As a pistol-packing, SUV-driving conservative in liberal St. Paul, Minnesota, David Carlson knew he was fighting an uphill battle. Still, on the day before the 2008 election, the 27-year-old candidate for the state House of Representatives drove through his district of tidy, split-level homes for a final campaign push. He checked the placement of his star-spangled yard signs. He studied voter lists one last time. Cruising through leaf-strewn streets on an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon, he described the residents of each house and predicted his chances: “They’re union; forget it. She’s a single mom with three kids; she might go for my message on public safety.” Carlson, in other words, did all the usual stuff of a local campaign — usual, that is, in places other than Massachusetts.

Carlson’s urban district looks a lot like the Bay State, politically speaking; Democrat-Farmer-Labor candidates (the state’s branch of the Democratic Party, locally known as the DFL) tend to dominate in St. Paul by 70-30 margins. Yet for a variety of cultural and structural reasons, people run for office in the capital and in the rest of Minnesota in a way they do not in Massachusetts. Both major parties fielded a candidate in every race for the Minnesota House of Representatives last year, the only state in the nation in which that happened. In Massachusetts, just 17 percent of House races were contested, the lowest rate in the nation and a state of affairs almost unimaginable to Minnesotans like Carlson. The former Marine knew he was unlikely to win (and he didn’t), but he ran anyway, motivated partly by the idea of establishing a reputation in his community — but also by a sense of duty. “It’s un-American not to have someone running,” he says.

Asking Minnesotans how it feels to have choices on every ballot is a little like asking someone how it feels not to have a pounding headache. “I guess I take choice for granted,” says Mikael Carlson (no relation to David), a blond, bespectacled 35-year-old spending election morning in an organic St. Paul cafe with his laptop. At 9 a.m., he already has an I voted sticker on his sweater. “I think it would be very strange if people around here didn’t have a choice,” he says.

“Strange” is also the word of choice for Margaret Van Heel, a 22-year-old canvassing for Republican House candidates (the Senate wasn’t up for re-election) in suburban Apple Valley. “It would be strange to have uncontested races,” says Van Heel. Then her freckled face grows more animated. “I find it completely insane. I can’t imagine having just one name on the ballot,” she says. “I mean, what’s the point of having an election?”

What’s the point indeed? Without elections, we’re not a democracy. But without candidates, we’re not much of a democracy either. Since the November elections, when Massachusetts Republicans lost three more seats in the House and ended up with their lowest level of representation on Beacon Hill in state history, the collapse of the GOP has been much discussed and debated. Pundits have called for better leadership, and prominent GOP members have suggested the party needs to change its image to distinguish itself from the more conservative national platform.

“We need to differentiate on social issues,” says Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield), who would like the state party to re-embrace the message of social libertarianism and fiscal conservatism that proved a winning formula in the 1990s. “What the national party is selling, people here aren’t buying,” he says.

But the GOP has sunk so low in Massachusetts that a few tweaks in image are unlikely to be enough to resuscitate a two-party system. More fundamental changes are needed. Just as the bribery allegations against former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner have prompted a review of the state’s ethics and lobbying laws, so should the lopsided election results prompt officials to re-examine the way the game of politics is played here.

As part of that examination, officials should look westward. Minnesota is a state in some ways like Massachusetts, except there is more citizen involvement in the Legislature, choices on every ballot, greater turnover in seats, and little corruption. The two states have different histories and cultures, of course, but at least some of what Minnesota does to motivate candidates to run — and keep legislators connected to the citizenry — could be worth trying in Massachusetts.

Citizens vs. professional lawmakers

Looking at Minnesota is a little like looking at Massachusetts through a kaleidoscope: Like us, its capital is full of academics, universities, and think tanks, and the percentage of its population holding a bachelor’s degree is well above the national average. Like Boston, the Twin Cities serve as both the political and the cultural centers of the state. Like us, Minnesota leaned Republican before the Great Depression and has leaned Democratic ever since, even in years when the GOP swept the rest of the country. (In Massachusetts, there are three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Minnesota does not register voters according to parties.) Both states have been political mavericks: Massachusetts was the only state that George McGovern carried in 1972, and Minnesota was the only one Walter Mondale carried in 1984. Native sons from both places have achieved prominence in the Democratic Party only to struggle on the national stage; indeed, in the last four decades, four of the seven losing Democratic presidential nominees have hailed from either Minnesota or Massachusetts (Hubert Humphrey, Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry).

