Capitol Update for May 23, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“If all the good things I have ever done are remembered as long and as well as my scrap with Shields, it is plain, I shall not be forgotten.”
Abraham Lincoln

Political negotiations and compromise can appear to casual observers to be some strange tribal ritual still not fully documented or understood by anthropologists. The interesting combination of personality and ideology clashing in the arenas laid out by our founding fathers for the purpose of balancing power can lead to some very odd and compelling drama. Such was the case in the 1840’s when a young and ambitious Illinois Whig legislator engaged in a “scrap” with the venerable Illinois Secretary of State, a respected Democratic Irish politician with a temper to match.

Secretary of State James Shield was an Irish immigrant who, like Lincoln, was a self-made man who attained a place at the Illinois bar as a respected attorney. Like most of his Western companions, Shields was a Democrat who believed in the American destiny to move west in the era of Democratic President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. In the 1840’s, Lincoln was only a scrappy and determined legislator who did his best to annoy and attack the majority Democrats. Lincoln participated in a series of editorials attacking Shields which ran in the Illinois paper, The Sangamo Journal, and were known as the “Rebecca letters.” While the letters had several authors, they were all signed with the fake name of Rebecca. The editorials contained nothing libelous, but were nonetheless embarrassing for the volatile tempered Secretary of State.

Told by the editor of The Sangamo Journal that Lincoln was behind this conspiracy, Shields challenged him to a duel. The duel challenge became public knowledge and was extensively reported in the local papers. The aspiring young Lincoln, knowing that his political career would be over if he were to back down from the challenge, followed through with the time honored dueling process. The dueling code gave the challenged gentleman the choice of the weapons and field of combat. Lincoln wisely shunned pistols which Shields had used in a prior dual to terminate his opponent. Lincoln selected “cavalry broad swords of the largest size” and selected a specific field of battle which required the opponents to maintain a significant distance from each other, giving advantage to Lincoln’s 6 foot – 4 inch frame.

Dueling was illegal in Illinois; therefore, the event was to take place in neighboring Missouri. Rumor has it that an extensive party of friends from both sides of the dispute departed Springfield for Chapman’s Ferry on open wagons with a few kegs of the local brewer’s best ale. The parties did cross over to the Missouri side for the duel. Shields, recognizing that Lincoln had bested him with the selection of weapons and the field of combat and along with being convinced by friends that Lincoln only wrote one of the letters, gladly accepted Lincoln’s kind apology for his youthful indiscretion. The antagonists shook hands and headed back across the Mississippi River where the parties retired to Charlie Uber’s Saloon and promptly drank it dry before they proceeded back to Springfield, all in good spirits.

So what does this political scrap in Illinois have to do with Minnesota history or the end of the 2008 Legislative Session? Well, had it not been for Lincoln later becoming President of the United States during the Civil War, the more famous of the two politicians would probably have been General James J. Shields. Incidentally, Lincoln and Shields did become fast friends after this infamous duel or lack thereof. Shields went on to become a heroic general in the Mexican-American War and returned to Illinois to become a U.S. Senator. Being a loyal Democratic supporter of Stephen Douglas after the very controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, Shields lost his U.S. Senate seat in 1855. Seeing opportunity in the Minnesota Territory, he moved north to help Irish immigrants relocate in Minnesota. Today there is still a small village and a lake named after him in western Rice County.

At Minnesota’s induction into the Union, our state was evenly divided between Western expanding Democrats and the newly forming opposition Republican Party. In the election of our first U.S. Senators, the Legislature quickly selected Henry Rice, the Territory’s former representative to Congress, but the other well-established Democrats in the state had sufficient votes to block each other’s election to the Senate in the closely divided Legislature. Emerging out of this stalemate was a dark horse candidate, the newly prominent citizen of Minnesota and former U.S. Senator from Illinois, James Shields.

Therefore, Shields became one of Minnesota’s first U.S. Senators, but he only served two years as a result of the staggered terms necessary for the U.S. Senate. He was later appointed a Union general by his old friend President Lincoln, where he earned a reputation as the only general ever to beat the famous Confederate General Stonewall Jackson in battle.

After the war, Shields relocated to California and eventually settled in Missouri. A very popular Irish politician, he was elected to fill the vacant seat of a Missouri Senator who had recently passed away. As a result of his six weeks of service as the senator from Missouri, he became the only man to ever be elected a U.S. Senator from three separate states. He also has the distinction of being one of the four Civil War generals standing guard in the Minnesota Capitol Rotunda, where you can see a larger-than-life statue of this larger-than-life Irish American politician.

