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Minnesota has the only split state legislature in the nation -- can we make it work?

Democratic Rep. Melissa Hortman thinks Minnesota can teach the federal government how to bipartisan.

Democratic Rep. Melissa Hortman thinks Minnesota can teach the federal government how to bipartisan. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

For the first time in over a century, there is only one state in the union with a split legislature -- a House controlled by one party and a Senate controlled by another. Ladies and gentlemen, that state is us.

Minnesota Democrats managed to claim 18 seats in the House last election – enough to claim the majority, and a sound victory for the left -- but the Senate remained in Republican control. This makes us the sole divided state in a deeply divided nation.

The rest of the country has its eyes on us, wondering if we can manage what the federal government (especially recently, during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history) has not: constructive compromise between two political parties. The New York Times called Minnesota a “lone state laboratory” for the notion of bipartisanship.

Brooklyn Park Democrat Melissa Hortman, who replaced Republican Kurt Daudt as Minnesota’s Speaker of the House, is optimistic about our state’s lonely stand.

“We have an opportunity to show the rest of the country we can still be productive,” she says.

The way she sees it, there are “two ways” to do partisanship. The first, which seems to be well underway in Washington, is “to ensure the other side gets nothing.” The second, she says, is what she expects from Minnesota: a little give-and-take. Ideas from across the aisle get more nuanced and well-thought-out when put through the wringer by political rivals, she says -- like a sort of legislative rock tumbler.

Her Republican counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, did not respond to interview requests, but he’s expressed a similar sentiment to the Duluth News Tribune in the wake of the House’s turnover.

“Divided government can still work as long as the people in leadership recognize you’re not going to get everything you want,” he said. “It really forces you to listen to the other side.”

Another benefit, Hortman says, is that having a common rival usually means less fighting within the parties. “Democrat-on-Republican fights,” she says, tend to be a lot more productive than “Democrat-on-Democrat” or “Republican-on-Republican” feuds.

It’s not a perfect arrangement. There are some issues she predicts will be harder to compromise on than others. The hardest among them will likely be gun violence prevention. Constituents largely responsible for the massive turnover in the House have been demanding universal background checks and further restrictions on firearm access. Minnesota’s Republican base has been promised the opposite by their representatives.

Then, of course, there’s the question of legalizing marijuana. That’s a “conversation,” Hortman says, she believes the House may be able to have, but she doesn’t see that happening in the Senate anytime soon. Gazelka has said that the bills for legalization surfacing in the House don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell in his chamber.

It’s hard to say how long this divided political moment will last. Before the 2016 election, Hortman says, a lot of people didn’t know where their friends and family members stood politically, and it made everyone easier to get along with. Now we know, and it’s impossible to unlearn.

But political division waxes and wanes over the arc of history. Think of the ‘60s and the culture wars, Hortman says -- think of the Jefferson vs. Adams election. Those were both times in history when all a person needed to know before they decided whether they liked you was your party affiliation. And those times passed.

“I feel like people are really tired of being divided,” Hortman says. “What I hear from people is they want us to get along and to fight about issues that really matter.”