Nancy Brataas: Leader, pioneer, definer of democracy


How many times have we mused about the “good old days” when our political system understood the role of compromise and measured success in terms of the positive impact it had on the common good.

Those days did not come about by accident but rather by truly hard work on the part of so many citizens who committed to the values of community espoused by the “greatest generation”. In Word War II, everyone pitched in from front-line fighting to kids collecting tin cans. It was “our “ war and hence “our” responsibility. That philosophy carried over into the life of leaders such as Nancy Brataas and we were the benefactors.

State Senator Nancy Brataas, who passed away this week, was a pioneer in building what became a broad-based and highly successful Republican Party from the 1960’s into the turn of the century. Many will remember her progressive record as an early leader in civil rights, the passage of the ERA, budgetary prudence and defining the role of government in environmental concerns. Others will recall the marvelous role she played in representing Rochester with her tireless pursuit of a University of Minnesota branch and building a strong relationship between the state and the Mayo Clinic.

When she passed, I received a lovely email from an old and dear friend, Mahlon Schneider, who led the fight on behalf of business for workers compensation reform. His observations of Nancy Brataas are meaningful, “Despite her party’s minority status for her entire 17 years in the Minnesota Senate, she was enormously effective because no one was better prepared on issues, consistently sought allies on the other side of the aisle and was passionate in her commitment.”

With the efforts of leaders like Mahlon Schneider of Hormel, Senator Nancy Brataas (R-Rochester) and Representative Wayne Simoneau (DFL-Columbia Heights) our administration was able to gain passage of this bi-partisan achievement. Those leaders knew how to move mountains.

But if I were to choose her most significant contribution it would be when she chaired the Republican Party and initiated a program known as “neighbor-to-neighbor”. This was an interesting approach whereby local Republicans organized on the precinct level and rang doorbells around their neighborhood seeking donors and identifying voters. Everyone was involved from business executives to students. It was truly grassroots democracy at its best because it ultimately broadened the party and built the party from the bottom up. It made the party more responsive and caring for the well being of friends and neighbors.

Politically, this new party enjoyed enormous success. It was not just the victories it enjoyed on the state level with GOP governors from Elmer Andersen to Al Quie and into my administration nor the successes on the Senate side including Dave Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz, but heavily democratic areas like the city of Minneapolis even had a few Republican dominated City Councils.

Compare this approach of broad-based participation to today’s heavy reliance on bundled monies from the very few most of whom live nowhere near the candidate’s district and the resultant purchasing of public policy.

Nancy Brataas understood that the essence of democracy involved everyone having a stake in it with the expectation that candidates would be elected on the positive quality of their ideas and their genuine commitment to the well being of their community. This impacted not only the Republican Party but the Democratic Party as well because it compelled both parties to compete for the best and the brightest. It was that sense of purpose that allowed elected officials to work together to achieve positive and intelligent results for the people they served.

Nancy, thanks. We all owe you a lot.