Certainly the conclusion of the 2008 Legislative Session was marked by challenging negotiations that required our political leaders to go to the brink of another special session before finally reaching a successful compromise prior to the constitutional deadline of midnight on Sunday. This brinkmanship style of negotiation that has become dominant in our legislative process as of recent years can certainly appear strange, but certainly no stranger than taking up broad swords on the banks of the Mississippi River. Despite the Legislature’s strange nature of negotiations, the Green Team was certainly toasting each other with our best local ale after the 2008 Legislative Session wrapped up with a supplemental bonding bill that was a huge plus for the environment.

It did not look so bright, though, for the Green Team as of Thursday of last week. The Clean Car Standards Bill had just been defeated and there was no indication that the governor and key legislative negotiators had even talked about a supplemental bonding bill that would include two of our top priorities, the Central Corridor and Lake Vermilion State Park. As elements of the final global agreement started to fall into place for the budget deficit fix, tax bill and health-care, as of Saturday there was still no hint that the supplemental bonding bill was anywhere close to a resolution.

Finally Sunday afternoon, with only hours to go before the final adjournment, an agreement was announced on the supplemental bonding bill that included the two priorities of the light rail corridor and state park. An added bonus was the inclusion of another of MEP’s priorities, the Cedar Avenue Bridge bikeway. Despite this agreement, there was still no guarantee that the bill would reach the required 60% vote in each body of the Legislature as the clock was ticking quickly to the midnight deadline. The supplemental bonding bill swiftly passed in the Senate on Sunday afternoon, easily reaching the 60% requirement with a 50 to 17 vote.

The House debate was much more precarious, as the bill was taken up late in the evening with only a few hours left to deadline. Rep. David Dill, whose district contains the new state park, felt the deal was not well worked out despite increased payments to St. Louis County, due to the park taking land off of the property tax rolls. As the debate intensified the Iron Range firecracker, Rep. Tommy Rukavina, lit up the floor with one of his “world against the Range” speeches. Right in the middle of his passionate rhetoric, the Sesquicentennial fireworks surprised everyone as they began exploding over the Capitol dome. Lifting his hands to the reverberating boom from above, Rukavina exclaimed, “Send out a message to these people, God, thank you that you are showing me that you are on my side.” Without missing a beat, the Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher responded, “Rep. Rukavina, she is angry.” The whole House erupted laughter and it wasn’t long before the bill passed by an overwhelming margin of 107 to 26. Even Rep. Rukavina, probably not wanting to offend the female fireworks deity, voted for the supplemental bonding bill.

There are several key players that deserve credit for making these late hour challenging political negotiations a success. All reports give Speaker Anderson Kelliher high marks for her calm and persistent pursuit of a supplemental bonding bill solution. The chair of the House Capitol Investments Committee, Rep. Alice Hausman, was a patient and masterful advocate for both Central Corridor and the state park. During her floor presentation, she even mentioned MEP’s support as being crucial in bringing about the final compromise. One would be remiss in not mentioning the hard work behind the scenes by Rep. Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble. Also deserving credit is the governor for continuing to press for the state park and Sen. Tom Bakk for his willingness to compromise on this project in his district.

A poignant moment in the debate was the speeches on the House floor by both Rep. Dennis Ozment and Rep. Kathy Tingelstad in support of this historical legislation creating both a state park and a critical transportation link. These were two of their last speeches on the floor and fitting tributes to these champions of our great outdoors and transit as they leave the Legislature. We are sad to see them go.

Soon after the smoke blew away from the Sesquicentennial fireworks and the midnight deadline approached, the Legislature concluded its business in orderly fashion with five minutes to spare. With a new flagship state park ready to be acquired and a critical link to our state’s new transit system well on its way to completion, it is fair to say the conclusion of the 2008 Legislative Session was historical. This is the first time in decades that a regular session has ended harmoniously and on time. And no one had to take up broad swords on the banks of the Mississippi to get a handshake on the final deal.

Another piece of positive news from this week is that the governor signed the Green Solutions Act on Monday. For you inside lobbyist types it was designated as Session Law chapter 340. We will have one more report for next week with an overall recap of the session. This was a good session for the Green Team, and we will give you our annual selections for the top players in the session.

* Historical quotes taken from the article “The Lincoln Duel and James Shields”, Gene McCathy’s Minnesota Memories of a Native Son, Gene McCarthy, Winston Press 1982, page 123.

One Response to “Capitol Update for May 23, 2008”

  1. Gary Botzek


    Excellent column! I did know the Shield’s connection.