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Updated: 8 min 33 sec ago

Minnesota House passes 'last in, first out' bill

1 hour 18 min ago
State Rep. Jenifer Loon

Ricardo Lopez at Star Tribune reports that the GOP-controlled Minnesota House passed a vote 70-63 on considering performance, not just seniority, when laying off teachers: "A top priority for Republicans, the legislation would end seniority as the primary factor in determining teacher layoffs, a process commonly referred to as “last in, first out.” While the legislation passed the House, its prospects in the DFL-led Senate are murky where two bills, including one sponsored by a DFL senator, have yet to receive committee hearings."

Good luck getting out of that contract. Frederick Melo at the Pioneer Press reports that the St. Paul City Council, while signing a new 10-year franchise agreement with Comcast, slapped them on the wrist for unpaid fees and noncompliance issues: "In two terse pages, the wide-ranging settlement notes that during franchise negotiations, 'the city alleged certain noncompliance issues on a variety of obligations related to the institutional network, PEG (public access, education and government) programming, underpayment of franchise fees, and failure to meet customer service and reporting requirements.'"

You get a refund, and you get a refund, and you get a refund! Michael Brodkorb at Politics.MN tells us the Minnesota Republican Party has voted to spend “at least six-figures” on a new “give it all back” campaign encouraging lawmakers to return the entire budget surplus back to Minnesota taxpayers: "While Republicans are hopeful their new campaign will result in the entire budget surplus eventually being returned, an immediate goal is to 'excite donors' to contribute to the party. Sources with knowledge of the discussion on Tuesday evening said Downey pledged to dedicate 25 percent of the money generated by the new 'give it all back' campaign to pay bills from the 2014 elections."

David Shaffer at the Star Tribune reports that Xcel Energy is asking state regulators to change rules surrounding large community solar gardens before the first one is even built: "Many of the solar gardens, which need seven to eight acres each to install ground-mounted panels, are being proposed adjacent to each other, making them more like solar plantations ... Xcel says such vast projects are utility-scale ventures that should be competitively bid, as the utility did recently for its first big solar investments in Minnesota."

In other news...

sixth child has died of flu this season in Minnesota [Star Tribune]

The Replacements are reissuing their entire catalog as eight-disc box set [Pitchfork, h/t @RandBallsStu]

Jimmy Carter flies into MSP, greets passengers on plane [WCCO]

FindFurnish and Let It Be Records start new vinyl store [City Pages]

I-35W bridge disaster re-created in ABC's new 'In an Instant' docuseries [Pioneer Press]

Meet the 40 Under 40 Class of 2015 [Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal]

Nickelback canceled its Friday performance at the Target Center [Pioneer Press]

Related: University of Wisconsin psychologists reveal why your cats don't like Nickelback [PBS Newshour]

The tease of Zach LaVine

4 hours 19 min ago

When Zach LaVine checked into the game for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, they were trailing the Los Angeles Clippers by 11, 29-18, with a little under two minutes to play in the first quarter. 

LaVine almost immediately flashed some of the bone-headed defense that has made him so aggravating to watch for much of his rookie season. Sorting out assignments with teammate Ricky Rubio in transition, he signaled that he would guard perennial all-star Chris Paul while Rubio took third-year bench player Austin Rivers — then lost Paul so thoroughly on a basic screen that Rubio moved over to take the charge, only to have Paul pass to Rivers for an open three-pointer. The next Clippers possession, Paul befuddled LaVine with a crossover dribble and buried the jumper. Suddenly it was 36-18 Clippers with 1:18 to play in the period. 

Then LaVine began to flash the indomitable confidence and astounding athleticism that teases out glimpses of stardom. Right after being twice embarrassed by Paul, he came down and stuck a midrange jumper of his own.

And when Paul went to the bench to start the second quarter, it was LaVine’s turn to do the embarrassing. Taking a pass by Gary Neal out on the right wing, he blew by Rivers for a ferocious slam dunk. Feeding off his own electricity, he turned a broken play on the next Wolves possession into a long three-pointer. He ambushed the Clippers with another lightning drive up the right lane, drawing the foul in mid-air on another dunk attempt. When the Clippers starting cheating on his dribble penetration, he fed Rubio, and rookie Adreian Payne, twice, for open buckets. And he leaked down the floor to take a long pass from Rubio for another slam dunk, dipping the ball behind his right shoulder before flushing it down with an efficient, blurred flick of his arms. 

At the halftime break, had played nearly fourteen straight minutes, scoring 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, three rebounds, three assists and zero turnovers. Most importantly, he was plus 13 during that time on the court and the Wolves led 60-58.  

A patron in Saunders

When Flip Saunders selected LaVine with the 13th pick in the 2014 NBA draft last summer, he had difficulty disguising his ebullience. Although the 19-year old LaVine had started just one game in his lone year at UCLA, Saunders proclaimed that he that “he has the ability to be an elite two-way player.” 

Saunders understood this was a rash statement, and he knew the pick of LaVine was a significant gamble on untested athleticism. “Sometimes you have to try and hit a home run,” he explained. “Some players are ready-made, they are only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.” 

As the man in charge of both the playbook and the personnel in his dual duties as head coach and President of Basketball Operations, Saunders is ideally suited to grease that opportunity for LaVine. 

When Rubio went down with a severely sprained ankle during the fifth game of the season, Saunders chose to leapfrog LaVine over then-backup point guard Mo Williams into the starting lineup. It was an audacious, “toss the infant into the pool” gambit that lasted for four double-digit drubbings before LaVine was mercifully replaced by Williams. 

But Saunders has been tenacious in his patronage. LaVine has gone on to start 23 games for the Wolves this season and Minnesota has won exactly twice in those contests. LaVine currently ranks fifth on the team in minutes played with 1135 (he logged 904 for his entire college career) and will pass Williams (who played 1149 minutes before being traded to Charlotte) within the next game or two for fourth place. 

In the long, sordid history of the Timberwolves franchise, never has a player looked so bad so often over the course of a single season. 

Even against the Clippers on Monday, for those paying attention to the intricacies of the game LaVine had as many cringe-worthy plays as he did highlights. In-between torching the Clippers defense with slams, dimes and jumpers, he fell asleep along the baseline while long-range marksman Jamaal Crawford drifted to the corner to catch a pass for an open three-pointer. He rushed over unnecessarily to help Payne defend Glen Davis at the hoop, leaving Rivers wide open for a three-pointer. Back down on offense, he passed too soon and too hard to Gorgui Dieng on a pick-and-roll play. 

Oh, and after that sparkling second quarter, LaVine didn’t make another field goal the rest of the game, committing three turnovers versus one assist and going minus-10 in 8:32 of play during the second half. 

To his credit, Saunders has laced his generosity toward LaVine’s playing time with ample tugs of tough love. When I interviewed him in January, Saunders conceded that teammates don’t hustle down the court as often playing beside LaVine because they aren’t confident he can get them the ball even when they are open. He acknowledged that LaVine has a long way to go to become a consistent defender, especially in recognizing how to communicate and shore up trust on team coverage (as opposed to on-ball isolation defense, where LaVine’s athleticism can compensate for his inexperience). 

Put simply, Saunders rarely tries to gloss over the ugly warts on LaVine’s game. Even on Monday night, after LaVine’s play had on-balance been a feel-good story in the narrow loss to the Clippers, the coach appropriately, if still delicately, ridiculed a question about whether Rubio had benefited from playing beside LaVine.

But the loyalty between the powerful coach-POBO and the teenaged rookie is steadfast. By now it is obvious to one and all that LaVine lacks the court vision, anticipation and dribbling facility to thrive as a point guard, but boasts the height (6-5) and athleticism to perhaps blossom into a star off-guard. Yet since trading Williams, Saunders continues to give as many or more minutes to LaVine at the point as he does playing the rookie beside Rubio, ignoring the other backup point guard, Lorenzo Brown. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, LaVine has logged 91 percent of his minutes at the point thus far and just 9 percent as an off-guard. Asked about this before a recent game, Saunders says the experience will help LaVine in the future, as he and Rubio can both initiate plays when they are paired in the backcourt. This may be the most outlandish aspect of his fast-forwarded development of LaVine — trading almost certain short-term carnage for what seems like, at best, a minimal long-term upgrade in LaVine’s skill set.

Generation gap

LaVine isn’t the only one suffering through an uncomfortable learning experience during this checkered Timberwolves season. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my antagonism toward LaVine is at least partially age-related. 

A variety of factors have contributed to this dynamic. First of all, LaVine can’t help but be inevitably and unfairly compared Andrew Wiggins, the Rookie of the Year favorite who was the other teenager on the Wolves roster when the season began. (Wiggins has since turned 20. LaVine’s 20th birthday is Tuesday, March 10.) 

Wiggins is one of the rare players who is LaVine’s equal in terms of raw physical prowess, but is preternaturally mature enough to hone his skill set around student achievement rather than stud athleticism. He is light years ahead of LaVine on the fundamentals of defense, let alone on the context of the game in his life and his career. His omnipresent example makes LaVine’s typical teenage behavior seem all the more callow.  

Then there is Twitter. At the urging of friends and readers, I began live-tweeting games in earnest this season, using the format to lay out opinions that used to go into my notebook for more judicious consideration later. Consequently, a hefty proportion of the dozens of times I’ve been aghast and frustrated by LaVine’s ineptitude this season has been disseminated to the public. And as any pundit knows, for better or worse, you own the public pronouncements more than the private deliberations.  

I started covering the Timberwolves franchise as a beat and part of my livelihood five years before LaVine was born. Over that time, it has been incredibly gratifying to pick up many of the nuances, philosophies and sciences of this glorious game and to cherish those who both ratify these refinements and continue to educate me with their “high basketball I.Q.” 

Suffice is to say that Zach LaVine has not been one of those teachers this season.  

Statistics and priorities

By the numbers, LaVine has been the poster boy for this wretched Wolves season. Minnesota scores 5.7 fewer points and gives up 7.1 more points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the court compared to when he sits. Roughly speaking, then, his presence holds his team back nearly 13 points a game. 

Drill down a little bit and you can see how toxic LaVine is for the performance of some of his teammates. To choose the most extreme example, when the three-player combination of LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad shared the court for 255 minutes this season, the Wolves have been outscored by 20.6 points per 100 possessions. By contrast, the three-player combination of Dieng, Muhammad and Williams played together for 258 minutes and outscored the opposition by 9.7 points per 100 possessions. 

Sure, the two other players in the quintet are variables not factored in here. But subbing in Williams for LaVine swung the three-player combo involving Muhammad and Dieng by more than 30 points per 100 possessions with nearly the same sample size. 

Those numbers were taken from the lineup data at Basketball-Reference.com. According to the stats page at nba.com, LaVine has the fourth-worst plus-minus ratio among players who have logged at least 800 minutes this season. A lot of this has to do with his horrendous defense. 

Players defended by LaVine are shooting 41.3 percent on three-pointers this season and 56.7 percent on two-pointers. There isn’t an area of the floor where he allows a lower shooting percentage than the league norm, but it is particularly glaring on shots from less than six feet, where players he guards are have a 16.8 greater shooting percentage than the average. From less than ten feet it is percentage of 13.8 more. 

Defense requires three essential ingredients — effort (physical exertion), focus (mental exertion) and experience. LaVine woeful lack of experience obviously hurts him at the defensive end of the court. But his absence of focus and, for someone so athletic, his merely sporadic effort, are damning. 

