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home : columns : rahn larson July 27, 2017

3/26/2014 8:57:00 AM
Penny for your thoughts . . .
Sometimes opportunity collides with education and it is truly a great thing.
That was the case when Bryan Joyce, a Windom social studies teacher, invited me to hear former Congressman Tim Penny speak at the high school. I felt like a high school student that morning, as I sat with a group of Windom seniors at the school lecture hall.
It was mostly a question-and-answer format. The students did an impressive job of asking questions and listening carefully to Penny's comments.
Penny served in the U.S. House from 1983 until 1995 (he chose not to seek re-election). Penny gave students valuable inside information on government and politics. And, since he no longer holds office, he could also offer an outsider's view.
Penny also brought one other unique viewpoint to this event, the opinions of a former lawmaker who was as independent as they come.
While in office, Penny was widely known as a conservative Democrat. He supported Republican John McCain in his bid for president.
A few years ago, Penny ran for Minnesota governor as an Independent Party candidate. It's a shame he lost that election. I happen to think he would have made a superb governor.
The two-party system
I grinned when a student asked Penny for his view on the two-party system.
Talk about a belt-high fastball. Penny hit it out of the park.
"I don't like the two-party system because it gets too polarized," Penny said. "Right now, we have Democrats and Republicans who almost never agree on anything."
Penny said when he was in Congress there were more than 100 lawmakers who Penny considered fairly moderate.
"Do you know how many fall into that category today?" Penny asked the students. "About a dozen.
"So I am a little critical of the two-party system because of what it has become."
Fringe and money concerns
Penny believes America's polarization starts with decisions on who should be candidates.
"So when it comes time to vote, we cannot pick a moderate because a moderate doesn't show up on the ballot," Penny said.
Money is also a big problem in politics, Penny said.
"When I ran for Congress in 1982, my campaign budget was $150,000," Penny said. "Today, you can't even think about running for Congress unless you have $1 million.
"Members of Congress have to raise $5,000 every day and I think that is corrupting our system."
Penny said the money factor makes it hard for newcomers to enter the political arena. And, he believes money influences voting more than ever.
"You have supporters out there who say, 'You'd better not vary one inch from how we think you should vote, or we will put it on another person,' " Penny said.
Inside government
Penny gave the students interesting views on presidents who were in office during his time. He shared examples of how they used their power and position to influence congressmen.
He talked about riding with a president on Air Force One and he spoke about riding in a presidential motorcade. Penny said those experiences are unforgettable, but also deliver clear messages.
Penny's views on certain presidents was quite interesting. For instance, he described Ronald Reagan as a pragmatist, one who tried to work with the other party. He said Bill Clinton was the ultimate deal maker. Like Reagan, he was able to find common ground.
As I sat and listened to Penny, I couldn't help but think about a phone call I received recently, chastising me for sharing my frustrations on the extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C. and also in St. Paul.
The guy said I was being too negative and was out of touch with reality. In fact, he demanded a retraction.
"Of an opinion?" I asked.
"Nothing has changed," the guy replied. "Democrats and Republicans have always disagreed. Always will."
I went back to my opinion piece and stressed that I never suggested Democrats and Republicans shouldn't disagree. Rather, I was stating that the partisanship within government has gotten so fierce that lawmakers cannot seem to get anything done - regardless of who has the majority.
"Oh, well that's different," the guy admitted. "Yeah, that's frustrating to me, too."
The guy calmed down and started to ask some questions that have been on my mind for some time. What can we, as a society, do to solve the situation? Are we too far down the line? Is the system beyond repair? Do we simply have to live with gridlock forever?
I'm not smart enough to answer those questions. However, I do believe it starts with Americans - even the "normal ones" like most of us - to recognize that there is a problem.
I've asked Penny to address this question in an Op/Ed piece for a future edition of the Citizen. There is no timetable, other than it will appear on this page sometime in 2014. I find myself already looking forward to seeing his views. Stay tuned.

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