Thursday, 1-10-2002

Uncivil Wars

Dear Political Diary,

I got on the web this morning to check up on the legislation authored by Representative Dale Swapinski. I was preparing to meet with one of our mutual fans who was none too happy about my recent diary entries. That's because I support Yvonne Prettner Solon for the Senate and not Dale. Our fan had advised me to investigate Dale's "conservative" record and sent me a link to Dale's legislative web page for this purpose. I was frankly dubious of the "conservative" label bestowed on Dale. Besides, since I'm not all that conservative myself, it wasn't the best argument to use on me.

Dale and I go back a few years. Within a year of my election to the School Board in 1995 I'd called him and asked if I could shadow him for a day. He was one of two dropout recovery specialists for the District. He took me to some of the haunts where dropouts hang out. It was his job to coax them back to school and kids related to Dale. Dale had dropped out of Central High School shortly after it was relocated over the hill. The Central of his era was a ghastly mistake and Dale had no patience with it.

The new Central was built without interior walls. Its second floor was a great open space and teachers tried to keep students huddled in separate clusters. The open school without barriers was a colossal blunder. It was more like an unfenced stockyard with unaccounted students walking off at will for the greater freedom of the parking lot and city streets. Teachers were demoralized. (As usual the wall less school hadn't been their idea) Dale walked away from the chaos in disgust. 

Dale lived in the wilderness for a time until he pulled himself out of his pointlessness and sprung back to life. He went to college, married, started a family, and became a pied piper wayward kids could relate to. He also had a yen for politics. He had run for the City Council about the same time I'd gotten elected to the School Board. The first time Dale ran he was critical of the incumbent for hectoring the Administration. He lost that race but when he was elected four years later he too became a thorn in the Administration's side. 

When the revered environmentalist Willard Munger died Dale won the special election to replace him. Letters-to-the-editor described Dale as Willard's preferred successor but friends of the family assured me that Willard had wanted his up-to-then apolitical son Will Jr. to have the post. Dale won the brief but tough campaign handily.

One of the more salient features of that special election was Dale's role as a bereaved candidate. His wife, the mother of his two sons, had been killed shortly before in the crash of a small plane over northern Wisconsin. This January the tables are turned on Dale. His opponent is the bereaved widow of Sam Solon, Yvonne Prettner Solon and Dale has given the appearance of brooding over his bad luck. He didn't announce his decision to stay out of the race until an hour before the filing closed and offered a curt "No" when asked if he would support Yvonne. 

The list of bills on his website was modest, about what I supposed a freshman legislator would generate. I had heard from Republicans that Dale was a quiet back bencher. Although Dale has said some nice things to me about the Republican Majority leader Steve Sviggum, I had no illusions about Dale's partisanship. When I ran against Senator Johnson in 1999 Dale was quick to tar me by association at public forums with the bad old Republican House majority. He did this despite the fact that he'd he doesn't have much use for his DFL ally Johnson either. 

I met with our friend and had a lovely, spirited, conversation. I concurred that Dale's legislative record seemed quite respectable but commented that since Alan Netland, the AFL-CIO President, was one of his staunchest backers it was hard for me to generate much enthusiasm for Dale. Al is a divisive fellow and his greatest accomplishment has been to drive a wedge between the public employees and the trade unions. Fortunately our conversation drifted to the school board so I got off with a light scolding.

Tim Franklin, the new editor of Duluth.Com., gave me a call at noon asking for an interview. The publication is the new name for the Wednesday Budgeteer. I had read Tim's first column on Wednesday and sent him a welcome home email. Tim had written about his six year sojourn away from Duluth as a small town journalist. 

I told Tim I had 45 minutes if he wanted to drop by. He drove over from UMD and was at my house in a jiff. Tim's odyssey had taken him to Kansas, the state of my birth, so we talked a bit about that as well as an old feud he'd had with a former UMD Chancellor. Tim was once the editor for the Statesmen. What Tim really wanted was a story about snow, or rather, the lack of it. Since I was a snow sculptor he thought I'd be topical. 

I skipped lunch for the monthly meeting of the Social Service Collaborative. I sat next to Joanne Fay who was chairing the meeting but didn't get the chance to talk about the Senate Race the outcome of which was now a foregone conclusion.

I rushed home in time to call WDIO's Sandy Drag who had asked me for an interview about school bussing. Superior's school board had just voted to make students walk two miles to school. The Duluth board had voted down a similar proposal the month before (which would have saved $400,000). Duluth has a much more generous transportation policy. We bus kindergartners who live a mere half mile from school. Older kids have to walk up to a mile to school but this is much less than Superior students and much more expensive.

Coincidentally a constituent had just mailed me a booklet on a Federal initiative to encourage students to walk to school. I'd just given it to our Director of Operations and ordered additional copies for myself and the PTSA President. If our financial picture deteriorates this spring the issue may once again rear its ugly head. The financial picture will become clearer today when the Governor spells out his proposal for dealing with our titanic state shortfall.

Sophia Vahamake answered the phone at WDIO and told me that she and Sandy had traded places. Sophia wanted to interview me about the Governor's budget. Sandy was going to wait a day before doing her story on bussing. Sophia told me that Jesse had proposed a 1 percent reduction in general fund monies for schools. I did a quick calculation and deduced that this meant an additional $750,00 shortfall for the Duluth Schools. I told Sophia that if this was true it was good news. Prior to his announcement we had been worried about a ten percent cut. I declined Sophia's request for an interview until I got a budget analysis from our Finance Director. Its a good thing I waited because the Governor's proposal was not nearly as straightforward as Sophia led me to believe.

I had one more meeting at 4:30 with some retired employees who were not happy about their health insurance. Several board members had agreed to meet with them despite Laura Condon's warning that this was a matter for them to take to their union. 

It had been a long time since I'd studied our severance package and I asked a couple of questions which betrayed my unfamiliarity with the teacher's contract. Still, after a while it became clear to me that, despite a couple of shades of gray the District was on solid ground.

Our chief petitioner was a former administrator. He had spent a year pursuing his grievance with everyone under the sun, insurers, unions, our HR office, corporate lawyers and so on. He felt that his contract entitled him to let his wife pick up his health insurance after his death without his having to pay for family coverage. His wife already had a family policy through her work and he didn't want to waste the pot of money left over from his unused sick leaves to pay for his own family coverage. That, however, was the only way he could guarantee that she could pick up his policy should he die first.

The meeting left the issue unresolved although the three board members present seemed open to the idea of setting up an insurance committee to investigate the issues raised at the meeting. Afterwards, in the parking lot, the petitioner commented that it was no wonder that the excess levy referendum had failed. In his opinion it was because the district treated its retirees shabbily and they saw to it that the word got out to the voting public. He felt his repeated requests for information from the Administration had been brushed aside. I found this very ironic because the petitioner himself had had a reputation for ignoring people who brought concerns to him. What's sauce for the goose...

I didn't get home till about seven. There I met my  son who was heading out with his buddies on a "taco run."  Robb has always turned up his nose at Mexican food so I complained that he was just giving in to peer pressure. Then I predicted that his buddies would get him started smoking cigarettes too. This got a good laugh from his buddies. Robb already smokes.

I got phone call before bed from a friend who told me that Eileen Zeitz Huddleson had been at the AFL-CIO screening committee that night. She was there to support the Green Party's senate candidate, Joel Sipress, over Yvonne Prettner Solon for the union endorsement. The leaders of the public employees were angry that Prettner Solon had out maneuvered Swapinski. 

The full union endorsement required a two-thirds vote and Yvonne could only muster a majority. Such is Alan Netland's legacy.

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