LaVine’s relative absence of defensive intensity becomes especially galling when you consider his stupendous winning performance in the slam-dunk contest over all star weekend. Yes, his innate, nearly off-the-charts athleticism was a primary factor in that memorable series of slams. But the amount of planning, repetition, energy, and focus required to choreograph and execute those performances was clearly considerable. 

LaVine didn’t regard that enormous investment in his panoply of dunks to be onerous—it was fun for him and by his enthusiasm for the event, you know participating and winning the contest was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. 

And that’s where the grumpy old man in me chafes and bellows. I have little doubt that LaVine has applied himself to the intricacies of dunking this season more intensely and thus more successfully than he has to the intricacies of team defense. 

That’s not to say LaVine is wrong in his priorities. The NBA is entertainment, and he has put himself on the national map. The Wolves marketing department will likely sell more season tickets based on LaVine’s all star showing than they would if he dedicated himself to reducing his defensive lapses by 4-5 points per game. 

But there is a toll taken by emphasizing entertainment over fundamentals. For team it is wins and losses. For a player it is ultimately a less successful career. 

David Thorpe is a respected writer for ESPN as well as being a mentor to rookies and other young players. At the beginning of the season he was generally high on LaVine, for obvious reasons regarding his physical potential. 

But his most recent assessment is revealing: “It was fun to see LaVine win the slam dunk contest but it was also a reminder of how much his game resembles a young Gerald Green as a player,” Thorpe wrote. “The game is about reading, thinking, reacting and discipline—all areas that LaVine is far from understanding at this point.” 

Aside from Green and LaVine, the other player to both wear a Wolves uniform and win a slam dunk championship is J.R. Rider. Of the trio, I would say that LaVine has the best psychological makeup. Green’s on-court dialogs with himself and the world and the careening of his emotion lay bare his ongoing immaturity. Rider, of course, couldn’t keep his behavior in check enough to stay in the NBA. But they are both cautionary tales. 

There is reason to be sanguine about LaVine’s future. As dreadful as he has performed this season, his statistics, as well as the eye test watching him play on the court, show improvement, especially with the return of the veterans to anchor his good habits and unburden his responsibilities. His sin is being a typical teenager. The most powerful person within the franchise he plays for is firmly invested in his success and giving him plenty of room to grow. 

But the jury is out. Especially for this grumpy old man. 

Gov. Dayton's August trade mission to Mexico will include stops in Mexico City and Guadalajara

4 hours 29 min ago

Gov. Mark Dayton's August trade mission to Mexico will include representatives of the state's business, education and cultural communities and they'll visit Mexico City and Guadalajara in search of business opportunities and Mexican investment.

The Minnesota Trade Office is coordinating the Aug. 9-14 trip. 

Highlights of the schedule include:

  • Marketing and industry briefings from U.S. and Mexican experts
  • Consultations with the U.S. Commercial Service, the trade promotion arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce
  • Site visits to Minnesota companies operating in Mexico
  • Site visits to Mexican companies in target industries 
  • Meetings with officials of the Mexican government, chambers of commerce and key industry organizations
  • Matchmaking activities between Mexican companies and Minnesota firms looking for buyers, distributors or partners in the market
  • Receptions and networking events

Mexico is Minnesota's second largest international trade partner, after Canada, and officials say the trade mission will strengthen those bonds. 

In his first term, Dayton traveled on trade missions to China, Japan and South Korea, and to Norway, Sweden and Germany. 

Said the governor:

"Mexico is a very important trading partner for businesses and farmers throughout our state. The goal of this trade mission will be to establish and build relationships that will help Minnesota companies and producers increase their exports to Mexico, and in doing so, create more jobs here at home."


State officials said sales to Mexico reached $2.2 billion last year, and it is the state’s largest market for meat products, miscellaneous grains/seeds, cereals and dairy/eggs, and the state’s second-largest market for machinery, vehicles, food byproducts, ores/slag/ash, rubber and processed foods.

And they say 31 Minnesota companies, including 3M, H.B. Fuller, St. Jude Medical, Medtronic, Ecolab, Valspar, Cargill and C.H. Robinson, do business in Mexico.

Applications to join the delegation can be made until April 17. Total cost is expected to be about $5,000 per person. That includes airfare and hotel, plus a mission fee of $2,800 to cover ground transportation in Mexico, official events and receptions and some meals.

Twin Cities mayors sign national amicus brief urging SCOTUS to support same-sex marriage

4 hours 49 min ago

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges are among 226 mayors from across the country who signed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to support gay marriage.

The court will hold oral arguments on the issue next month.

The mayors signing the brief want the court to rule that all couples have the constitutional right to marry.

The gist of the mayoral brief, prepared by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office and delivered today to the court:

  • Excluding a certain class of citizens from marriage undermines the dignity and respect that government owes all its citizens;
  • Official recognition of marriage as a fundamental right of all citizens, including gay men and lesbians, is crucial to municipalities and their ability to treat citizens with equal dignity and respect
  • Marriage equality cannot have full meaning unless it is recognized uniformly across state lines.

Said Coleman in a statement:

“Saint Paul is proud of its long history of fighting for civil and human rights for all people. We share in this responsibility to move our country forward and to stand up for the right of caring, mature adults to love whomever they want, and to display that love through marriage.”

And Hodges said:

“We have made a lot of progress here in Minnesota when it comes to recognizing the freedom to marry for all couples, but we’re not there yet. There are still couples in our community waiting for the federal government to legally recognize their marriages, and many more in states with zero legal recognition. I am proud to add my name to the growing list of people who believe the Supreme Court should recognize that all people deserve to marry the person they love.”

Following the April arguments, a court decision is expected in June.

Finding home in the familiar: an immigrant shops for groceries in Minneapolis

5 hours 12 min ago

I have my own version of the miracle of Minneapolis, and it is a celebration of the ways in which immigrant communities in Minnesota in grassroots ways are continuously changing the landscape of the city

I am interested in the shadow systems created by people of color in this country when most institutions exclude them. Often when we talk about communities of color; we discuss disparities. These are certainly important, particularly as we look at how racism, classism and xenophobia leave many of us on the margins. However, there is another kind of wealth; a wealth that cannot be measured by economic and other achievement indices.

How does an immigrant interact with the choices of food at their local grocery store? With narrow stock choices, many of us find the grocery store lacking, despite the abundance in American grocers.

I have been a resident of the Whittier neighborhood for about five years now; and have lived in Minnesota for almost 15 years. As an immigrant who was raised in Kenya, I am always exploring, marveling at the new, but also familiar; something that reminds me of home.

Take a walk with me, down my neighborhood and memories of my childhood. When I lived in St. Paul, I found refuge in the Latino and Asian supermarkets. In Minneapolis, my choices also include Somali, Ghanaian, Togolese and Liberian supermarkets and stores.

Here’s how I shop. Actually, I cannot really explain how I shop. I know how I do it, like my mother did, and her mother before her. She supported small businesses and stayed away from processed foods. She did not avoid supermarkets entirely, just as I cannot avoid the Wedge or my local Cub Foods. Mama made friends with everyone: the fishmonger, the shoemaker, the baker, the butcher, the cashier at the supermarket. In fact, I remember all these people through my mother’s eyes.

I grew up by Lake Victoria in Kenya, where tilapia and other fresh water fish were in abundance. We could walk to the lake, a 10-minute walk from our home, and buy fish: fresh, dried or fried by the roadside. Or we would go to Jubilee Market, and buy fish from the woman who Mama had bought her fish from since she migrated to the city as a young woman.

Jubilee Market looks a lot like the Minneapolis Farmers’ market on Lyndale and 394. At the market are big concrete slabs on which traders would array their wares. Some of the stock was pre-wrapped and others would engage you in conversation as they measured out your order and then gave you a bit extra, and then say 'come back next week.’ My favorite was the vendor who gave us extra fruits. The fish market was set apart from the main market. In large frying pans you could have your fresh fish fried and refried. Mama was anxious about having her fish fried because of the unknown quality and age of the fish.

In Minneapolis, my neighborhood Vietnamese supermarket on Nicollet Avenue, a 15-minute walk from my home, has a healthy choice of both freshwater and sea fish. And quite affordable too. Unlike the fish from Lake Victoria, this fish is likely farm fished.

Buying fish is an art that my mother never fully mastered. The fish has to smell just right, and the gills and eyes need to look fresh. Mama only bought her fish from trusted fishmongers because she once unknowingly bought rotten fish; and only made the discovery when we got home. I don’t need those skills in Minneapolis. I only ask that my fish is scaled before I take it home.

A Kenyan friend visiting from Ohio, a few years ago, was so impressed with my tilapia that she had me mail her a couple of fresh tilapia so she could relive the culinary experience from the home country reminiscent in my cooking.

Unlike my mother, I do not deep-fry my fish. Instead, I stuff it with fish masala, onions, green peppers, garlic and tomatoes; and toss it in the oven for about half an hour. It is served hot alongside ugali and on choy, the Chinese spinach I discovered a few years ago that reminds me of mix of kunde leaves and Kenyan kale.

Closer to home in Minneapolis, about a five-minute walk away, are a host of small family-owned grocery stores. While the mark-up on milk, eggs and bread can be steep, I venture into these stores to buy foods and spices that I would not find at the big box grocery stores.

Raw spice mix for chai masala: tangawizi, ilichi, karafu and mdalasini.

Ground spices for cooking everything else including Royco Mchuzi Mix (a Kenyan household pre-mixed spice that I only use when I am homesick, which I am a lot in the winter). My favorite is nyoyo: slow cooked beans, corn (maize), peas, potatoes, carrots slow cooked for hours with a spoonful of Royco.

One winter night on my way home, I decided to stop by one of these grocery stores on Lake Street. I craved injera and lamb key wot. It was not until I was at the counter that I realized that I did not have my wallet on me. Disappointed, I begun to tell him that I would not be buying anything after all and would return the next day. Without asking for any identifying information he said that I could make a payment whenever I made my way back. And so I began to notice the notebook.

Families living on small incomes get produce (milk, bread, eggs, injera, chapati, tortillas, tomatoes, onions) on “credit” and pay back without interest on payday or make small payments toward what they owe.

At the Karmell Mall, something similar happens. Most of the household goods and clothes sold there are imported from Dubai and made in China or Bangladesh. However, many of these businesses are owned by Somali immigrant women who rely on that income to sustain their families. A friend, also an immigrant, was looking to re-furnish her house so we walked over to the mall to see what her options would be. For a couple hours, we looked at shades, drapes, curtains, blinds, carpets and other upholstery; she bargained with every retailer. We settled on one woman who insisted on calling us her African daughters. She could barely speak English, Swahili, Wolof or French, the languages we were both fluent in. We would spend another two hours with her; pitching sales to other customers and chatting with them. She trusted us so much that she walked away from the store to run errands. When she returned, three Sudanese women walked in with several hundred dollars in an envelope. One of their children was getting married and they had selected fabric that had been set aside for them on layaway to make dresses a few months earlier.

Sometimes when I am really homesick I visit these malls and stores, even when I do not need to buy anything.

Finally, I am in intentional about not identifying stores. This is not to make invisible the people I am interacting with, but to acknowledge that this experience is not unique to individual stores and business owners. It is a nod to all those immigrants who welcome each other, without introduction, into their spaces. 

