by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

If you read my last two blogs (“Yes, Me Worry” and “The Lies They Want to Hear.”), you may have noticed a bit of pessimism seeping into my holiday cheer. So, for this piece, I want to embrace the holiday season and end the year on a more positive note and give you an example of the kind of bipartisan cooperation that gives me hope – Minnesota’s Purple Caucus.

A couple of months ago, both parties of the Minnesota Senate selected new leaders. On the Republican side, Senator Jeremy Miller was selected as Majority Leader to replace Senator Paul Gazelka who is stepping down to run for governor of Minnesota. Five days later, Senator Melisa López Franzen was chosen by Democrats to be the Minority Leader, replacing Senator Susan Kent who stepped down and announced she will not be seeking reelection next year.

If this were last fall or January of this year, following the election, this would not be unusual. However, in the middle of September of a non-election year it is a bit unusual. However, in addition to the timing, something else made these transitions rather unusual. In these times that have become increasingly partisan, both Miller and López Franzen spoke about their mutual membership in something called the Purple Caucus and the possibility that the leaders of the two parties might actually work together. Now, that is unusual, especially in Minnesota, the one state in America where the two chambers of the legislature are controlled by different parties. Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives and Republicans control the Senate.

When asked about being Co-Chair of the Purple Caucus, Miller said, “I’ll be going on my 12th year, one of my biggest frustrations is how negative and how divisive the political divide has gotten. It seems to have gotten worse every year that I have been here. I don’t think it has to be that way.” A week later, López Franzen also brought up the Purple Caucus when asked about her legislative style. “I work very well with the new Majority Leader Jeremy Miller,” she said. “We’re actually part of the Purple Caucus so I hope that still has some relevance in what we’re trying to do here about bridging those gaps and those differences between our parties.” 

So, what exactly is the Purple Caucus? The caucus was initially established in 2013 by Senator Roger Reinhart and Miller. Interestingly, the caucus wasn’t named for what most people think, the blending of Republican red and Democratic blue. According to Reinert, a Navy Reservist,  the term purple unit is used when people and units from different military branches come together to accomplish a shared mission. “They were different colors so we called them Purple Units,” he said. “No one gives each other crap like the branches of the military. But when it’s mission time, it’s game on. We set all that aside and focus on the mission.” 

In a similar manner, the Purple Caucus was formed to bring moderate legislators from both parties together to achieve the legislative mission of addressing the problems of concern to the people of Minnesota. Their initial agenda proposed in 2015 included initiatives regarding transportation, education and child protection. For the first several years, the caucus met regularly to build relationships and discuss public policy across party lines. When Reinhart left the legislature following the 2016 election, the caucus fell into disarray, seldom meeting.

As Senators Miller and López Franzen breathe new life into the Purple Caucus, others in the Gopher State are adding their own voice with the creation of the bipartisan, bichamber Civility Caucus, established in 2020 and holding its first meeting in January 2021. As the title implies, the goal of this bipartisan and cross chamber group is to encourage civil discourse, even when policy differences abound. However, the long-term goal sounds quite similar to the Purple Caucus. In the words of Civility Caucus Co-Chair Representative Kristen Robinson, “The Civility Caucus is dedicated to improving the functioning of the legislature by fostering relationships across parties and between members of the House and Senate. Once we get to know each other and build trust, it will be much more likely that we will be able to work together to pass legislation for the State of Minnesota.”

Such collaborative efforts like the Purple Caucus and the Civility Caucus in Minnesota have never been more necessary. Here’s wishing their members luck in achieving their very important mission of bringing policymakers together to improve the lives of Minnesotans – that’s the kind of gift we all could use!

Happy holidays!