Here’s where the kaleidoscope starts to twist. Minnesota’s 201 legislators see themselves much more as citizens than as professional lawmakers. They meet no more than 120 days out of a two-year cycle, so most — about 80 percent — have other jobs, and are in other ways connected to the people they represent. They earn $31,140 per year.

Candidates’ signs line a road
in suburban Apple Valley.

By contrast, the Massachusetts Legislature meets through the year, breaking only for campaign season (August through December of even-numbered years), and 44 percent of House members and 31 percent of senators claim no occupation other than legislator. Base pay is $58,237, with $15,000 annual bonuses for committee chairs and $30,000 for legislative leaders. Of those lawmakers with another profession, roughly a third list “lawyer.” Although there are a handful of mental health workers, consultants, and businesspeople on Beacon Hill, the range in St. Paul is much greater. Due to the part-time schedule, the ranks of military people, retirees, social workers, college professors, and teachers far outnumber lawyers and full-time legislators.

Yet if one measures productivity in terms of bills passed and signed into law, Minnesota doesn’t appear to be at any disadvantage with its citizen-legislature. In 2008, the Minnesota House passed 370 bills that were signed by the governor, while the comparable figure in Massachusetts was 377. The Massachusetts Legislature is doing about what the Minnesota Legislature is doing. It’s just taking three times as long.

According to one politician who knows both states well, the part-time nature of the job in Minnesota means legislators there are more aligned with the communities they represent than with the capital’s power structure. Shelley Madore, who served one term in St. Paul as a Democratic state representative from Apple Valley, grew up in Connecticut and spent her 20s in Boston. The mother of two found Boston politics mysterious at best and alienating at worst. Despite her efforts to seek out networking groups and social events for women professionals, she never felt any connection to local governance until she and her family left Chelsea for the open skies, open screen doors, and strip malls of suburban Minneapolis in 1991.

“I remember the first time a candidate knocked on my door out here. I thought he was a salesman,’” Madore laughs. “The person said he wanted to talk to me about the Minnesota House of Representatives, and I was like, ‘What the hell for?’ It’s very touchy-feely out here.”

In Minnesota, legislators pass out their cell phone numbers like candy. They publish their home phone numbers on the official state website. They don’t have aides who screen their calls and say things like, “Please hold for Mr. Chairman.” Many don’t have personal aides at all. They are, to be blunt, a little humbler than their counterparts on Beacon Hill — and much more likely to speak of their work as a temporary service than as a life-long career.

The most senior member of the House leadership team in Minnesota has held his legislative seat for 12 years, while in Massachusetts, the most junior member of leadership as of this writing has been in office for 12 years. Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi is pushing 30 years on Beacon Hill; Minnesota’s House Speaker, Democrat Margaret Kelliher, first entered the Legislature 10 years ago.

GOP candidate Tara Mack,
right, with her husband.

Power in Minnesota is less entrenched, and less taken for granted. Seats change hands. Seats change parties. Party control of the Minnesota House of Representatives changed twice in the last decade. (Neither chamber has changed hands in Massachusetts since 1958, when the Democrats took over the Senate.) Madore, for example, ran against a Republican in 2004 and lost; ran again in 2006 and won; then lost her re-election bid in 2008 to 25-year-old Republican challenger Tara Mack.

Massachusetts, by contrast, is politically stagnant. The Legislature behaves like a monarchy, and voters can’t seem to imagine it any other way. Democrats talk about who will “get” a departing legislator’s seat rather than who will run for it. (Only four of the Senate’s Democrats and 20 of the House’s Democrats faced primary challengers last year.) Lower-level members of the party have a significant financial incentive to please, rather than challenge, the higher-ups, so there’s nobody pushing for transparency or open discussion. As Republican ranks have shrunk, so has the willingness of Democrats to cross party lines, says Tisei.

“When I started in the Legislature [in 1984], there was a whole cadre of Democrats who weren’t afraid to go up and debate,” he says. “Now, nobody wants to challenge the leadership. We don’t even have the renegade Democrats.”

