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What did the election mean? Look at Edina

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Edina voters
Edina resident Dan Atkins, left, and his son Nick Atkins, 22, consider themselves right-leaning independents who voted for Democrats in the last election because they don't like the Republican Party's focus on social issues and the marriage amendment. They were photographed Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 at the neighborhood "town square," which is a big rock in their front yard where neighbors often gather.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Political observers and analysts are still sorting out the effect of last week's election, which ended Republican control of the Legislature and gave Democrats control of both houses.

Leaders of the two parties disagree over whether voters gave Minnesota Democrats a mandate to govern on the state and federal levels -- or whether 2012 is another example of a fickle electorate looking for quick results from elected officials. 

In Minnesota, insight into the mood of voters can be found in the city of Edina. Voters there overwhelmingly rejected ballot measures that would have amended the state constitution to make marriage only between a man and a woman and require Minnesotans to present voter ID at the polls.

EDINA'S EVOLVING POLITICS

Edina resident Nick Atkins, 22, was among those dissatisfied with the status quo.

"There's literally no sense of compromise," he said. "The greatness of the independents is you can go to either side. You can be like, 'Hey, let's work, let's find some middle ground.' The problem is, there is no middle ground. There are just heads bashing. Nothing productive is being accomplished."

Edina resident
Parent Mary Benjamin, who graduated from Edina East High School in 1978, cheers from the stands at the state semi-finals football game between Edina and Rosemount high schools on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. A DFLer, Benjamin said the traditionally conservative Edina is becoming more of a swing district because of newcomers entering the area.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

As a family, the Atkins have figured out how to give and take. That's why Nick Atkins, a recent college graduate and the oldest child, said he grew increasingly annoyed with Republicans who controlled the state Legislature over the past two years.

He describes himself a fierce independent, as does his 53-year-old father, Dan Atkins, who for most of his life thought of himself as a Republican. In recent years, the elder Atkins said, he had no choice but to claim a new political identity.

"The Republicans did that, actually," he said. "The social conservatives' insistence on hammering through what they think is right basically made me not a Republican."

Atkins' shift is representative of Edina's growing unpredictability at the polls. He and many of his neighbors are fiscally conservative, but socially liberal. Edina is now considered a swing district, even though Atkins recalls not too long ago, it was a reliably Republican area.

"I remember walking around the Creek Valley Elementary School when I was in 4th grade," Dan Atkins said. "It was 1968. And kids were chanting, 'Nixon, Nixon, he's our man! Humphrey belongs in the garbage can!' Seriously, you would never see that now. It's very progressive socially. If you bullied somebody at Edina High School because they were gay, you'd get beat up. That's how progressive it is. What's not tolerated is ignoramuses."

"The social conservatives' insistence on hammering through what they think is right ...  made me not a Republican."

Edina's evolving politics may also have something to the national shift in demographics.

At last week's high school football state quarterfinal game at the Metrodome, the Edina teens sporting green and white on the field and in the stands were future voters. They represent the new Edina.

Phil Stark, 27, who came to cheer on his alma mater, said there's a simple reason why his hometown is becoming less conservative.

"I think more old people are dying in Edina," he said. "Edina, for many years, the term used was 'old money.' And now -- 'new money.' "

A Republican who voted a straight GOP ticket last week, Stark said the only time he broke away from his party was whether to ban same-sex marriage in the state's constitution.

"My decision wasn't based on my party's decision," he said. "It was based on my personal belief and my personal decision -- what affects me as a 27-year-old guy, and what affects my friends."

Another Edina football fan in the stands, Eric Olson, cast a vote for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

"I would think most people are pretty centrist in Edina," Olson said. "At the end of the day, they want a comprehensive look, and they want the president to work with Congress to get a budget passed. And in this election, I think people felt Obama was more likely to do that."

But Olson, a Republican, also voted for Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He said he chooses candidates on how they align with his beliefs and how they represent the state as a whole.

In this increasingly independent-thinking suburb, many voters say party lines don't matter nearly as much as performance.

EDINA SENDS THREE DFLers TO CAPITOL

When Minnesota's newly elected legislators lined up for orientation on Friday, one legislator didn't need advice on how to meet other elected officials, talk to research staff, find committee rooms or bathrooms.

