During the 2022 election cycle, for the first time, Minnesota Lakes and Rivers applied the Civic Organizing framework as a strategy to advance the public good policy positions we have identified.
MLR’s work is cyclical. During the first part of the year much of our time is spent working at the State Capitol, attending hearings, providing testimony, participating in working groups, meeting with other lobbyists and legislators to provide education and work on legislative language. Starting in 2020, MLR used the Civic Organizing work plans to identify key stakeholders and describe real world versus ideal world realities, define roles, jurisdictions and organizational agendas. With these stakeholders we crafted consensus legislation, and pushed that public policy together through the legislative process.
This spring as the lakes opened and the legislative session ended, MLR increased our capacity to use Civic Organizing strategies and values in our work with lake association members on programs like Stop Starry, Lake Steward, AIS Prevention and Up the Creek Meats. During the summer I spoke at lake association annual meetings trying to build membership, organize an
engaged base, and worke to build partnerships among lake associations and local LGUs and other local civic institutions like the Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Association of Realtors and others.
By the end of a highly contentious session with an election looming, we identified a very serious potential gap in the projected outcomes of the 2022 election. Over the last ten to fifteen years the MN GOP has shifted its interest and focus away from conservation issues, and we have had fewer and fewer GOP Legislators willing to take a leadership role on our lakes and rivers agenda.. This year the last two of MLR’s strongest GOP champions in St. Paul, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, Chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee retired, and Sen. Carrie Rudd, Chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee lost a contested primary for the Republican endorsement.
In a June 25th Star Tribune interview with Tony Kennedy, Sen. Rudd said, “I see a very big void…. It’s unclear who would want my committee….. The culture in the Senate is not conducive to me staying. It’s a culture that’s not very kind to environmental issues. Priorities have changed. My work space has grown really small. No one in leadership talks enough about the environment. No one is asking: How can we enhance the outdoors?”
MLR decided to use Civic Organizing strategies to address this gap.
Convincing lake associations that political work is not only appropriate, but part of the power and privilege they have as citizens represents a significant shift. Early this spring I was invited to speak at a lake association meeting and had a light bulb moment. The first step in advancing a civic policy agenda in electoral politics would have to be creating a climate for change.
The lake association president, like most lake association presidents, began the meeting by stating that their group was a-political and dedicated to protecting the lake they loved.
Then he launched into a recap of the work they had done in the preceding year. They had developed a new protocol for applying herbicide in the lake that improved control of eurasian milfoil, reduced negative impacts to native plants, and allowed them to use much less herbicide. They had increased membership, restored a lot of shoreline, and secured a large grant to further their scientific efforts. Their members were very pleased, but they did not applaud as these accomplishments were presented.
Before I was to speak, they held the election of their board, and it was after this election that the room erupted in applause. They did not applaud for the cutting edge science, increased members or revenues. They applauded their election. The mood in the room shifted from one where the members were attendees being presented with the services their organization had provided to them to participants in an organization that was actively advancing a civic agenda based on a public good. The people in the room had gone from consumers to active citizens that took a part in working towards the public good.
I had a realization. If even 1% of the over 300,000 lake home and cabin owners in Minnesota took on the role of active citizen and engaged in local and state government to advance the goal of improved lake ecosystems, Minnesota could reverse the disturbing trends towards lake degradation.
At the lake association meeting that night I noted to the group that the only thing that evening that had resulted in spontaneous applause and a feeling of inclusion and engagement was their election. I noted that they had no doubt just approved both Democrats and Republicans to their board, and were comfortable with that because everyone in the group was focused on the same public good. Their shared goal united them. They came together to work for the protection and restoration of the lake they love.
These lake association members knew that the people they had elected to lead their organization were from both political parties, but trusted that they would put the public good and organizational mission above personal ideology. Coming together to advance a public good is a political act. Lake associations may be non-partisan, but they are most definitely political and should embrace a constructive politics focused on the public good they were formed to advance.
The rest of this summer, at nearly 30 lake association meetings, I encouraged lake associations to embrace and develop their political capacity, to build power through their commitment to the public good, to expand their base to other local civic organizations with a role in their work.
I also reached out to Senator Carrie Ruud and other long time GOP partners to begin to define the problem. We then reached out by phone to have one on one meetings with key stakeholders in the lake association world. About 20 of us met at Cragun’s Resort on September 24th. Gull Lake Association acquired the space and provided refreshment. We awarded Senator Ruud with the 2022 Lake Advocate of the Year Award. Our meeting lasted about an hour and a half. I provided
civic outcomes documents with agreements to the full base of leaders, even those that could ot attend.
At the meeting we developed a direct constituent-driven public policy effort to engage in electoral politics, but based on issues instead of political affiliation:
● Identified roles and jurisdictions for each stakeholder,
● Created messaging for both Democratic and Republican candidates, ● We set out to provide earned media for our lake issues,
● Set up phone tree and messaging to reach more deeply into lake association membership,
● Identified races where direct volunteerism, campaign contributions and independent expenditures could help advance our public good policy positions.
In the last six weeks of the campaign MLR and our key stakeholders were able to get lake issues represented in electoral debates, in print opinion pieces, social media, and direct communications to elevate the public good of clean and healthy lakes in the platforms of both DFL and GOP candidates. After the election we will continue to build out this civic infrastructure among elected legislators and their constituents. With so many new legislators, this is critical work at this juncture. We will continue to organize, along with our key stakeholders, to educate lake home and cabin owners that this political work is work that citizens must do if they value the public good of clean and healthy lakes and rivers. Together we will continue to build a non-partisan political infrastructure to protect and restore our lakes and rivers. It is the first best thing we can do if we hope to leave the lakes we have enjoyed in better condition for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
If your lake association is interested in participating in this work, please email Jeff Forester at firstname.lastname@example.org.