Julia Nekessa Opoti is a research and communications consultant. She also produces and hosts a weekly radio show on AM950 where she talks to immigrants about living in Minnesota.

Joe Davis named new executive director of Alliance for a Better Minnesota

5 hours 17 min ago

Joe Davis has been named the new new executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, one of the state's most influential special interest groups.

The alliance is a coalition of labor unions, DFL groups and wealthy donors, and works to elect Democrats in state and federal campaigns.

It calls itself an "online advocacy and communications organization focused on securing major advances in progressive public policy for Minnesota."

Davis had been deputy director of ABM for seven years and replaces Carrie Lucking in the top job. Lucking left last fall to work for Education Minnesota, the teachers' union, as director of policy research and outreach.

The announcement of Davis' promotion touted his leadership and digital skills.

Davis said in a statement:

"I am thrilled to work for the progressive movement in this new position to continue moving Minnesota forward. We have accomplished a lot, but there is so much more work to do for working families."

Yes, there's good news about drinking coffee. No, it's not going to prevent you from having a heart attack.

5 hours 41 min ago

It’s been a good couple of weeks for coffee. First, the panel of experts assigned the job of revising the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans essentially gave the all-clear to drinking a few cups of the caffeinated beverage daily.

“Strong evidence shows that consumption of coffee within the moderate range (3 to 5 cups [per day] or up to 400 milligrams [per day] caffeine) is not associated with increased risk of major chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer and premature death in healthy adults,” they wrote. (Note: The exception was pregnant women, who the panel said should limit their daily caffeine intake to 200 milligrams a day.)

This is the first time over the 30-plus-year history of the guidelines that health officials have addressed the issue of coffee.

Then, this week, came a study from Korea that seemed to be suggesting moderate coffee consumption helps protect against clogged arteries (atherosclerosis) and, thus, heart attacks.

Seemed is, of course, the operative word here. For, as medical reporter Larry Husten explains in an online column for Forbes, the Korean study was observational, which means that its findings cannot be interpreted as demonstrating any kind of causal connection  — good or bad — between coffee and heart disease.

“Although the researchers attempted to adjust for important differences between the groups, this effort is ultimately impossible when studies deal with real people in the real world and not mice living in cages,” Huston writes. “I would be willing to bet a whole lot of money that people who drink different amounts of coffee differ in all sorts of extremely important ways (psychological, physical, environmental, social). There is no way to measure or adjust for most of these factors. Coffee — along with alcohol, exercise, diet, and so many other “lifestyle” factors — is how we define ourselves.”

But that didn’t stop some media outlets from confidently declaring the study had demonstrated that coffee has direct health benefits:  “Coffee Prevents Clogged Arteries,” “Drinking Three Cups of Coffee a Day Reduces Risk of Heart Attacks,” and “Coffee Can Save You from Heart Attacks Aside from Keeping You Awake.”

As Huston points out, the authors of the new study were much more cautious than the media about their research’s conclusions. “Our findings are consistent with a recent body of literature showing that moderate coffee consumption may be inversely associated with cardiovascular events,” the authors wrote. They also stressed that “further research is warranted to confirm our findings and establish the biological basis of coffee’s potential preventive effects on coronary artery disease.” 

One of the authors of the study told Huston that he was concerned that the media was exaggerating the findings. No one at this point should be drinking coffee to prevent heart disease, the researcher explained, but, on the other hand, people who already drink coffee in moderation may find some reassurance in the study’s findings that coffee is not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. 

A matter of dose

And that’s pretty much what the U.S. Dietary Guidelines experts say in their new recommendations.

They, too, don’t claim that coffee is good for you. In other words, no one should start consuming coffee to prevent cardiovascular disease. Indeed, if you want to take action to protect your heart, go for the lifestyle behaviors with a proven track record: regular exercise, not smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight.

What the experts are saying, however, is that if you’re already drinking coffee (in moderation), you don’t necessarily need to stop.

Of course, this advice is for adults. Furthermore, the “moderate consumption” recommendations are really about caffeine, not about cups of coffee. Sodas and energy drinks, for example, often contain plenty of caffeine as well.

And then there’s the matter of cup size. The panel of experts’ “3 to 5 cups per day” recommendation refers to 8-ounce cups of coffee containing an estimated 100 milligrams of caffeine each. But the smallest cup of coffee offered in most coffee shops starts at 12 ounces, and a single 20-ounce cup of coffee from Starbucks contains 415 milligrams of caffeine.

So start doing the math. For help with figuring out the caffeine content in your favorite coffee (and other foods and drugs), use this handy listing from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. (Full disclosure: I worked for CSPI many years ago.)

Bowing to pressure, 3M agrees to reshape its sustainable forestry policies

5 hours 57 min ago

After a long siege of public pressure and negotiations, punctuated occasionally by media-savvy comic stunts, the 3M Co. has gone from the doghouse to darling of sustainable-forestry activists.

All it took was a wholesale rethinking of its responsibility for the steady stream of wood fiber it turns into Post-Its, masking tape and other products – and an unusual, against-the-trend decision to stop outsourcing accountability to third-party certification groups.

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, 3M veep Jean Sweeney said the Maplewood-based corporation will end its reliance on assessments by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, widely regarded as a greenwashing arm of large logging companies, to ensure that its purchasing doesn’t needlessly harm forests, communities or workers’ rights.

In doing so, 3M joins a roster of SFI ex-partners that includes AT&T, Office Depot, Allstate, Pitney Bowes, US Airways and Allied Electronics.

But rather than simply replace SFI with a more respectable certification outfit, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, for one leading example, 3M has elected the unusual and surely more expensive approach of doing its own screening, auditing and reporting throughout a vast supply chain.

While 3M is a huge producer of paper products, thus a huge consumer of wood fiber and pulp, it owns no forestland of its own. Instead, it relies on some 5,000 suppliers scattered across more than 70 different countries.

Though the company casts its new policy as a continuation of corporate strategies stretching back for decades, it also acknowledges that “comes on the heels of a multiyear campaign by ForestEthics,” joined last year by Greenpeace.

Like Greenpeace, but funnier

You could think of ForestEthics, headquartered in Canada but with offices in the United States as well, as an outfit as aggressive as Greenpeace in its challenges to SFI, which have included formal complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, but with a larger sense of whimsy when it comes to targets like 3M.

To spotlight issues in the 3M campaign, ForestEthics has unrolled a giant Post-It from the Washington Ave. bridge above the Mississippi River, and staged a bit of street theater with caribou-suited players outside a corporate meeting.

Last summer it hired a plane to drag a banner through the skies over Target Field before the All-Star Game that read, "3M do the right thing for forests.”

But yesterday, at least for public consumption, Sweeney and ForestEthics’ executive director, Todd Paglia, were talking of nothing but peace and progress in a future of mutual cooperation. Indeed, Paglia went out of his way to say that ForestEthics had learned a lot from 3M’s representatives in their negotations, a point he underlined to me in an interview.

Creative Commons/ann harknessForestEthics protesting during a 3M-sponsored half marathon in Austin, TX, in 2014.Advisers, not surrogates

Going forward, FSC and other groups engaged in forestry certification – including Minneapolis-based Dovetail Partners and The Forest Trust of Santa Fe — will advise and assist 3M in its new approach. But it will be the company’s own employees – some newly hired for the purpose — who will:

  • “Work with suppliers to trace the origin for all of the wood, paper and pulp it buys, and [reject] fiber that was obtained in a manner that threatens high-conservation value forests," as defined by guidance developed by the High Conservation Value Resource Network.
  • “Ensure that its suppliers are granted free, prior and informed consent by indigenous peoples and local communities before logging operations occur.”
  • “Publicly report progress in evaluating its fiber’s chain of custody, establish benchmarks for recycled fiber and tree-free fiber and report on those, and report on the amount of FSC fiber used.”
  • “Hold paper and pulp suppliers accountable to one of the highest standards in the industry for environmental protection and respect of human rights,” help improve suppliers’ performance where necessary, and “cease doing business with suppliers who do not adhere to its principles.”

On that last point, 3M announced that it has cancelled contracts with an Indonesian supplier, the Royal Golden Eagle Group, over logging practices and human-rights violations. It has also put a Canadian supplier, Resolute Forest Products, on notice that it must improve both its relationship with tribes and its stewardship of caribou habitat.

Bucking the certification trend

I wanted to know a little more about why 3M chose the intriguingly opposite strategy of taking its outsourcing back in-house. I reached out to Sweeney, whose vice-presidential portfolio covers environmental, health, safety and sustainability operations for 3M. In reply I got a company statement that I quote here in full:

The policy expectations are based on 3M's sustainability values. As you heard on the call, by implementing the policy in this way, we are choosing not to delegate the responsibility for setting expectations to a third party. We recognize this might be the more challenging approach, but it aligns with how we do business.

So I asked Paglia for his thoughts, not only on 3M’s reasoning and whether its model might be widely emulated, but also on the prospect that taking all the work inside could actually result in less public transparency about sustainability performance, not more.

He acknowledged that darker possibility, but said it was not something he was concerned about. Many details of the new system remain to be worked out, he said, but there really should be no doubt about the sincerity of 3M’s change of heart:

We picked 3M very specifically for this campaign. We didn’t pick Monsanto.

We had a history of working with 3M, and we didn’t really think they were doing what they were capable of, but we also knew that they are very innovative and have a strong, values-driven culture.

We had a sense that if we could orient the campaign to be hard-hitting yet funny, and not be over-the-top, we-know-everything righteous, that we’d be able to get into a conversation with them and that they would lead us — that we would learn things we didn’t know, and they would learn things they didn’t know, and we’d come up with something really interesting together.

We can’t force anybody to do anything. All we can do is choose a company that has the values to make a right decision, and then just keep asking them the questions: Can we make a right decision? Can we move from conflict to collaboration?

And that’s what happened here.

A new era for ERA?

6 hours 24 min ago

It was hard to tell if it was the past or the future being played out Thursday at the state Capitol when a few dozen women rallied on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment.  

If you are of a certain age, or you’ve taken an American history course in the last few decades, you’ll recall that the Equal Rights Amendment was designed to constitutionally protect the rights of women, from the workplace to the homefront. In 1972, the amendment passed through Congress and was forwarded to the states. Thirty-five states, including Minnesota, quickly ratified the amendment — but 38 were needed to make it part of the Constitution.

In the end, the amendment was defeated by fear. If the ERA passes, we’ll have unisex bathrooms. If the ERA passes, men will lose their God-given authority to be heads of households. If the ERA passes, women will be forced into combat. If the ERA passes, government will be telling businesses they have to pay women as much as men.

Rosemary Rocco, retired from a career in health care, was among those attending Thursday’s rally. She shakes her head at all the old fears that eventually ground down the ERA’s momentum.

Recently, she said, she did some bottom-line analyzing of what the failure to pass the ERA cost her in the ensuing decades. Statistics show that women are paid 78 cents to every dollar paid to a man. That means, she said, the pay disparity cost her a minimum of $375,000 over the decades. And because Social Security is based on earnings, she figures that women like her are still are being shortchanged compared to men.

