Q&A: Arne Carlson

The governor during TCB’s inaugural years doesn’t have much good to say about state governance today.
Q&A: Arne Carlson

Republican Arne Carlson was governor of Minnesota at TCB’s birth. He was elected in 1990 following the scandal-ridden implosion of the campaign of Jon Grunseth, the GOP-endorsed candidate, and was decisively re-elected in 1994 without the endorsement of his party. A fiscal hawk with moderate social values, the Bronx-born Carlson became known for straight talk, an impatient demeanor, and a surprisingly nonpartisan approach to governance. He ran the state exclusively alongside DFL legislatures, yet his tenure was known not for gridlock, but for substantial legislative achievement, including tax, health care, education, and workplace reform. He succeeded Gov. Rudy Perpich, who served two highly consequential terms, and he was succeeded by Jesse Ventura, whose election heralded the beginning of an era of voter disaffection and legislative gridlock.

Carlson, who turns 84 this month, was born in New York City and came to Minnesota to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. He served on the Minneapolis City Council, in the Minnesota House, and as Minnesota State Auditor before his time in the Governor’s Residence. He blogs regularly at govarnecarlson.blogspot.com.

TCB: When you took office, what was your sense of the governor’s job, versus the reality?

Arne Carlson: I think there’s a public expectation that if you have experience, things will come easy to you. I found it transformative. It was a challenge, and you just have to grow into it.

Q  What’s the hardest to prepare for?

The enormous amount of pressure. You’re the focal point of every dispute, every issue, every concern. It all leads to you because that’s where the media focuses.

Q  You describe your time in office as being the tail-end of a revolution in Minnesota’s evolution. Can you explain it?

I’ll explain it this way: When you look at Minnesota from the 1950s to the 1990s, you had some coalitions at work that built a magnificent state. One was the business community as a whole. They provided the leadership, frankly. And there was labor. They all worked with the Citizens League, which was a remarkable organization. And the Star Tribune, with John Cowles Jr., provided a platform.

The idea was, “How do we build our community?” From that question came [things like] environmental protection and metropolitan governance. We effectively got both political parties to understand that it was their obligation to give us their best and brightest. I would argue those were the glory years.

When Wendell Anderson had his picture on Time, it was not a partisan celebration, it was a Minnesota celebration because it meant we had arrived. When Wheelock Whitney secured pro sports, it was celebrated as a win for all of Minnesota. The political system reflected that philosophy. [The political establishment’s] agenda was focused on “How do we create an opportunity society that allows everyone to succeed?” We didn’t sit around bashing.

Some of it lasted; some of it, frankly, didn’t. I’m disappointed that we’ve had so much [subsequent] leadership that focused on their personal well-being. I really wish the governorship could be a dead-end job. So many have used it for national attention rather than a Minnesota agenda. We’ve had way too much of that.

Q  What initiatives did not have a long life?

The one that disappoints me the most is financial planning. Governors have a tendency to find that inconvenient. The game is to balance today’s budget and then be surprised by tomorrow’s deficit. [Laughs.] It’s dreadful. I can’t think of a single company that would allow a CFO to do the same. Businesses have the vision of the long-term because they want stability. Too many of our elected officials only want to get through the next election cycle. How can you be in the planning business and be surprised? We were one of the first states to get to an AAA bond rating, but now there’s an indifference. When was the last time you heard an elected official take responsibility? It’s always somebody else’s fault.

Q  So what has endured from your tenure?

We did a lot of environmental reforms around sustainable development, and that lasted and hopefully will continue, though I’m petrified at the prospect of copper mining in northern Minnesota. I think Lake Superior could be in considerable jeopardy, as well as the BWCA.

On the education front, we introduced competition and choice. We supported charter schools, and that has lasted because the public supports it. Minnesota Care was very durable and very successful because, one, it was bipartisan, and two, it was focused. It was very well planned. We put into effect sweeping civil rights legislation for the gay community. Opportunities for the poor. Welfare reform. I think we reduced welfare by almost 40 percent, particularly by helping single mothers get on the employment rolls.

We reformed workers’ compensation. That came the first year of our term. The state had been threatened by a number of smaller companies that felt they would need to move, and we got the changes through on a bipartisan basis, which is kind of incredible, considering today’s environment. The premiums were reduced by 50 percent.

Q  What skill sets did you lack as governor?

It’s very important for any governor to make an assessment of their own skills. None of us are born perfect. I tend to be impatient. I don’t like long negotiations. I get a little sharp-tongued. So I delegated a lot of that to staff. I relied heavily on talented staff. There were certain things I was stronger in: setting a vision, ethical standards for staff (no political fundraising), and fiscal discipline.

Q  I hear you are a bit of an introvert. How did you end up in politics?

That’s a fair question. [As a kid] I was very bashful, stuttered something awful. I was blessed with some good speech coaching in high school and adored politics. We were born poor in the Bronx and I just loved Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor, and how he used the instruments of government to help people.

Q  Was the glad-handing difficult?

I loved it with the public. I am very poor at cocktail parties and structured events. I am terrible at small talk. I find it the ultimate in boredom. I’ve just been watching the series The Crown and, oh my golly, would I be a failure at [royalty].

Q  Did it hinder you?

It did, but you surround yourself with people who are better at it. My wife is great at meeting people and loves the social aspect of it, so she’s a good partner.

Q  MinnCare seems to be one of the most forward-looking of your legacies. What made it a priority for you?

I’ll tell you a personal story. When my little brother was 4, he was taken with appendicitis. We were poor. He was rushed to Fordham Hospital. It gave free care to the indigent. A doctor told my mother he would not operate until we came up with some money. Totally unethical. Totally illegal. Totally vile.

