The Bridges of Bergen and Ramsey Counties: Tolls in Minnesota politics not so nasty
Wednesday, January 22, 2014 4:46 AM
There's nothing like bad bridgework to leave a body writhing and speechless.
As an old gubernatorial staffer, for Gov. Al Quie in the very early 1980s, I perhaps resonated with extra amazement at the nastiness, arrogance and earth-buckling stupidity of several of Gov. Chris Christie's staffers who manufactured four days of massive traffic jams leading onto the George Washington Bridge as part of a political vendetta against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. Without suggesting that Christie knew anything about it until the morning everything blew up a week ago, I would argue that the episode nonetheless reconfirms what are often real differences between Minnesota's political culture and that of various other places around the country, and not just on the East Coast.
Could I imagine any of my colleagues at the Capitol 30-plus years ago having even a nano-portion of their collective skulls in which such an idea could be hatched no matter how seriously miffed we might have been, say, at the mayor of Hudson on the other side of the St. Croix? Not a chance, with my confidence applying to all governors and their administrations in Minnesota both before and after Quie's.
During Bill Clinton's Monica Moments almost 20 years ago now, I called an old friend on his staff, not to rib or gloat in any way, but to offer support, as he was truly pained that his boss - and friend - had let everyone down so. I note that episode mainly because not only had I worked for Al Quie, I also had worked for President C. Peter Magrath at the University of Minnesota and the very idea that either one of them could ever ... you get the point.
In the specific matter of bridges, how else is Minnesota different (which is to say better)?
Soon after the 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in August 2007, stories started emerging about how Quie, when he was governor, had backed up his commissioner of transportation, Dick Braun, when the latter determined that the High Bridge in St. Paul, another vital link over the Mississippi River, was unsafe and needed to be shut down, which Braun ordered even though governors are not terribly fond of the political fallout that often follows whenever the daily lives of voters are further complicated.
This is especially so, moreover, when loads of drivers and small business owners think they've been needlessly inconvenienced and shortchanged, as the High Bridge probably didn't look any ricketier to them than it had for a long time. Braun had met with the governor before the closing, and Quie (according to Braun) had simply told him to "Do the right thing." The bridge was later demolished and replaced.
In the weeks after the 35W disaster, Braun also spoke of how he once showed Quie a map of Minnesota and how various projects the Transportation Department might or might not pursue likely would make various legislators around the state, very much including the governor's fellow Republicans, decidedly unhappy. Once again Quie simply had said, "Do what's right."
For cinematic contrast here, think "The Bridges of Bergen and Ramsey Counties."
I tell this story not to single out Quie and Braun, wonderful fellows as they are, but to contend that Minnesota has had more than its share of honorable public servants, regardless of party, whose definition of a scandal can be little more than accepting a gift-banned donut. Such probity is in our culture. Or if you prefer, in our water, of which we also have more than our fair share.
All this is the case even though our politics aren't especially "nice." Certainly not as nice as the rest of us. Or as the late journalist Jack Germond once put it on the McLaughlin Group when another panelist paid Minnesota an exorbitant compliment about the way we do politics and partisanship, "Are you kidding? They beat the hell out of each other up there."
True, we do. It's just that our fights usually don't take the kinds of tolls as those exacted over the Hudson River last week.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment, which is based in Minneapolis.