push legislation, said Rep. Collin Peterson, the 7th District Democrat who has represented western Minnesota since 1991.

There are occasional requests from state officials seeking federal policy changes that require the combined effort of Minnesota's two senators and eight representatives, he said.

"Then we'll all work together, and we do," said Peterson, sitting with his feet up in his Capitol Hill office. "That won't make any difference if we're liberal, conservative or whatever. If it's something we all think Minnesota needs, we'll do it."

Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota's freshman senator, called the Minnesota delegation "interesting, politically."

"But also, just in terms of strong people," she continued. "Whether you agree with them or not, (there are) strong people in the delegation, and I think that's good for our state."

The delegation has planned to meet monthly to talk about common interests, said Klobuchar, a Democrat. The first meeting is set for February in Rep. Jim Oberstar's office because he has the most seniority, she added.


The state's third House freshman -- 1st District Rep. Tim Walz -- said he is optimistic they can all work together despite political differences.

Sitting in his sparsely decorated Washington quarters earlier this month, Walz said he already reached out to colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. Walz consulted 2nd District Rep. John Kline, a Republican and former Marine, on military issues and talked with Ellison and Bachmann, he said.

"We obviously differ on issues, but not all issues," Walz said.

Despite those differences, Minnesota's delegation has pledged to work together in the new Congress, saying that's what voters sought in the last election.

"My constituents expect me to at least have the foresight and wisdom to go ask and see the different (points of view)," said Walz, who represents southern Minnesota.

Some question whether that will translate into legislative compromises.

"I think it's more of a style that's been adopted in American government, that upon the conclusion of a harshly contested election people come together and say they're going to work together," said Thorson, the political scientist.

"That's nice rhetoric but it doesn't turn out to govern very well," he continued, adding that disagreements over old issues often resurface.


Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, said lawmakers do work together but it's often overlooked. Coleman noted that he has worked with Oberstar on transportation issues.

"You don't get a lot of credit for working in a bipartisan way," the Democrat-turned-Republican said. "You get publicity for conflict."

Minnesota has a history of electing politically diverse congressional delegations -- and of scant dialogue among those members, Tim Penny said. He represented southern Minnesota in Congress for 12 years beginning in 1983.

"The relations were cordial but not perhaps as well organized and orchestrated as they could have been," Penny recalled of his time in the House. "My guess is things are pretty much the same today."

However, Penny predicted, the delegation will join forces from time to time.

"If it's an important issue to the entire state the delegation is likely to be in concert with one another," Penny said, "and then it's just a matter of who within our delegation will take the lead on that."

A 17-term Democrat who represents northeastern Minnesota's 8th District, Oberstar said Minnesota's Washington representatives are well positioned. He is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peterson is the new House Agriculture Committee chairman and both Klobuchar and Coleman are on the Senate agriculture panel.

In addition, Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad of the western Twin Cities area -- and a Jamestown, N.D., native -- is on the tax-minded Ways and Means Committee and Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from the St. Paul area, has a spot on the House Appropriations Committee, which determines how federal money is spent for local programs.


"I think we have a very strong delegation," Oberstar said.

Minnesota's delegation has no choice but to adopt a bipartisan approach, Walter Mondale said in an interview.

"It seems to me that (they) have to work together. That doesn't mean you're going to agree on everything; there'll be differences," said Mondale, the former vice president who was in Washington to observe the beginning of Congress this month.

The Democrat continued: "What the public was saying in this election was, 'End your petty squabbling, sit down and talk as mature adults and try to resolve some of these issues.' I think that's what Americans are asking for."

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