But Rocco looked around the room where the rally was being staged and saw hope. Not only were there old-timers from the first ERA fight present, but there were a substantial number of collegians. “This is an issue that seems to be getting the attention of the millennials,’’ Rocco said. “They understand it. Look, young women are coming out of college with the same debt that young men are. They have the same debt, but they still will get paid less.’’

A cross-section of women — young, old, women of color, politicians, military vets —  were at the rally, which Kathy Magnuson, a publisher of Minnesota Women’s Press, said represented “the most excitement” she’s seen around the ERA in years. But the political mountains in front of the effort to revive an old idea are huge.

For starters, there are no Republicans in Minnesota outwardly supporting the effort — one national, one statewide — that was begun Thursday. Betty Folliard, a former DFL legislator who’s a founder of ERA MN, said that initially at least a few House Republicans were ready to publicly support the effort, but that they pulled their names from authorship of bills because of pressure from their caucus leadership. The scuttlebutt is that anti-abortion elements of the GOP still oppose the ERA.

Given the GOP’s majority control of the Minnesota House, there can be no progress on ERA without GOP support. “But we are going to get this conversation going,” said Folliard. “People have been working on this for 93 years, we’re not going to stop now.”  (The ERA was proposed by Alice Paul in 1923.)

Here’s the process that has begun in both the House and Senate in Minnesota: Resolutions are being presented “memorializing Congress to remove the deadline for ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.’’

In the 1970s, a “sunset’’ provision became part of the ERA process, a provision that essentially said that if the amendment was not passed by 1979 (later extended to 1982), the actions of the 35 states that had ratified the amendment would be erased.

Just a wild guess here, but it seems unlikely that Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will embrace any resolutions tht bring the ERA back to life. “But we’re in this for the long haul,’’ said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.

The second part of the ERA push in Minnesota will be for the state legislature to pass a proposed state ERA amendment. (It takes a majority in both houses to put an amendment proposal on the ballot.)

Again, because the GOP controls the House, such a proposal seems unlikely to pass. On the other hand, opposing an ERA amendment does present political problems for Republicans, given the importance women play in Minnesota elections, not to mention the party’s efforts in making inroads with working class voters.

As Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, pointed out, women of color are hit hardest by the pay disparities between men and women. The income gap between white women and men is 20 percent, Moran said. The gap between Asian American women and men is 26 percent. It’s 38 percent between black women and men, and a staggering 43 percent between Latino women and men. Moran pointed out that the U.S. is one of three industrialized nations that don’t guarantee paid paternity leave.

Many of the women present Thursday are long-time soldiers in this fight. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, was a first-term state representative who had the opportunity to cast a vote supporting ratification of the amendment in 1973. 

But also on hand were such people as Katie Spoder, a year out of the College of St. Benedict, and Lauren Lutgens, a St. Ben’s sophomore. Spoder, laughing and holding an ERA placard, noted that until recently, the ERA was “just something we talked about in a history course.”

Librettist Mark Campbell on 'The Manchurian Candidate,' contemporary opera and that Pulitzer

6 hours 33 min ago

Mark Campbell dreams of a new American opera company – one that presents only American operas. “You can do Carlisle Floyd’s operas,” he said. “You can do Gershwin. You can do Sondheim. It doesn’t have to be new, but it should be American, in English. I really hope that some company has the foresight and wisdom to do that.” If it happens, Campbell, who is already one of opera's most in-demand and prolific librettists, can expect to get even busier.

In case you wonder which comes first, the libretto or the musical score, it’s always the libretto. “I have never worked any other way,” Campbell said last week in an interview at the Minnesota Opera Center. “I’ve never worked with a composer who wants to work any other way.” I have worked with composers who say, ‘I wrote this thing for an opera 10 years ago, and I’d love to throw it in this scene.’ I say, ‘I’d rather you come to it fresh and not give me trunk material.”

Campbell, who lives in New York, has been spending a lot of time in the Twin Cities, preparing for what will likely be his next triumph with composer Kevin Puts: the world premiere of the Minnesota Opera-commissioned “The Manchurian Candidate,” based on the novel by Richard Condon. It’s Campbell’s second opera with Puts. For their first, “Silent Night,” Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music. In opera, as in musicals, composers get the glory.

We’ll be seeing more of Campbell in the coming years. He’s also the librettist for “The Shining,” “Memory Boy” and “Dinner at Eight,” all Minnesota Opera commissions planned for future seasons.

MinnPost: When you were growing up, did you want to be a librettist someday?

Mark Campbell: No.

MP: How did you get where you are now?

MC: If we start around high school or college, I was originally heading out to be an actor. I have a degree in theater and dance from the University of Colorado. I went to New Orleans for a few years and did some acting there, mostly in musicals. Then I moved to New York and quickly learned that I was just not good enough. I was a pretty bad actor. [Meanwhile] I had written a number of things, and a composer I know asked me to write lyrics. I was a lyricist between the time I was an actor and a librettist.

MP: You mentor young librettists today, but you didn’t have any mentors of your own.

MC: The closest I had was Stephen Sondheim, but I was self-mentored. I studied his work. I [became] a lyricist for musical theater, and Stephen Sondheim gave me this huge award in 1990 [the first Kleban Foundation Award for Lyricist; Sondheim was a judge] and it encouraged me to continue writing.

In 2002, [composer] John Musto called me and said, “I’d like to look at your lyrics.” He read them and liked them and said, “I want to write a comic opera.” So I found the play “Volpone” and adapted it, and that was my first opera. I remember thinking, “You’re at home. This is what you want to do.” I completely found myself. And then a reviewer called it a masterpiece and it got a Grammy nomination.

MP: A lot of people think that opera is too old to matter, or dead.

MC: I feel that the great work being done in musical theater is happening in opera. It’s not happening on Broadway. Broadway is devouring itself. It has made fun of itself for so long that it can’t be taken seriously. … The future of great music – the combination of theater, spoken text and music – is in this form. And the future of opera is in American contemporary opera. I don’t feel like Europe can deliver anymore.

MP: What’s the difference between musical theater and opera?

MC: That’s a big question. People ask Sondheim, “Is [Sweeney Todd] an opera or a musical?”

MP: You think it’s an opera.

MC: I do because of the structure. Very little is spoken in “Sweeney Todd.” Most of it is sung. I do not think “A Little Night Music” is an opera because a lot is spoken.

MP: What about “Les Misérables?”

MC: “Les Mis” is an opera.

MP: But it’s billed as a musical.

MC: Yes, because it’s performed in musical theater houses. That’s Sondheim’s definition of “Sweeney Todd.” He says, “When it’s performed in an opera house, you can call it an opera. When it’s performed in a theater, it’s a musical.” I would also say that the complexity of “Sweeney Todd,” which has a few Broadway tunes in it, helps me define it as an opera.

MP: You mentioned structure. What do you mean?

MC: One thing I tell my students is I detest the sung play, when a composer just takes the dialogue and sets it [to music]. An opera is a whole different animal. Writing a libretto is not the same as writing a play. Time and again, we see operas fail, and one of the reasons an opera fails is because it is a sung play. It hasn’t benefited from the form.

It’s an amazing form. Use the traditions! Give me that big, loud aria. Give me that ensemble where 10 people are singing and you can’t understand what anyone is saying but you feel it because the music is telling you. And then give me that big, powerful chorus. Those are things we can do in opera.

What I teach is, if you write an aria, for example, don’t be afraid to use the A-A-B-A song form, which has always worked. Don’t be afraid to repeat sections, because an audience loves to be able to latch onto a melody.

MP: Which seems to be missing in contemporary opera.

MC: Everyone blames composers for not writing tunes, but if they’re not given text that is structured and scans in a certain way, then it’s also the librettist’s fault. My responsibility is to support the composer and make sure he or she is able to write some tunes.

Composers are all different. I’ve given full, complete lyrics to composers who don’t know what to do with them. And I’ve given unstructured stuff to composers who say, “Could you put this in a structure?” You just never know. Kevin [Puts], bless him, can do both. He can do everything, as far as I’m concerned.

MP: You and Kevin and [Minnesota Opera artistic director] Dale Johnson all went to the Edina Library for a public event about the “The Manchurian Candidate.” Anyone could come and hear you talk about it and ask questions.

MC: How are we going to break down barriers if people think we’re just a bunch of European freaks? Everyone has this preconceived notion that opera composers are pretentious prima donnas. But we’re just telling a story.

Kevin hates when I say this, but I write for my audience. I care every single second about what they’re thinking and feeling. I’m not writing for some aesthetic purpose. I’m writing because I want to tell a story.

I’m telling this story about “Manchurian Candidate” because I believe that paranoia in politics could destroy our country, if we continue to employ McCarthyism. Just last week, when Giuliani – “America’s mayor,” [a phrase] that infuriates me because I lived in New York when he was there, and I would not call him my mayor – when he talked about Obama being raised by communists and socialists, that means McCarthyism is still around. And that’s the reason I think “Manchurian Candidate” is very relevant. … I want the audience coming out saying, “Let’s watch it next time someone calls someone a socialist. Let’s think of the kind of damage that McCarthyism does.”

For “Silent Night,” Kevin and I were able to tell a story that said, “Let’s think about the next time we go into war.” Because this country is often so eager to jump right in.

MP: It sounds like you find a reason to tell a story that means something to you. What about the other operas you’re writing for Minnesota Opera? Can you talk about “The Shining”? [Note: The opera is based on the novel by Stephen King, not the movie by Stanley Kubrick. King had to sign off on the libretto, which he did.]

MC: Once I learned that Jack Torrance [the main character] had himself been abused by his father, the theme for “The Shining” for me became that only a really strong love can end generations of child abuse. Forgive me, but these things are very simplistic. They have to be. You have to start with a simplistic proposition. That’s what I need for myself to get into a story, and I start selecting events from a story based on that.

MP: What about “Dinner at Eight”? What was your door into that story?

MC: I wrote a song that starts the opera, and we may reject it, but it’s called “The Party Goes On.” The story takes place in the Depression. Financial ruin. Financiers are flying off of ledges. And the song is about how the world can fall apart around us, but we still have our ability to love each other and we also have our humor.

MP: So it’s about resilience?

MC: Yeah. And it takes place in New York. I was there for September 11. I live a couple miles from the World Trade Center, and I was at home that day, and I kept hearing ambulance sirens, and then at the church near me the bells were ringing continuously, and I thought, “What’s going on?” And my dog, Harry, was there, and I said, “Harry, let’s go see what this is,” and we went down to the river and both towers were on fire. …

I was so proud of my fellow New Yorkers because we were hugging each other and saying, “This is so sad.” None of us were thinking, “Who can we kill?” The rest of America was starting to do that, and Bush was quick to do that. But my neighbors were all like, “Are you OK?” I was so proud of my city. People were thinking, “What terribly, horribly sad thing in this universe has caused this to happen? Let’s look at it. Let’s reflect. Let’s find a way to change it.”

The great writer Tony Kushner said this thing I’m always thinking about, and I’ll misquote it: “The world is moving forward.” It’s not moving forward quickly enough for most of us, but it is still moving forward.

So maybe “The Manchurian Candidate” in all of its scariness and sense of doom is actually about moving forward. I want this opera to be held up as an example of what we should not do as a country, and how our feelings of what we call patriotism are blinding us to darker things that could happen.

MP: You’ve been asked this question a million times, but how did “Silent Night” change your life?

MC: When an opera gets a Pulitzer Prize –

MP: You’re in big demand now.

