The Long Way Home 9.1.23

It seems like politics, a thing necessary for civil society, is all-pervasive. Whether social media, cable television, podcasts (whatever those are) or family dinners, we can’t escape it. 

I live in fear that I sometimes get too personal in this column, worried I might offend the three people who read it every week. And now, I’m jumping into politics. 

No wonder I wake up in the middle of the night.

Half my lifetime ago, I decided to participate in politics. I’d witnessed the unintended consequences of federal deregulation of trucking. I’d even testified before two Congressional committees on behalf of the trade association representing my industry. 

Having met and spoken with electeds and their staff, I was confident that this dumb freight broker from Minnesota could take action.

Grassroots politics in Minnesota starts with partisan precinct caucuses in the winter before national elections. People who live in a precinct show up, sign up to receive propaganda, and volunteer for activities. They debate issues for the party platform and stand for the candidate or candidates they want the party to endorse. 

As a youngish and rather libertarian-leaning business executive, I pondered which caucus to attend in that winter of 1988. Living up to stereotype, I decided Republicans were the best bet. So I went to Bloomington Jefferson High School and caucused with my Republican neighbors. I left a bit disillusioned. The 1998 Republican Presidential primary was shaping up to be a brawl, and most of the caucusers I met that night were extremely conservative, if not a bit deranged. 

Deciding to step back, I focused on a growing business and family and left the 1988 election to its own devices.

After four years of additional business success and more government involvement, I decided my political efforts would be best directed through the DFL (Democratic Farmer Labor Party). That winter, 1992, I headed off to the DFL caucus and announced that I sought election to the state legislature and wanted their support. The DFLers in those western suburbs made me feel welcome, rallied to my campaign, and granted me the party endorsement. 

As election day drew near, I got the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial board. 

“You’d almost swear that Steve Fernlund, House candidate in District 41A, had Republican blood in his veins, albeit blood of the Harold Stassen-Tom McCall variety,” they wrote. 

Faint praise since McCall was long dead, and Stassen wasn’t front and center in people's minds. Still, I’ve carried that endorsement in my day planner ever since, reminding me of the value of being politically active. 

I’ve been involved in Democratic Party politics off and on ever since, at a pretty high level sometimes. 

I keep the words of JFK, a problematic President to be sure, on my desk:

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people; their health, …housing, …schools, …jobs, …civil rights and their civil liberties, then I’m PROUD to say I’m a Liberal.”

All of this brings me to my point today. 

People I meet now who claim to be non-partisan, often adding they could never vote for a Democrat (cognitive dissonance), will say to me, “You don’t sound like a Democrat.” 

I don’t know what that means, but okay. 

Still, I find that most people tend to look ahead, welcome new ideas, and care about the welfare of their family members, friends, neighbors, and the community at large. Even though they deny being Liberal, we have that in common.

Too bad that politics has become all about personality. It’s always been hardball, but at least some--the likes of McCall and Stassen--once existed and governed from a coherent philosophical core. 

We need to elect more like them.