We didn’t have a telephone. She went down to the church and tried to beg and borrow. It was now 7 p.m., and Lars’ appendix broke. The poison spread all over his body. My mother told the doc, “If my son dies, you’re going to die.” I don’t know how any society can deny health care to anybody. So this was a very personal issue with me.

It gets tiring being told that because you’re Republican you have no regard for the well-being of others. The political lesson is that out of harshness and disagreement you can build political solutions. What really drove the bipartisan [legislative] team was a search for excellence.

Q  Is there national applicability here?

Absolutely. Both parties badly [botched] it. When Tommy Thompson, who was a very successful governor of Wisconsin, left the Bush administration, he supported universal health care. Obama should have immediately called in Tommy and brought in the Republican governors who have instituted state plans, and come up with national guidelines. Have the Democrats do the same, then weld them together. Instead, Obama went the partisan route. Never gave any ownership to Republicans, and the rest is history. I don’t think public policy should be partisan in nature. That’s where we have failed. The other side always has talent and vision. God did not exclusively give wisdom to one political party.

Q  You governed during a period of complete DFL control of the Legislature. One of your former aides said it worked to your advantage because you had enough votes to sustain your vetoes, but not enough to have to take the GOP caucus’s other initiatives seriously.

That’s correct. [Laughs.] The truth is, you can always work with the other majority if you understand what they want. That’s the joy of politics. It’s a trade-off.

Q  The U is one of your passions. Have we lost the consensus on the U? Was there ever really one?

I think there was one. In 1957, when I came here to go to grad school, I think there was a consensus on seeking excellence.

Q  Yet there’s this endless tug-of-war between access and excellence at the U. Why?

I think the overall management system at the U is totally inadequate and has sapped people’s confidence in it. I’d like to see the next president not be confined to an academic background. The faculty will not like that because they want ownership of that office.

The Board of Regents should not be selected by the Legislature, which inherently drives it to a lowest common denominator. And it’s a non-goal-oriented administration. So where are we going? We don’t know. But the fact that there’s a philosophical divide between access and excellence doesn’t mean you can’t do both.

What I would like to see long-term is the U be a junior-senior-graduate institution and the freshmen-sophomore side be at regional institutions. Because when you define excellence, you’re really talking about graduate education. And it will always be.

But most importantly, we’re not discussing it. You’re the first person to discuss this issue with me in years. And I think it belongs on the table.

Q  Do you accept the premise that, despite our evolved 21st-century economy, the U remains a key driver of state prosperity?

At the moment, yes. But I see it resting on past laurels. I don’t see it building an exciting agenda for tomorrow. I don’t see us planning our future the way we should. The university has the talent and resources to do it, but it doesn’t have the administrative willpower to get it done.

Q  I hear water is a topic you care deeply about. The western U.S. is drying up. Minnesota is getting wetter; we are rich in water resources. Should we not be having a larger conversation about how water is managed, and even how it is leveraged for our long-term benefit?

Long-term our biggest asset is not institutional, it’s natural resources, and water is it. You’ve got states like Colorado or Arizona right now that would like a pipeline to Lake Superior. And if we poison our water, we can’t even supply Duluth. And we’re placing that in jeopardy for what, with these mining initiatives?  And then, by the way, a few years from now, we’ll be “just stunned” when there is a negative outcome.

Q  Why is there no strategic thinking about water?

Because Gov. Pawlenty eliminated the state planning agency. Every state needs to analyze its assets and develop a strategic plan. We don’t even consider it a state role.

Q  You’re one of the last people to hold high public office in this state who I regard as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. Is that fair?

Sure, but I don’t know how you can be a successful pragmatist without a vision. As Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Unfortunately, that’s where I think Minnesota is at right now. We don’t want to discuss the future because it’s too controversial. We’ve bought into slogans as opposed to critical thought. We’re losing our capacity for critical thought. How can candidates focus on substance when there’s an indifference?

Q  What’s at the root of all this dissonance?

We’re going to be debating that question for years to come. We’re becoming a society that doesn’t want to deal with tomorrow, we want to talk about yesterday. Contrary to our wishes, we’re allowing ourselves to become both hateful and divisive. We’re appealing to our worst instincts. We have to expect our institutional leadership—media, business, not just political—to talk about tomorrow and guide controversy in an instructive way.

The Star Tribune editorials come from a village called Blandsville. They are designed to offend nobody and lead us nowhere. The business community is quiet. The academic community has nothing to say. And God knows, the political system has less to offer. Who is leading us in the thought process?

Our evolution as a state was led by the business community and the Star Tribune, not the political state. I would love it if the business community came back as leaders and said, “What can we do to create a 10-year plan for the state of Minnesota?” Because they have interest in the environment, taxation, health care, transportation.

Q  OK, but the business community suggests the GOP is not listening to them on a state level.

The Republican Party has decided to go the route of social issues and Trump. Why not reach out to moderate Democrats, like Margaret [Anderson] Kelliher in the 5th District, for example?

Q  More than anything, I’m struck by the sense of permanent political stalemate in the state. Is there a different type of person going into politics today? What has flipped the dynamic from outcomes to posturing?

I am stunned by the amount of legislative indifference. They don’t want to take risks.


Q  Why? It that such a great a job, being a legislator, to go there and basically do nothing?

That’s the irony. You’re exactly right, but to them it must be. Can you imagine a board of directors at a corporation saying, “Our job is to protect the status quo”?

Q  One of the things that intrigues me about native Minnesotans is this sense of exceptionalism: “It’s the best place, it will always be, because we have the recipe.” Is this state intrinsically positioned to thrive?

You mean that there’s an invisible hand that guides us and not Wisconsin? The reason Minnesota thrives today is we’re living off the fat of yesterday, and it’s a very dangerous place to be.

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.