Wednesday, July 26, 2006

COLUMN -- Outside the circus, but inside a puzzle

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:39 AM |  

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"I am disgusted with what we've witnessed in the past couple of weeks. It's an ugly political circus." So says John James, Independence Party candidate for attorney general. He's talking about the byplay that led to the withdrawal from the race of DFL candidate Matt Entenza. "The tragedy of the Entenza affair is that it diverts focus from the issues," says James.

While Republican and DFL candidates run separate campaign offices, "Team Minnesota," the Independence Party shorthand for its slate, operates out of common loft space decorated with the clutter of creative activity. It was there I met with James.

Well spoken and consistently on message, James, a Minneapolis lawyer, comes to the Independence Party by way of the DFL and community activism. He served as commissioner of revenue under Gov. Rudy Perpich. He's also been a director of 1000 Friends of Minnesota, an organization he describes as focused on "community-friendly" land development. If one takes a dim view of aggressive regional planning, 1000 Friends is intent on making Minnesota over in the image of "the People's Republic of Portland."

And therein lies the crux of the conundrum that is the Independence Party. On the one hand, it is a party focused on issues that believes government can and should try to make good things happen. On the other, for government to define what is "good" and impose policies to achieve it, even in the guise of a democratic majority, requires force and coercion.

Consider the attorney general's office. Traditionally, the attorney general assumes the role of Minnesota's chief legal officer, which entails both seeking justice for Minnesota citizens through legal actions and acting as the lawyer for state government. He may be asked for a legal opinion on legislation, but the attorney general is generally not part of the policy-making process.

James contends that if the attorney general's office acts independently and confines itself to its traditional role, Minnesotans are not getting their money's worth.

"We want people and organizations to comply with the law, but we also want laws that conform to the needs of Minnesotans and their communities. The attorney general should play a part in delivering both," he said.

The attorney general's office, James contends, should help shape new laws and ensure that government programs comply with existing laws. Policy direction comes from the governor's office, but the attorney general has a role, says James: ensuring that laws actually make the agreed-upon policies happen. Health care provides an example.

The Independence Party health care proposal calls in part for aligning incentives for citizens, health care providers, insurers and employers to get better results at a better price. In a market system, the market participants define incentives. In a system where government aligns incentives, incentives are defined by carrot-and-stick legislation and regulation — "making it more expensive to do the bad things," James said.

An attorney general should ensure that the process for complying with regulation and legislation really does create a better system. "Process includes ensuring that citizens dealing with government are treated fairly," said James.

"Fairly," however, is open to interpretation. Being treated "fairly" before the law is not the same as a "fair" law. Is it "fair" to create incentives to benefit some at the expense of others? James would address that question on a case-by-case basis. He believes, on the main issues, we can define what is "good" and systematically work toward it.

Not your father's major party. The Independence Party systematic approach to government contrasts with legal actions like those taken against HMOs by current Attorney General (and DFL candidate for governor) Mike Hatch, which are "sideshows" to the health care problems, according to James. It also contrasts with the conflicted Republican governing approach, which mixes a little free-market with a bit of government oversight without accounting for conflicting incentives.

By default, the Independence Party becomes a thinking voter's alternative. But as Adlai Stevenson noted, a candidate who gets every thinking person's vote still needs a few more to win a majority. Whether or not the Independence Party translates dissatisfaction with the DFL and GOP into an upset in November, by resisting the temptation to run away and join the political circus, it earns itself some consideration.