ST. PAUL — Here’s the pitch.
“Mankato is not a rural community. It’s changed. It’s truly a regional center,” Minnesota State University President Richard Davenport tells legislators at St. Paul’s Hilton Garden Inn.
He tosses around adjectives like “growing,” “dynamic,” and “vibrant.” But the region could still use some help from the state, Davenport tells the few dozen lawmakers and more than 100 others in attendance. “We don’t have a decent place for women’s hockey to play,” he said, flanked by MSU mascot Stomper, the Moondogs’ Muttnik and a pair of Vikings cheerleaders. At the mention of gender inequity, Stomper nods his head in agreement.
Now, Jonathan Zierdt gets on stage. He’s been told that the audience is drifting away, so the always energetic booster sets to pumping up the crowd.
In a booming voice, the head of Greater Mankato Growth talks about the Vetter Stone in the new Twins stadium. About how Mankato remains an agricultural center even as it expands beyond it.
Only a few hours after gay rights group OutFront Minnesota rallied at the Capitol for same-sex marriage, the Greater Mankato area had its “coming out” party Thursday. The Greater Mankato Day at the Capitol, organized by business coalition Greater Mankato Growth, follows similar events held by cities such as Bemidji, Duluth and Rochester. About 150 people attended.
Zierdt ended his speech by asking the legislators to ask themselves “what they can do to help fuel that community and the contribution it makes to the entire state.”
Hi, I’m Mankato
A bag of kettle corn in his hand and an arm around Stomper’s shoulder, State Sen. John Vickerman is getting a whirlwind tour of Mankato.
The Democrat from southwestern Minnesota is actually pretty familiar with the region, but even so says he’s glad this event is happening.
Greater Mankato’s Day is similar to Bemidji’s, State Sen. Mary Olson said, except for one thing.
“We didn’t have nearly as nice a reception,” the Bemidji Democrat said. “Mankato’s gone all-out.”
There’s a quartet courtesy of the Mankato symphony, tasty-looking chicken wings and other hors d'oeuvres, all in a high-ceilinged reception hall of a downtown hotel.
Zierdt said the organizers aimed for a classy event, down to the red blazers worn by much of the contingent. He also said there were a number of lessons learned from the inaugural Day, including the timing (Thursdays are quite busy at the Capitol) and scheduling (making appointments might be more effective than random assignments). Upon arriving at the Capitol, the group splits up and each sub-group gets an assignment to talk to 10 randomly assigned legislators. But because they haven’t made appointments and the legislators are quite busy, most of the groups’ time is spent with secretaries.
Cyril Denn, a retired financial adviser, sees only one of the 10 politicians on his list.
They competed for legislators’ time with advocates for unions, school counselors, people with disabilities and clean water, among others.
This is just a typical day for legislators, St. Paul representative Alice Hausman said, but they depend on these brief meetings to educate them about the topics they don’t have time to research on their own.
Local pork, mmmm
The brand of special interest lobbying exemplified by the Greater Mankato Day at the Capitol is often derided when it happens in Washington, D.C. The Mankato contingent, after all, is comprised mostly of prominent businesspeople and others in power.
Even the lobbying on display Thursday, mostly done by people done without a direct financial interest in the topics discussed, was disquieting to Mankato Mayor John Brady. He doesn’t want government to work this way – with access to politicians limited to the few – but says lobbying like this is necessary given the system we have.
The difference between this and D.C.-type lobbying are the stringent ethical and campaign finance rules Minnesota has in place, Hausman said.
Mankato has two projects in the bonding bill, one of the big reasons for lobbying of this type. The largest is a $14 million request for a performing arts addition to the Verizon Wireless Center and upgrades to the center’s arena and All Seasons Arena. That request is in both the House and Senate versions of the bill, but the second request – about $2 million in planning money for a nursing center at MSU – is not in the Senate’s version.
The state Senate passed the bill earlier this week; the House is scheduled to vote Monday.
Hausman, who chairs the bonding committee in the House, said cities that have a good story are more likely to receive money from the Legislature.
On this particular Thursday, she just heard a compelling story from the Minnesota School Counselors Association about how more counselors decreases violence and reduces suspensions.
If Mankato’s story helps her remember how its requests for money will pay off for the state, the city is more likely to have its projects funded.
Even though the civic center request is in both versions of the bill, the legislators’ support could still be tested if Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoes the bill, as he has threatened to do.
While most of the time is spent on legislators, a few Mankatoans stop by Pawlenty’s office to drop off the hundreds of letters written by locals on behalf of the area’s projectsl.
But even if Mankato is again unsuccessful in the bonding bill, the Day won’t automatically be a failure.
State Sen.Keith Langseth, chair of the bonding committee in the Senate, says these lobbying days end up being as much for the locals learning about St. Paul and having a good time as for the legislators.
And creating a positive brand for Greater Mankato can only help, Zierdt says.
“We think everybody knows about Mankato. That isn’t true.”
Locals push for projects
ST. PAUL — Here’s the pitch.
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