Dan McGrath, Why Didn’t We Think of This Before?

I’m not one to shower elected officials with praise.  I often find myself skeptical of their motives, questioning of their tactics and dubious if they will have the chutzpah to stand up for what they truly believe.  But yesterday I witnessed one of the more brilliant bits of political theater that I’ve ever seen and need to give credit where credit is due.

What I’ve seen and heard from Governor Mark Dayton so far has been good.  He’s surrounded himself with a strong staff that is well respected and a good mix of experienced veterans and new energy, all of whom have shown themselves to be political savvy.  Likewise, his choices to lead state departments have, thus far, been strong (though we are still waiting to see if his senior team will be more reflective of Minnesota’s increasing racial diversity).

Yesterday, Governor Dayton made a bold move in signing two executive orders to make Minnesota’s residents and budget healthier.  The first order expands Medicaid and to cover 90,000 Minnesotans while also accepting nearly $1.4 billion from the federal government, money that will create jobs and help to close the state budget deficit.  The second order rescinded the previous administration’s directive to refuse any and all dollars made available to Minnesota as part of federal health care reform (who wants what they’ve already paid for?).

The signing ceremony was the culmination of 18 months of work by TakeAction Minnesota and several other powerful organizations that stand up for those left out of the profit-driven private health care insurance system (which is most of us).  When Tim Pawlenty unilaterally eliminated health care for 70,000 of the poorest Minnesotans in 2009 we rallied together to save General Assistance Medical Care.  Dozens of meetings with legislators, actions across the state, countless phone calls and emails all combined to create the political will to reverse this cynical act.  Later, with the passage of the federal reform bill, an effort many of the same organizations including TakeAction Minnesota campaigned for, the stage was set for today’s historic action.

But what stands out from yesterday’s event were not the multiple pens the Governor handed out after signing his name.  Rather it was how he responded to the opponents of his actions.

When I arrived at his office for the ceremony a half hour before it was to begin, there were plenty of the folks who had worked long and hard to win this victory.  There were also just as many Tea Party members and small government ideologues, made all the more visible by their signs and stickers.  When Dayton walked in the room he was booed by these same folks – in his own office!  Dayton, calm as could be, laid out some surprising ground rules: after he and other supporters spoke, opponents would have their turn at the mic.  When he said this my jaw dropped.

How can you give them center stage?!  But it was a brilliant maneuver.

One opponent claimed the constitution allows for no government action on health care (what part of a “more perfect union” don’t they understand).  Another said the government should get out of health care, then admitted he has received his health care from the Veteran’s Administration for 41 years (he looked good to me).  The last said that churches are the answer to the health care crisis (as a regular church goer, I can assure you my parish priest is in no position to perform an appendectomy or any other medical procedure).

Meanwhile supporters shared heartfelt stories of how the health of each and every one of us is dependent on the other and what this action will mean for them and those they care most about.  They spoke about preserving and creating worthwhile jobs and saving families from the pain and worry over loved ones without any where else to turn.

In one act, Governor Dayton showed that there is room for respectful disagreement and outmaneuvered his Tea Party opponents. By giving them the mic, they showed that they care about ideology rather than people’s health.  Who knew giving your opponent center-stage was the most effective way to make your case? Why didn’t we think of this before?

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