Minn. state senator says he never met a hungry person; media earthquake ensues
"I had a cereal bar for breakfast. I guess I’m hungry now," he added Tuesday during debate over school lunch bill
ROCHESTER — At a national level, state Sen. Steve Drazkowski is an obscure GOP backbencher who represents a political party with almost no political influence in the state. But on Tuesday, the legislator from Mazeppa summoned a media earthquake with comments that many considered insensitive and uninformed.
The state Senate was debating a bill that would provide free meals to all Minnesota students. Drazkowski said he opposed the proposal because he had never met a hungry person in Minnesota before.
“I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that is hungry,” Drazkowski said on the Senate floor. “I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that says they don’t have access to enough food to eat.”
“Now, I should say that hunger is a relative term,” Drazkowski continued. “I had a cereal bar for breakfast. I guess I’m hungry now.”
He also called the bill “pure socialism,” arguing that the state money would be better spent on reading, writing and arithmetic.
The outrage burst forth nationally like water through a dam. Within hours, outlets such as The Washington Post, NBC and Rolling Stone had stories about conservative Drazkowski’s poke-in-the-eye comments. The Independent and Business Insider also piled on. A Vanity Fair writer called Drazkowski not only “evil,” but “uniquely evil.”
“When Drazkowski says he has never met a hungry Minnesotan, he is either lying or he is deliberately ignoring the families in his district and across the state that are struggling,” said DFL spokesman Brian Evans.
But why would the national media find catnip in such comments?
However insensitive the remarks were, they were entirely consistent with Drazkowski’s political stock in trade. And it’s hard to imagine that Drazkowski doesn’t revel in the response. In a recent Star Tribune article, Drazkowski was identified as one of a trio of Republican senators — political flamethrowers — who have been antagonizing the DFL majority by dragging out debate for hours.
“He is provocative and, at times, says things that will offend his political rivals,” said Steven Schier, a state political analyst.
.@mannyfidel reacts to Minnesota state Sen. Steve Drazkowski's claim that he's never met a Minnesotan who has experienced hunger. pic.twitter.com/niVvR0tcxG— MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 15, 2023
Drazkowski didn't respond to a request seeking comment.
The comments also reflected what little sway Republicans have in St. Paul and the frustration they have been feeling as the state moves left on social and cultural issues.
They have watched on the sidelines as DFL Gov. Tim Walz and DFL leaders have waved through their agenda. Just last week, Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, erupted in rage at a committee hearing when he was prevented from asking questions about an early voting bill.
When a party lacks the votes to pass or even block legislation, words are all that’s left. Except for bonding legislation that requires two-thirds of both chambers to support, the DFL can’t be stopped from passing whatever bills they want so long as they maintain party discipline and their one-vote majority in the Senate.
“The GOP arsenal in the state Legislature is pretty depleted except for rhetoric,” Schier said.
Drazkowski’s comments played nationally because “outrage sells,” Schier said. “Whenever you can find somebody saying something provocative and outrageous on the other side, you will use it to get an audience, and that’s what’s happening here.”
Dicing Draz's statements
Bill Kuisle, a former state legislator and Olmsted County Republican leader, said Drazkowski’s remarks were a distraction from the main argument he was trying to make: That the state should target its help rather than pay for a sweeping free breakfast and lunch benefit for every student, regardless of need.
“It’s just plain ridiculous to me to think that we have to feed every child in the state of Minnesota, no matter whether their parents are millionaires or whether they’re really in need,” Kuisle said.
Kuisle added that the problem with passing a wave of government-expanding progressive programs at a time of a historic $17 billion surplus is that they become harder to sustain over time when the surplus disappears.
“I think that’s kind of where Steve is going with this: Why don’t we enhance or fill in the cracks” rather than give a free lunch to every student, Kuisle said.
Kuisle said the negative media attention Drazkowski is getting will likely strengthen him among his constituents, many of whom are blue-collar workers and farmers and would benefit from the bill.
“They want to pick on the rural guys,” Kuisle said. “But what they’re doing in St. Paul is burning more bridges for those out in Greater Minnesota. And we haven't seen anything yet.”
The bill’s author, Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said an estimated 275,000 students in the state get free and reduced-price school meals. Another 18% of students would likely qualify but haven’t submitted the necessary paperwork.
“Roughly 1 in 6 children are food insecure. That means they don’t know when and where their next meal will be available, if they get one at all,” Gustafson said. Of those students, 25% are from households that don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Hunger Solutions, a school nutrition advocacy group, estimates.
The measure, which would cost $420 million over the next two years, passed 38-26. A number of Republican senators supported the bill.
Virginia Merritt, Channel One Region Food Bank executive director, said oftentimes hunger is hidden.
“Just because someone isn’t standing on a street corner with a sign that says, ‘I need food,’ doesn’t mean that they aren’t hungry,” she said.
Channel One saw a 30% rise in shopping visits at its food shelf in Rochester in 2022 over the previous year. And the trend has continued into this year.
“The impact of inflationary grocery prices on working people has really been difficult,” Merritt said. “We’re seeing people shop at Channel One who have never asked for help before.”
Channel One Food Bank supported the bill. Merritt said schools spend considerable time and money to sort out what students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch as well as sending out collection letters and notices to families who haven’t paid.
“The most cost effective way to feed children, if we’re looking at it from a cost effective standpoint, is to feed them at school,” she said. “They’re already there. There’s no transportation barrier. School meals are very thrifty, cost-wise. And the federal government is going to subsidize a lot of it.”