by Shannon Rousseau, Anchor/Producer/Multimedia Journalist
ST. PAUL, Minn. (KTTC) — Politics: no matter where you stand, the word creates some kind of emotion. Recently, the partisanship that has been prominent at the state and national level has led to bickering, while voters remain frustrated at the lack of cooperation. But one group wants to ensure bipartisanship in St. Paul. By blending red and blue together they are “seeing purple” for the greater good of Minnesota.
If you have been living in Minnesota since last May, you might remember how the 2016 legislative session ended.
It ended without a billion-dollar bonding bill to fix the state’s roads and bridge despite bipartisan support. “Even the folks that supported it couldn’t agree,” said Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt last August, three months after the session ended.
In true partisan fashion, both parties blamed the other for the last-minute bonding bill blowup. “And there’s no alternative being proposed,” said Governor Dayton in August.
But this year, one Senate-run group hopes to bridge the gap between the GOP and the DFL. “Part of the work of the Purple Caucus is to work to avoid that kind of ending,” said Sen. Greg Clausen (DFL) of Apple Valley. Sen. Clausen is one of the founding members of the Purple Caucus.
The Purple Caucus does not have anything to do with the Vikings or Minnesota music-icon Prince, in case you were wondering. Together, the colors blue and red make purple. Blue alluding to the color of the Democratic party, and red the color of the Republican party.
The Purple Caucus is made up of Republicans and Democrats from the Senate, working to overcome the political gridlock in St. Paul. “We had a conversation and said, ‘hey, things can work better here at the capitol, things have to work better at the capitol,” said founding member Sen. Jeremy Miller (R) of Winona.
Sen. Miller helped assemble the Purple Caucus back in 2013 with former Sen. Roger Reinert (DFL) of Duluth.
“We really want to focus on what’s best for the people and not what’s best for one political party or the other,” said Sen. Miller.
The first time the Purple Caucus met in 2013 they had 6 members. As of 2017, they’ve grown to 23, and the split between Democrats and Republicans is nearly even.
“What we look for is consensus. We aren’t going to agree on everything,” said Sen. Clausen. “It has been really successful to bring Republicans and Democrats together without staff, without lobbyists, and just allow us to sit down and get to know each other,” said Sen. Miller.
So how does the Purple Caucus work? For one thing, members do not write bills. Instead, they bring bills or ideas to the Purple Caucus and have a discussion about it. “There’s only been one bill to this point where it has been a Purple Caucus position,” said Sen. Carla Nelson (R) of Rochester, another founding member of the Purple Caucus.
Purple Caucus members rallied behind Sen. Nelson’s bill last session, which would end last minute law-making… a nod to how the 2016 session actually ended.
Sen. Clausen said, “even when we do agree on a concept or a policy bill, there might be things in that we still disagree on. But we try to work things out, compromise, and get things done.”
The Purple Caucus sounds like a good idea in theory, but does it actually work? Wouldn’t something this optimistic have been attempted before?
“It’s not new. It’s been tried many times,” said former Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum. Speaker Sviggum recalled a group similar to the Purple Caucus when he served as Speaker from 1999 until 2007. “They found the job to be difficult and it wasn’t very successful.”
“They called it the ‘Rump Group.’ The people involved in the Rump Group I think felt they were successful in changing some of the legislation,” said former Representative Kim Norton (DFL) of Rochester.
Unlike the Purple Caucus, which is composed only of state senators, the Rump Group was made up of around 30 senators and representatives in St. Paul. The group lasted from the mid to late 2000s. Though the ‘rump group’ proved to be unsuccessful, eventually breaking up, they tried to resolve issues.
The 2004 legislative session ended in a way similar to the 2016 session. “There’s always chaos at the end of a legislative session,” said Sen. Miller. “The last few days gets a significant amount of legislation and not enough time,” added Speaker Sviggum. “Leadership either in the governor’s office, the House, or the Senate… they kind of set the tone for much of what happened in the very end where they couldn’t agree upon things,” said Sen. Clausen, referring to Gov. Dayton, Speaker Daudt, and former Senate President Sandy Pappas (DFL).
Hence the creation of the Purple Caucus, whose goal is to create an environment for Republicans and Democrats to come together and form relationships in order to work on policies and issues in a more positive way. “Even if they don’t change the outcome, people are working across the aisle and that’s important,” said Rep. Norton.
“That’s really the message the Purple Caucus is going to send this year: we want to work together and we want to get good things done for Minnesota,” said Sen. Miller.
We tried to get a complete list of the Senators involved in the Purple Caucus but were told ‘no’ in order to protect members identities. When we spoke with Sen. Miller and Sen. Clausen, they said education was a top priority for the caucus.
They have only met a handful of times this session so it will be interesting to see if they propose any new legislation or get behind any initiatives in the coming weeks.