MC: Which is great. It’s even bigger than you think. I worked in advertising for 35 years. I worked for big corporations. Getting the Pulitzer Prize said, “You shouldn’t be sitting in a cubicle. It’s time to be a man about this and not be afraid.” My father was poor, and he drummed into me that work, money and security are the most important things. It took a Pulitzer and a couple years of therapy to say, “You can do this.” And once I did, the offers came in. Too many offers.

MP: So opera is not dying.

MC: Not at all. Contemporary opera is very much alive. The opera companies who refuse to program new opera – and especially the opera companies in this country who do not program contemporary American opera – are the ones that are dying because their audiences are dying. It’s a bunch of old operas for old people, generally old white people. And if we’re going to get a new audience, we have to write new operas. And that’s what we’re doing.

***

“The Manchurian Candidate” with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell, opens Saturday, March 7, at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul. FMI and tickets ($25-$200). Through Sunday, March 15.

 

Anne Kanten: Radical, realist, relentless advocate for family farmers

6 hours 52 min ago
Poking Around with Mary CC/Flickr/Cindy Cornett SeigleKanten set the pace for today’s women in farming.

Statistics and stories often present very different pictures of reality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the silos of data about farm workers. Though residents of the real world have always known that women carry an enormous burden of the work on a family farm statistics fail to reflect that reality.

The good news is that the stories of the lives and contributions of women farmers is actually getting some long overdue attention in the media — and stories reveal the facts:

For Minnesota family farm advocate Anne Kanten this must bring huge satisfaction, surely a chuckle. History shows that the mind, hand and spirit of Anne Kanten are a mighty force in shaping the image and reality of women as leaders in the changing world of today’s family farm.

As Americans struggle to rethink the sources of food, food safety, nutrition, and the power of corporations and international trade agreements, it seems right to revisit the ways in which Anne Kanten’s story, still a work in progress, is “woven into the essential fabric of our nation’s history.”

Kanten set the pace for today’s women in farming — from the farm she worked with her husband Chuck to her tenure as Deputy Secretary of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to her selection as one of two recipients of the first Family Farm Champion Award sponsored by the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) to her honor as “Rural Champion” at the 2011 National Rural Assembly meeting in St Paul. She even has a starring role in Dairy Queen, a video view of three activist women farmers fighting for changes in agriculture policy and practices during the turbulent 1980’s.

Reflecting on the “Rural Champion” award Kanten reminisced about a time when “the farm and the land and my faith were all tied together in the 1950’s.” What followed in the 1970’s and 80’s was catastrophic. Farmers lost their land and Kanten’s “radical” instincts came to the fore.

In 1989 Kanten was interviewed as part of the Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project; the transcript of that interview with Dianna Hunter is accessible online. In that conversation Kanten shares the narrative of the ways in which thirty years working with her husband on the family farm prepared her for her life of advocacy, high office and leadership in shaping agricultural policy at the state and federal levels – basically, how she earned the title “radical.”

***

Reared on an Iowa farm, the daughter of immigrants, Anne Knutson graduated from St. Olaf College and began her adult life as a high school teacher. It was when she married Chuck Kanten, a third generation farmer near Milan, Minnesota, that she began to understand the land and what it meant to be a steward of the land. She and Chuck operated their successful family farm for three decades.

It was her commitment to land stewardship — and the devastation of the land in the mid 1970’s – that led Kanten to reshape her perspective on agriculture policy. She began to think about the political implications, and then the responsibility of the faith community to “understand more about this whole business of agriculture policy.” In the end, she realized, she reflects “it was really the church that got me going, and that moved me eventually into the political arena, and the soap boxing that I did in the name of the family farm.”

Kanten began to change the questions she was raising in her own mind about the politics of agriculture. Her inquiring mind led her first to the county library where she read up on agriculture and the history of agricultural policy. Next she visited the local banker, then back to the library to learn about investments and returns.

Thus prepared, Kanten was at the ready to take action when farm families were devastated by the financial crisis of the late 70’s and 80’s. She found a venue for her experience and ideas in the grassroots American Agriculture Movement (AAM). The agenda, Kanten relates, was simple: “Keep people on their farms, with parity prices for agriculture.” Engrossed in AAM, Anne “hit the road” – traveling to the Capitol in St Paul and to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC “listening and learning and sharing, and just telling people what was going on in the heartland of the United States.”

During the recorded interview Anne describes in poignant detail the 1979 Tractorcade to DC, encounters with the police, the false rumors of violence, and, most of all, the leadership: “The quality, the intelligence and the ability of those farmers was absolutely exceptional. And I was very proud to be a part of that.” Anne defends what might be viewed by some as naivete by affirming the role of the governed in setting the political agenda: “I still think that’s the proper way to lobby. That you go and you tell your story, and you tell it honestly and truthfully to the best of your ability. That’s what it means to lobby. And we didn’t have any training sessions or anything. We simply went to tell our story.”

All this leads to the next chapter of Anne’s narrative which begins in December 1982 when she was tapped by Governor Rudy Perpich to serve as Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture; in that position she was responsible for all of the regulatory divisions of the agency. When the Star Tribune heralded “Radical Farm Woman Appointed to Department of Agriculture” she decided to assume the role. Anne remembers how she was expected to wear “two different hats” – dealing with the legal complexities of the regulations while never losing sight of how the “farmer fits in.”

At first blush, the impact of the AAM Tractorcade may seem minimal. Still the experience changed the essence of AAM – and the life of Anne Kanten. Anne emerged as a leader; she began to work with Lou Anne Kling who had been working close to home with farmers in her area, providing technical assistance, information, help to family farmers trying to meet the legal and regulatory complexities of operating in troubled times.

The two women came to understand that “there were farmers who needed help, who first of all didn’t want to admit it, and who even when they did admit it found it very difficult to walk through a professional door to get help. They found it very difficult to walk into a county Extension office, or even to share with their lender what was going on. Or many of them couldn’t even share with their spouse, or their own kids what was going on. So there was the beginning of a lot of pathos….”

The two women concluded that one solution would be to “clone” Lou Anne, to train volunteer farmers who would be knowledgeable and willing to share their expertise — and time — with their neighbors. And thus began the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program of which Kanten became the Chief Administrator. The goal of the program was to provide training and a venue or farmers and bankers to resolve their differences, to move both parties from animosity to restored trust. The story of the Farm Advocate Program is recorded in print and in the oral history project of the Minnesota Historical Society. In her interview Anne describes the participants as “a most wonderful bunch of human beings…Because they are so dastardly smart and intelligent, is one thing. But their commitment to help other farmers is most remarkable.”

Throughout her life, Anne and Chuck traveled the world, first as “lay mission observers” from their church, always as family farmers. Travel convinced Anne, 1) that agriculture policy must be viewed and shaped from an international perspective, and 2) that the relationship between women and farming is symbiotic.

Her thoughts, recorded in 1989, are prescient. Speaking of the struggle of women Anne reflects:

There is a sense that women were still responsible for the production of food. Women are still responsible for feeding the family. It was women who would get up early in the morning and go for water, maybe walking miles. Walking for firewood to build a fire. Going to the fields to hoe, and to plant, and to harvest. The tremendous burden on women.”

Comparing her own life as a woman farmer with the lot of women in lesser developed nations, Anne concludes:

Women here…have not held up our end as we should. I think the crisis of the ‘80’s has brought a lot of women to the fore, has gotten a lot of women educated, and gotten a lot of women into understanding policy and understanding lenders’ regulations, and so there have been good things….The experience in Africa was a good perspective to have in my head when I talked about agricultural policy.

Speaking into that recorder a quarter century ago, Anne concluded that in this country women had been ‘the invisible farmers.’

We have quietly done that bookwork, and we have driven the trucks, and we have driven the tractors, and we have taken care of the kids, and we have gone to PTA, and we’ve done all those things. But we have not been in the visible policy arena. And we have not been on the boards and commissions that make decisions. And I think that women are just coming to that now.

Now, as then, Kanten’s focus is on the future, above all on the need for advocacy and for collaboration among family farmers. Clearly, she is spot on in her insistence on the imperative to shape agriculture from a global perspective. On the topic of the role of women in agriculture, it is abundantly clear that she called that one, too.

Anne remains a vibrant force in shaping agriculture with the role of the family farmer and of women at the core of her thinking. Her husband and partner Chuck died in July 2014; their son continues to operate the family farm. With her customary vision and indomitable spirit Anne maintains her “radical” commitment to the role of family farmers, with special focus on the expanding role of women as producers of the world’s food supply.

The story of Anne Kanten is for all time woven into the essential fabric of the history of agriculture, of Minnesota and of the nation.

This post was written by Mary Treacy and originally published on Poking Around with Mary.

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A Minneapolis-based nonprofit helps disabled adults find meaningful work

6 hours 58 min ago

Laura Swift has been working part time as a cashier at Walgreens in Waconia for six months, and so far things seem to be working out really well.

The 31-year-old, who has lived with severe bipolar disorder coupled with crippling anxiety for most of her life, sometimes has had a hard time finding — and holding — a job, but this position feels like a good match, said Hannah Weiss, PR manager for Opportunity Services, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that helps adults with disabilities find meaningful employment. Opportunity Services helped Swift apply for the Walgreens job, and now that she’s hired, works with her employer to make sure that she has the support she needs to succeed.

“Laura’s manager, Brandon, is awesome,” Weiss said. “When I call him to check in, he says, ‘Laura’s great. She’s an important part of the team. We enjoy having her onboard.’ ”

It’s heartening to hear words like these, Weiss said, because there have been times when Swift’s mental illness has made holding down a job difficult.

“For me, the mania is the bad part of my bipolar,” Swift said. “It can cause trouble: I become paranoid, which is directly related to my work. Sometimes the paranoia can turn into mania.” This manic behavior has forced Swift to quit more than one job. And it has caused her to be hospitalized six times.

“My mania feels like a panic attack that lasts for days,” Swift explained. “I can’t sleep. All I do is think about my paranoia. It’s hard to see from the outside. I could still go to work and nobody would know I was paranoid. But I can’t really work at all. Eventually I have to tell my parents I need to go to the hospital because I can’t sleep.”

Though employment seems to exacerbate her stress, Swift still wants to work. Recently she’s taken a significant chunk of time off to focus on her mental health, but in the last year she’s been gaining confidence that she can re-enter the work force. Determined to find a job that suited her temperament and helped move her in the direction of her dream job as a pharmacy technician, Swift teamed with Opportunity Services. The program matched her with Amanda Olson, an employment specialist. Opportunity Services told Swift about the open position at Walgreens, helped her fill out the application, and now that she’s landed the job, counsels her through stressful times at work.

“Laura is very independent,” Olson said. “She went to the job interview on her own. She meets with me every couple of weeks and we talk about things that are on her mind, but that’s really it. She just needs somebody to listen to her and support her, but honestly it’s been really pretty hands off.”

Swift, who is also under the care of a therapist and a psychiatrist, is pleased to be back at work. “It gets boring just being at home,” she said. “I feel like a productive member of society when I’ve got a job. My life is more fulfilling when I work.”

Mission driven

Opportunity Services was founded over 40 years ago in Red Wing. Nancy Gurney, the organization’s founder, had worked with disabled children and wanted to help them find work as they became adults. She saw community-based work as a way to add meaning to life. The organization grew organically, contracting with county vocational rehabilitation offices to help disabled residents find a place in the work force. Many Opportunity Services clients work independently like Swift; others work on community work teams or participate in agency-sponsored recreation and engagement activities.