Rep.-elect Ron Erhardt
Ron Erhardt, a former Republican, won election to the Minnesota House as a Democrat in this week's election, in District 49A in Edina. Erhardt fell out of favor with the GOP when he sided with Democrats in 2008 to overturn Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a transportation funding bill. He lost his bid for a 10th term that fall.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Ron Erhardt, 83, served in the Legislature from 1991 through 2008. He lost the Republican Party's endorsement that year after leading a successful attempt to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a gas tax increase.

This year, Erhardt, of Edina, is returning to the Legislature as a Democrat.

"The Republican Party of today has nothing to do with what your dad's Republican Party was," he said.

Erhardt said voters are returning him to the Legislature because he promised he would be a moderate voice between two warring parties. The pitch worked.

In fact, polling data from the DFL group The Alliance for a Better Minnesota showed that Erhardt's approval rating went up when voters learned he was a Republican running as a Democrat. Erhardt said most Minnesotans want to see members of the Legislature get along -- a message he preached during the campaign.

"It doesn't make any difference what shirt I'm wearing when I'm here, because I'm going to be a centrist trying to get things done," he said. "Republican or Democrat, whatever you want to label me, I'm a centrist and I'll try to bring the sides together and do bipartisan work, which is what I was doing when I was there before as a Republican."

Bakk introduces Franzen
Sen. Tom Bakk introduces Democrat Melisa Franzen at the Minnesota DFL Election Night Party at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Franzen defeated Republican Sen. Keith Downey in for a Senate seat in Edina.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Erhardt said there was a voter backlash to the state government shutdown in 2011 and against the two proposed constitutional amendments.

Democrat Melisa Franzen also defeated incumbent Republican state Rep. Keith Downey in a state Senate race that is the most expensive in state history. Franzen and DFL house candidates Paul Rosenthal and Erhardt all promised Edina voters that they would work with both parties if elected.  All three candidates won their respective races.

In Edina, 55 percent of voters rejected the proposed constitutional amendment that would have required voters to present photo identification at the polls. More than 60 percent voted against the proposed amendment to make marriage only between a man and a woman.

"There is no question that we talked to a lot of people who just thought it was stupid," said Ben Goldfarb, who helped organize opposition to the marriage amendment for Minnesotans United for All Families.

Goldfarb said it's clear that more voters turned out in suburbs like Edina as a result of the amendments. He said efforts to defeat the amendment received bipartisan support, mostly from people who didn't think it should be debated at all.

"This electorate is quite willing to chastise those in power immediately after they gain office."

"They thought with all of the other problems that we've got, with all of the things going on with the economy and our schools and our roads, and all of those other things that they think the state Legislature should focus on, they didn't get why they should put something like this on the ballot," he said.

Goldfarb said there was a smaller number of rural voters to turn out in support of the amendment to ban same-sex marriage than he projected.

In fact, the debate statewide showed voters were reluctant to amend the constitution.

Several rural voters told MPR News that they didn't feel comfortable putting the amendments in the constitution.

Bud Johnson, a self-described independent voter from Pipestone, Minn., said he went from being undecided on the Voter ID amendment to voting no.

"Constitutional amendments are a big deal to me," Johnson said. "I just don't like constitutional amendments unless there's a dramatic reason for doing it, and I didn't see any dramatic reason for doing this."

Another voter, Vicki Brady of Cloquet, Minn., said she rarely votes entirely for Democrats, but did this year.

Brady, who said she lived all over the country before moving to Cloquet five years ago, said she voted against both constitutional amendments. She said Minnesota voters are quick to punish those in power, "unlike many places where people will complain bitterly about the way things are going, and then the incumbents get re-elected 95 percent of the time.

"It seems like Minnesota is very willing to take a different direction and try something different."

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said the results from the last few election cycles show that feeling. That should be a warning to Democrats who now control all of state government for the first time since 1990, he said.

"Does this mean the Democrats are in the driver's seat for the foreseeable future?" he asked. "Far from it.  This is an electorate that is quite willing to chastise those in power immediately after they gain office."

Schier said those voting trends are most evident in suburban areas like Edina. He characterized that city's electorate as the state's bellwether for future legislative elections.

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