“There is very much a ‘wait your turn, don’t make waves,’ mentality,” agrees Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts. The image of former Senator Wilkerson allegedly stuffing bribes into her bra lingers, no doubt in part because a woman’s underwear was involved, but also because of the question it begs about Beacon Hill: If one legislator is comfortable taking bribes in public, what on earth are they comfortable allowing each other to do in private?

A desire for balance

When experts on Minnesota’s politics try to explain this culture of participation, they almost all refer to the work of the late political scientist Daniel Elazar, who called the state the epitome of a “moralistic” political culture. “People in this culture generally view politics positively, and see government as a useful way to achieve gains,” says Paul Soper, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who teaches Elazar’s work. “So they’re willing to see the government be more actively involved in improving society and improving people.” Elazar traces the state’s moralistic culture back to the New England concept of the “commonwealth,” since most of the early settlers of Minnesota hailed from Massachusetts. But by the late 19th century, the two states had diverged radically.

While Minnesota remained ethnically homogenous, Massachusetts experienced a kind of tribal competition for power (brought on by immigration, and the ensuing struggle between the Brahmins and the Irish) that would define Beacon Hill for many years. Minnesota stayed agricultural, while Massachusetts industrialized and developed sharp class divisions and a powerful union presence. Minnesota stayed “moralistic,” and Massachusetts developed into a hybrid of that culture — as evidenced by its embrace of smoking bans and universal health coverage — and what Elazar called an “individualistic” culture, in which politics is seen as a way to advance the goals of a given ethnic, professional, or geographic group. “Minnesota never really had that,” says Soper.

A desire for balance, fairness, and open discussion characterizes Minnesota — or, at least, its citizens define themselves by those values. Dane Smith, who covered Minnesota politics for 30 years at the Star-Tribune and Pioneer Press and is now the head of a nonpartisan think tank called Growth and Justice, says the state is not so much liberal as “un-conservative.” That is, voters pride themselves on tolerance, but they don’t like stridency of any stripe.

Republican candidate David
Carlson, left, meets a voter.

On Election Night, at Democratic Party headquarters, anyone who booed the image of John McCain on TV was roundly shushed in return. (“It’s just not nice,” one man doing the shushing told me.) The phrase “Minnesota nice” is as much a part of their identity as the Red Sox are a part of ours. It’s something they bond over, something that sets them apart.

After the Watergate scandal, Minnesotans put into place a lot of policies to foster the kind of niceness and participation they want. The state’s public financing system is complex, but for starters, there’s a $35,000 spending cap on House seats, which more than 90 percent of candidates abide by, says Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the state’s Campaign Finance Board. Spending-cap candidates who make it through a primary can collect about $4,000 in public financing. Their supporters can also get up to $50 of a donation refunded by the state, making it easier for candidates whose friends and relatives aren’t wealthy to raise money.

In contrast, Massachusetts voters have supported public financing, via the Clean Elections ballot initiative in 1997, but lawmakers said the state could not afford to fund it. Facing a court order to either provide money or repeal the law, lawmakers repealed it in 2003 without so much as a roll call vote.

Massachusetts also has no spending cap; in 2008, winning legislative candidates who faced an opponent spent an average of $48,534. Even those who didn’t face an opponent spent nearly $32,000 on average. The two biggest spenders in the Massachusetts Legislature were House Speaker Sal DiMasi ($348,000) and Senate President Therese Murray (nearly $292,000), neither of whom had an opponent. (These amounts represent only a portion of what was actually spent, since they are based on campaign finance reports filed in mid-October, just prior to the election.)

The financial muscle of incumbency in Massachusetts is a powerful deterrent to challengers. The legislative candidates who were elected in November started the year with an average balance in their campaign account of nearly $57,000 and ended the year with even more cash on hand, an average of $61,000. Thirty-one lawmakers started the year with balances of more than $100,000, with Sen. Mark Montigny of New Bedford outdistancing everyone else with $1.15 million in cash.

That type of war chest is not allowed in Minnesota. Under the state’s “carry-forward” rule, legislators, whether or not they abide by spending caps, can’t carry more than $15,000 from one election year to the next. Any amount in excess of $15,000 must be donated either to the state party or to a charitable cause. It’s a rule that hasn’t been tested constitutionally on free-speech grounds (“I’m not sure how it would fare,” Goldsmith acknowledges), but it is entrenched politically, and it means individual incumbents do not have big war chests. House Speaker Kelliher, for example, ended her campaign with a balance of just under $12,000. DiMasi, her counterpart in Massachusetts, had a balance of $305,000.