Today, Opportunity Services has 10 offices in Minnesota, three in Florida and one in Massachusetts. The agency’s mission is to provide their clients with opportunities to find meaningful work that suits their skills and make contributions to their communities. They also focus on employer education, explaining the many ways disabled adults can add value to team.

Participation with Opportunity Services is voluntary. No one takes part in the agency’s programs — neither employer nor employee — out of a sense of obligation, Weiss said. The idea is that disabled people are valued members of a community and they should have choices about what they do with their lives.

“We only work with clients who choose to work with us,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to help everyone be integrated, learn from their peers and their boss and really be a part of their communities.”  

Coping strategies

For Swift, job success is measured one step at a time. When she started working at Walgreens, the only person she told about her disability was her manager. But as the months on the job add up and Swift becomes more comfortable with her coworkers, she’s starting to open up more and more.

“At first they just treated me like a regular employee because I didn’t tell them about my disability when I was hired,” Swift said. That was a good decision, but for a person with an invisible disability it also had its downside. “At first I felt like a few of my coworkers judged me because I was slower than a lot of people. But they didn’t know I had a disability until I told them. I think maybe they thought I was just being lazy. Now I think that it’s probably better to just be honest about my condition. When people know what’s going on they’re more understanding."

The job has had some hiccups — Swift felt her anxiety building during the store’s busy holiday season — but with Olson’s help, she developed ways to cope.

“There were a lot of customers in the store,” Swift recalled. “I’d look at the line and it gave me anxiety. Now I tell myself to take a deep breath. I know I can also call for help and the line will slowly decrease.”

Swift has also found a strong advocate in her manager, Brandon Kuss. She has been open with him about her mania-induced anxiety, and about her history of hospitalizations. Together the two are working on a plan that could help her address her concerns before her emotions spiral out of control.

“We’re working together so I won’t have to go to the hospital,” Swift said. “I’ve been talking to my manager more and we decided that if things get really bad I can get a doctor’s note and take a leave from work.”

Swift really wants to make this job work. Though the position has its stressors, there are also parts about it that she enjoys.

“I love working with the customers,” Swift said, “which you would think would be the opposite because I have social anxiety. I want to keep working here because my goal is to eventually live by myself and not have to depend on people. I’d like to be able to pay my bills by myself and get off Social Security.”

Weiss says that Swift’s goal is definitely achievable. She’s demonstrated commitment to employment and a clear desire to work through the limitations presented by her bipolar disorder.

“We’re proud of Laura because she really did want to get out there and find a job,” Weiss said. “All she needed was a little extra push. Opportunity Services provided that. And now that Laura’s found a job she likes, it’s really exciting to see her succeed.”

Miami mall to be bigger than MOA

10 hours 1 min ago

Well, we’ll just have to add another couple floors and three hundred more shoe stores. Says Martin Moylan at MPR: “Triple Five, the company that owns the mall, plans to build an even grander shopping mecca in Miami. The company announced that it is acquiring property and beginning plans to develop a building it's calling ‘American Dream Miami.’ In a press release the company said, ‘It is our intent that this project ... will exceed our other world-famous projects in all respects.’ The website for the proposed mall boasts that it will include the largest mix of indoor facilities in the world, including a 300,000-square-foot amusement park, a water park, an indoor 12-story ski slope, a hockey rink, an aquarium and a performing arts theater. The mall is projected to hold more than 400 retailers, restaurants and services.”

The birds are showing flu-like symptoms. The AP’s Steve Karnowski reports, “A strain of bird flu that's deadly to poultry has been found in a Minnesota commercial turkey flock but the risk to humans is low, state and federal officials announced Thursday. It's the same highly pathogenic H5N2 strain of avian influenza that's been confirmed in backyard and wild birds in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, but it's the first appearance of the strain in the Mississippi flyway, said Dr. Bill Hartmann, Minnesota's state veterinarian.”

I doubt my collection of Jackalope cards from Wyoming are worth as much. John Lauritsen of WCCO-TV says, “[Fred] Eckhardt is on a quest to get a card from every town in Minnesota and South Dakota- that means stops at garage sales during his cross-country trips. It was during one of those stops at an Illinois farm nearly 30 years ago, that he found something unusual. … One [baseball card] had Jimmy Archer of the Chicago Cubs on it. The other had the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson — famous for his alleged role in throwing the 1919 World Series. Not knowing their worth, he sat on the cards for decades.” Shoeless Joe? $2200.

Tim Nelson at MPR looks at the reasons for our Fortune 500 bona fides. “Myles Shaver, a professor at university's Carlson School of Management, said Minnesota has 17 Fortune 500 corporate headquarters. According to his research, that's an unusual number for state, given its population and region. … Shaver said he hopes to study why Minnesota, and the Twin Cities in particular, have proven so good at fostering corporate giants. But the state's big businesses, Shaver said, often don't have an obvious link to the region. He cited Target, the retail giant, and medical technology giant Medtronic, which do not have a necessary connection to natural resources or other features of the state.”

Talking Target, Sarah Halzack at The Washington Post says, “There were a few indications that Target is going to be highly focused on winning[the Hispanic] demographic going forward.  In his portion of the investor presentation, chief marketing officer Jeff Jones presented company research on how many Target shoppers identify the store as their ‘favorite,’ a measure they see as a proxy for brand affinity. While just 38 percent of Target shoppers overall identify the store as their favorite, some 54 percent of Hispanic millennials said it was their favorite.”

And for a little perspective, Ben Johnson at City Pages reminds readers, “As Target employees fret over their job security and downtown Minneapolis braces for the inevitable economic fallout, let's remember the guy who got fired for getting Target into this mess in the first place received $61 million in compensation on his way out the door. Ex-Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel was fired last May. He was in charge during the retailer's disastrous expansion into Canada, a security breach that allowed hackers to obtain 40 million customers' credit card information, and the glitch-plagued launch of Target.com in 2011. … Originally it was reported Target's board of directors was able to slash Steinhafel's compensation on his way out, but upon further review, his stock options, 401(k), and pension pumped the golden parachute up to a whopping $61 million. On top of that, current CEO Brian Cornell could make up to $16 million in his first fiscal year on the job, according to the Business Journal.” Top-tier executive talent has to be incentivized, otherwise could really get bad.

Solar seems to be cutting into Minnesota’s wind standing. Frank Jossi at Midwest Energy News says, “Minnesota has dropped three places since 2011 in the America Wind Energy Association rankings as Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington have surged up the rankings and as the state has focused on solar energy production. Which begs the question — has the solar boom taken the luster out of wind in Minnesota? If Minnesota is seeing a wind slowdown, it’s in large part to its early success. ‘There has been a bit of a lag, but I would frame it as our utilities are ahead of the curve in meeting their 2025 standardss,’ said Beth Soholt, executive director of Wind on the Wires.”

Dad probably isn’t pleased. Chao Xiong in the Strib has the news on Sheriff Rich Stanek’s kid. “The son of Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek pleaded guilty Thursday to fourth-degree drunken driving. As part of the plea, charges of refusing to submit to a chemical test and marijuana possession were dismissed against Ryan J. Stanek. He was cited by Maple Grove police, but Thursday’s plea was held in Ramsey County District Court due to a conflict of interest in Hennepin County. … According to a police report of the incident, Ryan Stanek was arrested about 3:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day in the 8100 block of Shenandoah Lane. Police responded to a call that there was a person slumped over in a vehicle parked on the street.”

Speaking of family matters, Stribber Dave Chanen writes, “A teenager was charged Thursday by the Hennepin County attorney’s office with shooting his father in the face at their Minnetonka home, severely wounding him. Because the boy is under 16, the proceedings are not public and no further information can be released regarding the charges.”

U of M student leaders want an end to asking prospective classmates if they’ve got criminal issues. The PiPress’s Josh Verges says, “The U system's undergraduate application asks prospects whether they currently face charges or ever have been convicted of a criminal offense. Robert Stewart, a doctoral student on the Twin Cities campus who proposed eliminating the question, said there's no evidence the question makes colleges safer. Applicants often lie about their past, he said, and the question does a poor job of predicting who will commit crimes once admitted. What is clear, he said, is that it discourages some people from applying.”

When judges disagree with the law

10 hours 33 min ago
Creative Commons/Clyde RobinsonThe passage of time informs a court whether the sentence is successful, not only as punishment but also as a tool toward rehabilitation.

This is the fourth in a series of occasional commentaries on the judicial system from the perspective of a District Court judge.

Judge Mel Dickstein

From time to time I’m visited in my courtroom by students eager to ask the judge questions. “What’s your favorite case? What was your hardest decision? What happens when you disagree with the law?” The last question is the most difficult.

The simple reality is that District Court judges sometimes disagree with the law. We deal with a host of issues on a daily basis, and develop strong views regarding legal matters that sometimes conflict with statutes and decisions of our higher courts. But the mere fact that a judge may disagree with the law isn’t as important as what the judge does when the disagreement occurs.

I disagreed with a recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision refusing to allow the defense of necessity in a license revocation proceeding. The case involved a woman who drove a short distance under the influence of alcohol in order to escape a frightening episode of domestic abuse. I wasn’t alone in my view.

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The case caused a sharp disagreement among our Minnesota Supreme Court justices. A majority held that it would be an act of “pure judicial will” to permit a court to allow this woman to plead that she drove only because of an emergency that threatened her well-being, perhaps her life. The court said that only the Legislature can permit the necessity defense in a license revocation proceeding.

The three dissenting justices said that the majority, not the Legislature, had bound the court’s hands and prevented it from doing justice. There’s nothing in the statute, they wrote, that prevents the court from considering the defense of necessity. While the majority saw nothing in the statute that permitted the necessity defense, the dissent saw nothing in the statute that prohibited the necessity defense. The dissenting justices felt that the majority had taken an unnecessarily narrow view of the judiciary’s role.

The issue of online criminal records

In another recent case, the Minnesota Supreme Court also viewed the role of the judiciary in very narrow terms. The Supreme Court denied to judges the inherent authority to prevent a state agency from posting criminal records online, even if a court determines that the records should be sealed as a matter of fundamental fairness.

As a District Court judge I dealt with the same issue in 2011, but came to a different conclusion. The case involved “Barbara,” a young woman every parent would be glad to call their daughter. She had succeeded impressively in her high school career, and excelled at a prestigious university of the highest academic caliber. Upon graduation she began her professional work, where she received accolades from her superiors.

But Barbara’s life had its challenges. During high school and college she had struggled with the stress in her life and succumbed to depression and bulimia. One of the characteristics of bulimics is that they can be prone to steal food items to cover up their purchases. Barbara was caught shoplifting fudge and caramel toppings, some ice cream and salads with a total value of $28. The police report said she cried uncontrollably at the shame of it all.

When Barbara came before me to ask that I seal her criminal records, she had overcome her eating disorder, and there was virtually no chance she would ever reoffend. Barbara’s conviction wasn’t the result of a moral shortcoming but rather a difficult illness.

In granting Barbara’s request, I ruled that a court’s inherent power to seal criminal records shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of separation of powers. The exercise of the court’s inherent authority to expunge a petitioner’s criminal record is a core judicial function — an extension of the court’s sentencing role. The passage of time informs a court whether the sentence is successful, not only as punishment but also as a tool toward rehabilitation. The sentencing court is in the unique position to determine when, and under what circumstances, an individual’s criminal record should be sealed.

