American Promise citizen leaders across the nation are using a step-by-step strategy to effect important local change that will build to national ratification of an amendment to end the domination of big money in our political system. In a recent victory, Minnesota citizen leaders transformed a simple meeting with a local legislator into Republican-introduced legislation in the Minnesota Senate. Who wrote the legislation? Citizen leaders themselves, in collaboration with their elected officials!
In this Q&A, Minnesota State Coordinator Vicki Barnes of the American Promise Minnesota Chapter shares how her team of citizen leaders wound up writing legislation just introduced in the Senate.
How did citizen action in Minnesota help drive the introduction of this legislation by State Senator Scott Jensen?
Vicki Barnes: It started when two of our West Metro Chapter members who live in Senator Jensen’s district, Jodi Holden and Becky Varone, met with him to discuss legislation that was currently in the state Legislature calling on Congress to propose the amendment. Although this resolution has been introduced for the last four sessions by Democrats, no Republicans had yet supported it. We wanted to learn why.
Senator Jensen is a first-term senator who has been vocal about his disappointment in how the Legislature works, so we thought he might be open to talking about the resolution. After talking with Jodi and Becky, Senator Jensen said he wanted to learn more, so they passed the conversation to me for next steps. After I shared more information about our work and how it is progressing both statewide and nationally, he asked to meet. We met in his office at the Capitol while the Legislature was in recess.
Why was Senator Jensen compelled to act on this issue?
VB: He agrees that money in politics is a problem; he particularly thinks union spending is an issue, and he is concerned about money from outside of the state. Senator Jensen suggested I speak with Senator (Rich) Draheim about support, as well. Senator Draheim has been vocal in his community meetings about the issue of money in politics.
What were your next steps?
VB: I met with both Senators Draheim and Jensen. We went through the resolution that was currently in the Legislature. They did not like the wording, and they asked me to write a new resolution and come back on the first day of the new session with a proposal.
I went home and worked on a resolution. Because it was coming from a conservative view, I took inspiration and an example from resolutions led by other American Promise citizen groups in more conservative-leaning states—the Nevada resolution that passed and the proposed Wyoming resolution currently in their Legislature—and used some of the wording from those two documents.
When we met again, the Senators were happy with the amendment language we’d proposed. They made a few wording changes, printed it and reviewed it. Then I walked with them to the Revisor’s Office, and SF 4368 was introduced in the Senate!
Why is this an issue you and other Minnesotans are passionate about?
VB: Local control is very important to the state. Minnesota has some great campaign finance laws around issues such as campaign contribution transparency and a small matching of funds. But we still face many issues around big money influencing our elections. For example, being in a state with a Legislature split fairly evenly between the political parties, special elections attract lots of outside spending.
American Promise is a great vehicle in getting this work done. We must be bipartisan to be successful. When I went to the first National Citizen Leadership Conference in 2016, I immediately felt at home.
[Read more: Citizen Leader Spotlight: Vicki Barnes]
What advice would you give other citizen leaders hoping to effect change in their states?
VB: Keep trying. Try every which way you can think of. Get the issue out in front of as many people as you can. All the effort will eventually come together.
Recognize and enjoy victories. They are not all big, but they are all important. The West Metro folks simply met with their Senator. Then all of this happened.
Let things happen organically. You cannot rush progress, so don’t give yourself a timeline you cannot stick to. It’s good to have goals, but it’s more important to recognize opportunities when they pop up.
What are the next steps for citizen leaders in Minnesota?
VB: We will keep working via phone and Zoom. We are making new contacts in districts that are represented by possible supporters. We will attempt to get a Republican in the Minnesota House to introduce a companion bill to SF 4368, as well as get more senators to sign on in the Senate, so that when the Legislature convenes again we are ready.