Perhaps most crucial in fostering competition: In Minnesota, taxpayers can elect to contribute to public financing, and they can check a box declaring which party they want their dollars to support. If a candidate runs unopposed, the monies earmarked by taxpayers in a district revert to the state parties instead. What that means, Goldsmith explains, is that both parties have an incentive to force the other to run in every district. For example, if no Republican ran in St. Paul, the DFL could put money earmarked by that district toward more competitive races. Ergo, it’s in the Republicans’ best interest to get a guy like David Carlson to run in St. Paul, even though he had little chance of winning (and, in the end, garnered only 28 percent of the vote). “You keep it from being redistributed to people who need it more by making it go to the candidate,” Goldsmith said.

“To have a candidate in every district was one thing I promised,” says Minnesota’s House Minority Leader, Marty Seifert, a former social studies teacher now on leave from his job as an admissions counselor. “I basically told candidates for the leadership team, if you want to be in leadership, you need to help find candidates,” says Seifert. “So everybody, for a year and a half, was keeping eyes out for candidates.”

In heavily Democratic districts like St. Paul, Seifert says, the state party would pay the candidate’s filing fee, help them raise enough to qualify for public subsidies, and “get the seed planted that it’s not outrageously hard to run for the Legislature.”

A ‘fool’s errand’ to challenge an incumbent

In Massachusetts, part of the challenge is convincing people that it’s not hard to run. An equally big piece is convincing people that the Legislature is a body worth joining. “The state Legislature is very unpopular,” says Dennis Hale, associate professor of political science at Boston College. “That’s one reason nobody wants to run for it.”

Kevin Kuros, a realtor and town selectman from Uxbridge, is one of the few Republicans who did challenge an incumbent Democrat in 2008. He ran in part, he jokes, out of “blind optimism,” but Kuros also cites a telephone poll that found only 27 percent of voters approved of the incumbent, Paul Kujawski (who had previously been arrested for drunk driving and disorderly conduct). “For an incumbent to be below 50 percent, it means voters are really discontented,” he says. Discontented or not, Kuros still lost, 53 percent to 47 percent.

The perception that incumbents simply can’t be beat — either by Republicans or other Democrats — is a big part of the problem, says Maurice Cunningham, who teaches courses on Massachusetts politics at the University of Massachusetts–Boston. “I’ll tell you, when Gov. Patrick won with the organization and excitement he did, I wondered if some of those folks would get the idea to take on incumbent Democrats,” says Cunningham. “But there’s such enormous risk to taking on the Legislature like that. It’s a fool’s mission, and they’re not fools.”

The ongoing ethics investigations on Beacon Hill could be a rallying cry for the GOP, says Hale, and the party could use the probes to call for the kind of start-from-scratch-reforms that might radically alter both the makeup and the public perception of the Legislature.

Making legislating a part-time job, as Minnesota and 39 other states do, is one possibility. “We could do it all in six months the way other states do,” says Tisei, the Senate minority leader, who thinks the current job structure makes it a tough sell to talented people because it requires, to his thinking, a year of full-time campaign work and a willingness to give up one’s primary employment. “In other states, it’s easier to get people to run because they don’t have to give up their life,” he says.

So a six-month legislature — or, perhaps even more appealing, a legislature that met during school hours and could tap the talents of stay-home parents and retirees — could bring a very different group of people to Beacon Hill.

Assigning the task of redistricting to the judiciary or an independent commission, as many states do, is another structural reform that would help ease what Hale calls “the grotesque gerrymandering of districts” that favors incumbents and has skewed party representation to the point where the Legislature has nine Democrats for every Republican.

But to have a rallying cry, the Republicans need leaders, and Hale predicts that no talented people will wade into the decimated GOP until there’s a big prize, like a US Senate race without an incumbent, on the table. Until then, “we’re back to the first problem,” he said, “which is, why would anyone bother?”

Why indeed? Hale’s words closely echo those of Margaret Van Heel, the young Minnesota woman who wondered why Massachusetts bothers to hold elections with one name on the ballot. The slight variation in their remarks, however, highlights the sharp divide between the two states. In Minnesota, residents wonder why people wouldn’t run for office. In Massachusetts, they wonder why anybody would.

Christina Prignano provided additional research for this story.