Court reasoning two years later

My decision in Barbara’s case wasn’t appealed. Her criminal records were sealed. But two years later, in 2013, a Minnesota Supreme Court majority rejected the notion that the judiciary has inherent authority to prevent a state agency from posting criminal records online. If Barbara's case had come before me in the year after the Supreme Court’s ruling, I would have had to deny her request.

The Supreme Court is committed to advance the cause of justice. I have no doubt that its members would feel as sympathetically toward Barbara as I did. But the court viewed the power of the judiciary so narrowly that it concluded that judges don’t have the authority to order criminal records to be sealed, absent legislative action.

These issues involving the role of the judiciary are resolved for now, and I’ll follow the mandate of the Supreme Court. As a District Court judge, I’ll honor the Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the power of a court to seal criminal records, and I’ll adhere to the legislative action that followed. If a woman comes before me challenging her driver’s license revocation because she drove under the influence when threatened with serious harm, I’ll follow the Supreme Court’s order and decline to consider her defense of necessity — absent legislative action.

The respect we have for the legal process is one of the defining reasons our system of justice functions as well as it does. We may disagree with, even bemoan some decisions of our higher courts, but we follow them because our system of justice requires it. Sometimes, though, we find it’s easier to render justice than it is to do right — that’s one of the challenges of being a District Court judge.

Legislative actions

Of course, it’s not only higher court decisions that may trouble judges. Some legislative actions also challenge us, especially when a statute victimizes the poor. Judges, for example, are required by statute to impose a $78 surcharge whenever someone pleads guilty — even to a minor traffic offense. Seventy-eight dollars may not seem like a lot of money to many people, but it’s a crushing debt to someone who doesn’t have a dollar to spare. The law gives a judge no authority to waive the surcharge, even when a person is poor, sick, homeless or mentally ill.

The problem is that the surcharge statute prevents a judge from softening the hard edge of the law. If a single mother working a minimum-wage job can’t afford to fix a cracked taillight she may be fined for it and lose her license if she can’t afford to pay the fine. If she then uses her car to drive (perhaps to go for groceries or drive her child to a play date) she can be charged with Driving After Suspension. The result sought by some prosecutors is a fine and the statutorily required surcharge. But in what Kafkaesque world do we fine the poor because they’re too poor to pay a fine, then add a mandatory surcharge, and do it as a matter of public policy?

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with the law — it simply can’t deal with every situation. A man recently came before me to ask that I protect $1,500 in his bank account from attachment by his creditors. The money had been loaned to him by friends and relatives in amounts of $50 to $75 to allow him to travel to Kenya and bury his father. He had a list of contributors and the amounts they gave him; he even had a copy of the funeral program with a picture of his father on the front.

But I had to deny his request because the exemption statute didn’t protect the funds from attachment, even if the funds were being used for the solemn purpose of burying a parent. I carefully reviewed the statute with him so that he understood what was exempt from attachment and what was not. I suggested that his creditors could choose to work out a payment plan with him, but I had no discretion to protect his funds.

Judges try to do the right thing, but sometimes find it hard. We’re disappointed when we think a higher court opinion isn’t based on firm analysis and a sense of right. We do our best to do justice within the statutes and judicial decisions that guide our conduct. Sometimes there’s room for judicial discretion, sometimes not.

That’s how our system works — that’s what I tell the students who visit my courtroom wondering what I do when I disagree with the law.

Mel Dickstein is a judge in Hennepin County District Court, where he handles a mix of civil and criminal cases. He is a former partner in the law firm Robins Kaplan.

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If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Here comes the sun ... with temps in the 50s next week

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 2:26pm

Bros are already wearing their shorts. Dave Aeikens at KSTP-TV teases us with above-normal temperatures expected in Minnesota for the next five days or more. "There's a big warm-up next week with 40s Monday, way into the 50s Tuesday with 60s close to the area," adds meteorologist Jonathan Yuhas.

Thankfully, all are still billionaires. Jim Hammerand at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal sifts through the Forbes wealth rankings and finds that only one Minnesota billionaire, Glen Taylor, rose in the standings, from No. 988 to No. 782. The other four saw their net worths drop by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Post-It with a clean conscience. Dee DePass at the Star Tribune reports 3M will begin tracing the origin of the wood, paper and pulp it buys and refuse to purchase fiber from threatened forests: "The stronger policy pledges to only buy paper, pulp and fiber not linked to deforestation or illegal logging practices. 3M is also requiring suppliers to help protect the rights of indigenous people, conservation forests, peatlands, and endangered species."

Stephen Montemayor at Twin Cities Business writes about the retiring of CEO Trudy Rautio after 18 years as an executive at Carlson. After May 1, the company will adopt a two-CEO leadership structure for its hotel and travel divisions.

The Associated Press is tracking the ongoing legal proceedings involving the late "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle: "A lawyer representing the widow of 'American Sniper' author Chris Kyle claims both a judge and jury made mistakes that led to a $1.8 million defamation verdict in favor of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. In a brief filed Wednesday, Taya Kyle's lawyer says the verdict contradicted evidence, violated the First Amendment and should be overturned by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals."

In other news...

Seven Minnesota families ranked among richest in U.S. by Forbes [Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal]

NTSB may reopen the probe into the Buddy Holly plane crash [Mashable]

Minneapolis-St. Paul ranked 17th in Forbes' Best Places for Businesses and Careers [Forbes]

St. Paul's SubText bookstore to move downtown [Pioneer Press]

Archival clippings of Star Tribune critics not "getting" Bob Dylan [Star Tribune]

New Belgium Brewing’s Tour de Fat arrives in the Loring Park on July 25 [Facebook]

Minneapolis Park Board approves deal for Kenilworth Channel bridges

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 12:52pm

In the end, it came down to price.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board staff had already concluded that tunneling under the Kenilworth Channel was a feasible alternative to new rail bridges planned as part of the Southwest light rail alignment. But when it agreed with Metropolitan Council staff last week that doing so would add around $100 million to the already pricey project, its legal position challenging the bridges fell apart.

So at a Wednesday night meeting, and after another round of testimony from opponents of the alignment and some emotional commentary from several commissioners, the Park Board voted 6-3 to give up its attempt to force through a tunnel. Voting yes were Board President Liz Wielinski and commissioners Brad Bourn, John Erwin, Steffanie Musich, Jon Olson and Scott Vreeland. Voting no were commissioners Meg Forney, Anita Tabb and Annie Young.

It wasn’t just the price difference between a tunnel and the bridges. Changing the alignment would delay the project by up to a year, with delays costing nearly $1 million a week. 

“While a tunnel option has been determined to be feasible and the least impactful channel crossing alternative, the board may consider a tunnel to be not prudent because it results in costs of extraordinary magnitude,” said Park Superintendent Jayne Miller during a presentation to the board, “and the time required for additional review under Municipal Consent results in additional costs of extraordinary magnitude and threaten the viability of the SWLRT project.”

The 'prudent and feasible' standard

“Prudent and feasible” are magic words under a federal transportation law that bans the use of federal money on projects that take over or damage parkland or historic sites. Only if there are no “prudent and feasible” alternatives can road or rail projects take parkland, and only then if the damage is minor. If the owner of the parkland doesn’t agree to the project, it can block it, unless the Federal Transit Administration doesn’t think the proposed alternative — a tunnel instead of a bridge, for instance — is both feasible and prudent.

Met Council staff has asserted that it studied the tunnel option and determined it wasn’t the best choice for the channel, which connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. Yet opponents of the route for the $1.6 billion project, which will extend the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, argue that a tunnel under Kenilworth Channel was abandoned as part of a political deal to win municipal consent from a reluctant Minneapolis City Council. 

Either way, failing the prudent test could have caused the FTA to side with the Met Council. The cost estimates “have put you and us as an organization in a very, very difficult position,” Miller said. So the Park Board leadership made the best deal it could with the Met Council. The agreement approved Wednesday gives the Park Board a formal role in decisionmaking on Southwest LRT and future transit projects like the Bottineau Blue Line extension. That is not the case under state law, which gives cities and counties a veto, but not park districts.

Met Council to pay some engineering costs

In addition, the Met Council will reimburse the Park Board for half the cost of the engineering work done already to demonstrate the feasibility and prudence of tunnels. So far that work will cost the board about $298,000. The rationale for the Met Council paying for some of the engineering work is it will use it in a more extensive examination of parks impacts, as required in January by the FTA. That means engineering work initially commissioned to show that the tunnel was a prudent alternative will now be used by the Met Council to demonstrate that it isn’t prudent after all.

The Met Council will also cover staff work devoted since October on the bridge/tunnel issue: $21,500. The board will also be reimbursed for future staff time needed to implement the agreement, up to $50,000 a year for five years.

Tabb was unhappy with the deal and the process. She agreed with a comment during public testimony that the board was acting under duress due to threats by Gov. Mark Dayton to withhold badly needed operating funds for city parks. “This feels slimy,” she said.

But Wielinski said that while it wasn’t a deal that satisfies all parties, it is enough. “Coming to a compromise is part of how the sausage making in government happens,” Wielinski said. “While this doesn’t make us 100 percent happy, I think we’ve got a good agreement and I know we’re going to have a better relationship going forward with Bottineau.”

Southwest LRT is a $1.6 billion project that will extend the Green Line train from Target Field Station to Eden Prairie.

Rybak heads to Iowa to critique Republican presidential hopefuls

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 12:11pm

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — who's now vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee — will be in Des Moines Saturday to  critique, and criticize, Republican presidential hopefuls attending the Iowa Ag Summit.

Rybak, along with Iowa Democratic Party Chair Dr. Andy McGuire, will be available to media at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown, starting at 8 a.m.

Their stated mission:

As each of the potential 2016 GOP candidates attempt to pitch their agriculture credentials to Iowa kingmaker Bruce Rastetter, Rybak and McGuire will highlight how each of their records would hurt rural communities and middle class families.

Among the confirmed GOP hopefuls at the Summit, which starts at 8:30 a.m., are:

  • Jeb Bush
  • Chris Christie
  • Ted Cruz
  • Lindsey Graham
  • Mike Huckabee
  • Rick Perry
  • Marco Rubio
  • Rick Santorum
  • Donald Trump
  • Scott Walker

'It was overdue': Gov. Dayton celebrates appointment of first Somali-American airports commissioner

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 12:01pm

Last month’s appointment of the first Somali-American, Ibrahim Mohamed, to the Metropolitan Airports Commission has attracted volumes of plaudits and media attention across Minnesota — and other parts of the world.

But on Tuesday night, it brought Gov. Mark Dayton, local officials and community leaders to Minneapolis’ Brian Coyle Center, where more than 80 people assembled to celebrate and honor the historic appointment of the commissioner, who drives a cart at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for minimum wage.

Appointed in February by Dayton, Mohamed joined 13 other commissioners who operate the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and six smaller airports in the metro area. Dayton said he appointed Mohamed because his employment experience at the airport can be a voice for hundreds of other airport workers in the decision-making process.

“I made appointments to the Metropolitan Airports Commission previously — and this is overdue,” Dayton told the crowd, speaking about Mohamed’s appointment. “It was overdue before I arrived, and it’s overdue now that I’m in my fifth year as governor. I regret that, apologize for that.”

