Friday, May 18, 2012

The Lesson of the Vikings Stadium—Democracy Failed

Please note: This piece originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota on May 16, 2012.

The duties of elected officials are never easy. But in the case of the Minnesota Legislature, the deliberations and final votes on the Vikings Stadium reveal a travesty for political accountability, open government, and questionable politics.

The eighteenth century Irish statesman and political writer Edmund Burke is famous for his 1774 campaign speech to Bristol electors where he described two duties for elected officials. He suggested that members of parliament either served as delegates–voting to ratify the exact views of the constituents–or to exercise their best judgment and vote for what they considered to be in the best interests of the people or country. Burke opted for the latter, contending that the deliberative nature of governing meant that a legislator should use “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, [and] he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”  It is not the job of legislators to follow popular will, but instead to vote based on what they know is best, regardless of the will of the constituents. Burke lost his election with this speech.

In light of significant public opposition to public funding for the new Vikings Stadium, many are wondering if those who voted in favor of it will be punished this November. The simple answer is no. Back in 2006 when the State Legislature authorized a new Twins stadium that November no House or Senate member defeats could be attributed to their votes for or against the stadium. The same will probably be true again this year in the general election. The economy, the government shutdown, constitutional amendments on voter ID and same-sex marriage, as well as national issues and a presidential election are sure to loom as larger issues on the voters mind than the stadium.

Yet just because the stadium will probably not be a general election issue (it may be a problem in primaries or nominating conventions especially for Republicans who supported it) does not mean that there were no problems with how the deliberations occurred. Instead, the Vikings Stadium debate reveals both bad process and politics.

First, there is the problem with open government. Almost from the start the Vikings debate was done behind closed doors. Governor Dayton conducted the debate as if he were a CEO in a private company. Critical meetings, such as with Zygi Wilf and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took place behind closed doors. In fact, the Vikings deal seemed dead until the Commissioner visited and then suddenly the Senate took a vote. Who knows what was said or promised at that meeting? But the point is that numerous open meetings laws were probably broken by the Governor and Legislature in securing the deal. This continued the contempt for open government first demonstrated last year.

Second, consider who voted for the stadium. Of the 201 legislators, 199 cast votes. Of that 199, 112 or 56% of the legislators voted yes. Among those seeking re-election to their seat again this fall, 88 of 158 or 56% voted for the stadium. For the 31 legislators indicating that they were not running for reelection to the Legislature, 20 or 65% voted for the stadium. There were another ten legislators not running for their seats but seeking another office and only 4 or 40% of them voted for the deal. Put another way, for those seeking election this fall, 55% voted for the stadium, for those not seeking office, 65% did.

Voters will not have an opportunity to hold 31 legislators responsible for their votes. Perhaps not seeking reelection freed that latter up to vote for what they thought was best, or perhaps to let voters be damned. Or perhaps it was the product of money well spent by the Vikings.

Last year the Vikings spent $800,000 to lobby for a new stadium. Since 2002, the Minnesota Vikings have spent $5.66 million lobbying the legislature, governors, and local metropolitan governments to secure a stadium. This sum is garnered from reports on file with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. This is in addition to political contributions to the candidates and the legislative caucuses. In 2010, the Zygi Wilf and the Vikings gave $27,600 to all four legislative caucuses. We will not know until next year how much they spent in lobbying and political contributions this session to buy a stadium but their investment was worth it. The role of money and the failure of the public to know in real time how much money the Vikings spent to buy influence is a crisis in transparency for Minnesota government and one of the reasons why the state earned a D grade from the Center for Public Integrity for ethics and openness in government.

Third, consider the odd alignment that the Vikings vote yielded. Overall, DFLers produced 55% of the votes for the stadium. Additionally, of the 90 Democrats voting on the stadium 62 or 69% voted for it, while 50 of 109 or 46% of the Republicans supported it.

Given that a DFL governor pushed the bill, the DFL produced the majority of the votes for the stadium, and over two-thirds of them supported the Vikings proposal, the Democrats own the stadium. In backing it, the DFL squandered its political advantage in November. Republicans steal $2 billion from K-12 and borrow $700 million from the state tobacco settlement to produce a gimmick-riddled budget in 2011 to end the government shutdown.

Now the DFL give corporate welfare to a billionaire. Moreover, in doing the Vikings deal the DFL overrode the charter amendment in Minneapolis requiring voter ascent for any stadium bonding over $10 million. They do that with the support of a DFL mayor and city council. So much for taking the moral highroad when it comes to priorities. So much for support for democracy. The Democrats practically make the Republicans look fiscally responsible and it becomes almost impossible for DFLers to criticize them in the November elections when it comes to the budget and spending. The Democrats now look more corporate and pro-business than the Republicans they want to criticize.

The Legislature, especially the Democrats, had a choice—follow their constituents or ignore them. They chose the latter and will probably get away with it, unlike Edmund Burke.


  1. A man is not judged by popularity or elections, he is judged by history and how he is remembered by later generations.

    We remember Burke as having taken a principled stance and left behind a statement of courageous wisdom on how people should be represented. Who won that election? Seems history has mostly forgotten that man, he is an answer to a trivia contest.

    This stadium debate has been a platform for many civic and business leaders--both here and nationally--to have stepped up like Burke.

    Some have tried, but none succeeded in the face of this legislative fail. The only legislator to have even tried was John Marty, while all the rest hid behind closed door deals and legislative maneuvers.

    They may win their next election, they might go on to have long careers as representatives and civic leaders. They might even overcome this, to learn from their weakness now, and actually rise to distinction later.

    History will be the ultimate proof of them as whole people, but history can already record this stadium win as a legislative and civic responsibility loss.

  2. I live in district 64B and while my DFL State Representative Erin Murphy voted against the Vikings Stadium, Richard Cohen, my state senator did not.

    While Cohen’s vote was disturbing, his several telephone conversations with me— where on each occasion— he promised that under no circumstances would he vote for a stadium bill was most upsetting.

    Let’s face facts. Richard Cohen speaks with a forked tongue and has no honor.

    I cannot wait to help defeat Richard Cohen in 2016— and although I will try to do so this year, the incumbent has all the advantages, especially in this cycle at this date. Please take note, I was the campaign manager for Representative Paul Gardner who defeated Phil Krinkie on his second try by 50 votes, and helped Amy Brendmoen defeat Lee Helgen.

    I am tenacious, if nothing else.

    Ron Lietz
    Saint Paul, Minnesota

  3. I've followed the Minnesota stadium debates, and I have a couple of observations. First, over a decade ago, the Vikings and the University of Minnesota had a proposal for a joint stadium that got killed in committee. If it had been approved, it would have only cost around $600 million, which would have been half of what the total cost of both stadiums will be. I know the state got asked for a lot of money on this, but it could have been a lot less if they had just acted earlier.

    Second, I can tell you what Roger Gooddell said in that closed door meeting. He said, the Vikings have been pursuing this deal for ten years. You either give them a stadium, or they move to Los Angeles. Then you would have seen a lot of moaning from Viking fans, and even harder lobbying for a stadium, which would have cost more than it does now. Your state got into this mess because it kept putting it off. I understand you may not want to see the state pay so much for a billionaire's stadium, but if you believe that, then the Vikings go to LA. (I don't have a problem if you don't mind if your NFL team leaves. It's just that there are two choices in this situation-build a new stadium, or the team leaves town. Make that clear. )