Overdue or not, Mohamed’s face beamed with excitement as he expressed his appreciation to the governor for the appointment during a short speech before the crowd.

After escaping the Somali civil war in 1991, Mohamed lived in Kenya as a refugee for more than a decade, longing for a better place with opportunities to work and to pursue his dreams.

“As many immigrants, I came here to change my life and get a better life,” Mohamed said. “Now I am a cart driver, which I am happy to be because I am helping a lot of people who need my help, like elderly people and disabled persons. I work five days, and every day I help more than 80 passengers.”

In 2004, Mohamed settled in the Twin Cities and immediately secured a job at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Over the years, Mohamed worked as an aircraft cleaner, a baggage runner and a ticket verifier.

As a full-time electric cart driver now, the 35-year-old Rosemount father of five earns $ 8 an hour — with no health benefits.

Mohamed and his colleagues have been advocating for improved working conditions for the hundreds of airport employees, many of them immigrants from Somalia and Ethiopia.

When Mohamed’s friends learned about the opening on the Metropolitan Airports Commission — the body that governs operations at MPS — they encouraged him to apply so he could represent their interests. 

As a commissioner, Mohamed said he will continue advocating for better working conditions for airport employees and for increased wages.

“It’s very hard to raise kids or family with the minimum wage,” Mohamed said. “That’s why I’m standing up to represent the airport workers and my community.”

The governor promised to stand by Mohamed in his efforts for a better wage for airport workers. “I will redouble my efforts and do whatever I can to support your efforts and the board of the airport commission to improve your working conditions, improve the wages,” he said.

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim HirsiMore than 80 people gathered at Brian Coyle Tuesday night to celebrate and honor Ibrahim Mohamed, the first Somali-American on Metropolitan Airport Commission.

Airport workers like Mohamed have indirectly “been treated badly” by the commission, Dayton later said in an interview. This is because the commissioners provide authorization to private companies that operate at the airport to pay their workers less.

“The airport couldn’t function without the hard work of commissioner Mohamed and his co-workers — and they deserve to be recognized,” Dayton said. “The fact that he was making $12.50 an hour a few years ago, according to reports, and they reduced that to minimum wage is just disgraceful.”

Mohamed, whose term ends in 2019, said he brings a unique perspective to the Commission, since the majority of commissioners come from white-collar backgrounds.

"We applaud Governor Dayton for insisting that a worker be represented on the MAC, and appointing a great candidate like Ibrahim Mohamed,” said Local 26 President Javier Morillo in a statement. “I am excited to see Ibrahim continue the work he has always done fighting to make the MSP airport the best airport it can be for both employees and passengers." 

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at ihirsi@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.   

Why are the Twin Cities so segregated? A new report blames housing policies — and education reforms

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 10:46am

Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor and director of the school’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, might not get much argument with an assertion he makes in a soon-to-be-released study: that the Minneapolis-St. Paul region is more racially segregated than Seattle and Portland, the places he compares the Twin Cities to in the report, “Why Are the Twin Cities So Segregated?” [PDF]

It’s when Orfield ventures into his explanation of why that segregation exists that he is likely to raise eyebrows, if not outrage.

Orfield puts the blame not on overt racism or societal inertia, but on the people and organizations that — in response to poverty and poor educational outcomes — have made policy decisions that ended up actually perpetuating segregation. 

“Driven by political and government apathy, the well-meaning but misdirected efforts of housing developers, school reformers and the proliferation of organizations and groups with firm financial interest in maintaining segregated living patterns, our state has slowly reversed its civil rights heritage,” the study asserts. 

Specifically, Orfield and his co-authors from the institute — Will Stancil, Thomas Luce and Eric Myott — blame policies and practices that redirected affordable housing programs from mostly white suburbs back to segregated neighborhoods in Minneapolis, St. Paul and first-tier suburbs such as Brooklyn Center and Richfield.

“You can build affordable housing in poor neighborhoods,” he said during an interview this week, “you just shouldn’t build all of it [there].”

The study also repeats an argument Orfield has put forward before: that charter schools re-create school segregation by creating institutions that are too often mostly black or, increasingly, mostly white. “I don’t think the public schools in segregated neighborhoods have been doing very well for a long time,” he said in an interview this week. “I think they’re bad schools. I don’t defend them at all. But the sad thing is, the charters are worse.”

A move away from ‘fair share’ policies

The study examines where low-income black residents live in the Twin Cities vs. those in Portland and Seattle. It found that in 2012, “19 percent of low-income black residents of the Twin Cities live in high-poverty census tracts (up from 13 percent in 2000) compared to just 3.4 percent of low-income black residents in Seattle (down from 3.5 percent in 2000) and 1.6 percent in Portland (down from 1.9 percent in 2000).” 

Orfield calls this the re-segregation of the region, and asserts that markers of racial segregation and inequality have worsened since the early 1980s, for which Orfield and his team blame on housing and, to a lesser extent, education.

Orfield argues that over the last several decades, the region has moved away from “fair share” policies that directed affordable housing resources to mostly white suburbs, and toward policies that pushed those resources back into the central cities. “Housing dollars returned to segregated neighborhoods,” the report states. “In the end, the very effective fair share program was ended not only by racially-motivated white opposition from affluent suburbs, but by the changing priorities and self-interest of central city politicians and housing developers, and the neglect of a disengaged Met Council and liberal legislature.”

Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, University of Minnesota Law School

Between 2002 and 2011, the report notes, the region produced 2,249 new affordable units (affordable defined as being within reach of those earning 30 percent of the metro area’s median income). Ninety-two percent of these units were located in the central cities, the study reports. “In other words, the central cities received four times their fair share of very low-income units,” Orfield writes. 

Orfield, who as a DFL state legislator helped create the current version of the Metropolitan Council, has been a vocal critic of the regional governing body, asserting that it doesn’t use its broad powers to further its goals. “The Met Council, the regional entity with the most power to ensure that housing subsidies were put towards integrative ends, instead took an easier, more politically palatable path, and directed money into urban communities where affordable development would meet no opposition.”

Orfield complains that even when white suburbs want to build affordable housing, the point system used to choose projects favor the central cities. For example, points are given to projects close to mass transit, with special emphasis on light rail and bus rapid transit. But when public and private entities pushed for affordable housing along the Green Line as a means of also increasing density there, nearly all of the units were built in low-income neighborhoods, Orfield said.

The role of the ‘poverty housing industry’

The inability to change the results, the report concludes, is due to the political clout of what Orfield calls the “Poverty Housing Industry”: “a web of tightly interconnected government agencies, non-profits, private developers, banks, and investors, all dependent upon a profitable model of building low-income housing in poor central city neighborhoods.” 

Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck said the council shares the goal of using housing policy to integrate the region. “That’s the strong will of the council members,” said Duininck. “Where we have disagreement is how do we get to that result.”

Duininck also said that he’s reluctant to use force to get housing policies implemented. “Myron and others would say, ‘You should take a bit stronger or harsher approach.’ My preference is to work with incentives.”

Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, University of Minnesota Law School

The council recently amended a proposed affordable housing building in Cedar-Riverside to allow the developer to include some market-rate housing to provide a better mix. As to the claim that Met Council policy gives too much credit to projects near light rail, “I understand his point,” Duininck said. “If taken to extremes, we would concentrate affordable housing in struggling neighborhoods on light rail.” 

And though he conceded that the council could do a better job of distributing affordable housing across the entire region, Duininck also said that some of the Met Council’s decisions were in response to housing policies in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Charter advocates push back

The report also takes aim at education policy, with special focus on charter schools. “Enhancing school integration efforts was one of the arguments initially made in support of open enrollment and charter schools, the two main school choice measures in Minnesota,” the report states. “Ironically, however, both programs eventually evolved to share many of the same strategies and results that southern segregationists had used to elude the mandates of Brown v. Board of Education, and charter proponents have completely abandoned any effort to defend the programs on the basis of integrative outcomes.”

Advocates of open enrollment also made similar claims, the report states, “but in recent years, growing numbers of white students are using the program to move from racially integrated schools (or schools in racial transition) to much less racially diverse schools.”

The reaction from charter school advocates to Orfield’s latest salvo was part “there he goes again,” part anger — and part agreement. “Year after year he makes the same points,” said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change. “It would be nice if he got into the schools and helped improve outcomes for kids.”

Bill Wilson, the founder and executive director of the Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, says there is a critical difference between what Orfield reports on and the racial segregation he experienced as a child in Indiana. The latter was government-ordered: As a kid, Wilson’s bus passed three white schools on its way to the segregated black school. So he objects to comparing charter schools to that system. “Charter schools are schools of choice,” Wilson said. “Parents choose charter schools to get a better education. The government is not imposing anything. It’s part of an open process. ... Are these children better off? I think they are.” 

Orfield’s claim that charters produce worse educational outcomes than traditional public schools is also oversimplified, says Nathan.

Data Source: U.S. Census BureauMinneapolis-Saint Paul Percentage Minority Population by Census Tract, 2010Section 8 vouchers as a remedy

Orfield’s bottom-line belief is that integrated neighborhoods are the starting point to resolving most of the problems facing low-income minority residents. If neighborhoods and cities were more racially mixed, then schools would follow, he argues. His short-term means to that end is broader use of Section 8 housing vouchers — a program that can be used by eligible residents to rent housing anywhere. Given the choice, Orfield said, many low-income minority residents will do what most people do: seek housing that is safe and near good schools.

“In many areas, existing rental units could fill the void simply by increasing the number of landlords who accept vouchers,” the report states. “If subsidized housing was currently distributed more equitably, it would be unnecessary to even discuss perennially controversial topics like pro-integrative school boundary reforms or busing.”

Subsidized housing units in the suburbs have the region’s longest waiting lists. “Nonetheless, the [public housing industry] argues that low-income racial minorities want to stay in segregated central city neighborhoods with the Twin Cities’ worst schools, and that subsidized housing must be built in these communities to accommodate them,” Orfield writes.

As the report notes, however, Section 8 vouchers are not only in short supply in Minnesota, the ability to use them is severely constricted, since there is no law prohibiting landlords from rejecting prospective tenants who seek to use vouchers to pay rent.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas to speak in D.C. on economic opportunities for the middle-class

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 10:35am

State Sen. Sandy Pappas will speak on a panel on Friday in Washington, D.C., that's examining how states are working to improve economic security for middle-class Americans, despite Congressional inaction.

She's one of three state legislators, all Democrats, from around the country on the panel sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the State Innovation Exchange.

The panel is from 9 to 10:15 a.m. at the Center for American Progress D.C. offices.

Organizers say stagnant wages and increased costs continue to hurt low- and moderate-income families. The panel, which also includes economists, "will discuss ways that states can address these issues and grow the middle class," they say.

Some ways that's happening: raising the minimum wage, breaking down barriers to employment and extending access to paid sick days.

Also on the panel with Pappas:

  • Rep. Jessica Farrar, Democratic Caucus Leader, Texas House of Representatives
  • Sen. Loretta Weinberg Democratic Majority Leader, New Jersey State Senate
  • Melissa Boteach, Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity Program, Center for American Progress
  • David Madland, Managing Director, Economic Policy, Center for American Progress
  • Moderator will be Nick Rathod, Executive Director, State Innovation Exchange