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How did Minnesota Democrats unify fragile majorities to pass sweeping change?




At a House Democrat retreat in December, the chiefs of staff for former Gov. Mark Dayton and former House Speaker Paul Thissen told the crowd they missed opportunities the last time the DFL controlled the state nearly a decade ago.

It set the tone for the session ahead.

“They basically said, ‘Pedal to the metal. You don’t know how long you’ll have, and do what you know you need to do,'” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said. “They were very inspirational, because the only regrets they had were the things they left on the table.”

Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, stepped into the Capitol in January knowing Democrats could lose full control of state government in 2024. They needed to hold together dozens of members representing districts from Hermantown to Minneapolis, whose ideologies ranged from moderate to Democratic socialist. There was little room for defection in the House. In the Senate, not a single vote could be spared.

But time and again over the past five months, the narrow House and Senate majorities — led by two women for the first time in state history — cast unified votes on massive budget bills and divisive policy changes. They approved items Democrats were unable to accomplish the last time they held complete power in St. Paul.

“We represent small communities in rural Minnesota, the suburbs, to the large urban core. And so as we got to know each other and had those conversations, we learned that we had a lot more similarities than we did differences,” Dziedzic said. “That’s what we did all session long, is we had those conversations. Some very personal, heated, thoughtful conversations.”

Not even Dziedzic’s cancer diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy, and long absence from the Capitol slowed them down.

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said Hortman was instrumental in pushing the DFL’s priorities across the finish line. Although Demuth criticized the DFL bills as partisan, she said Hortman deserves credit for getting them done while working with three first-time legislative leaders — herself, Dziedzic and Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks.

“They finally had the trifecta, they had more money than anyone would have ever thought, and they pushed through” their agenda, Demuth said. “I don’t think it was the right thing to do, because 48 percent of Minnesotans [represented by Republicans] were left out.”

The Friday morning after they won the House, Senate and governor’s office, the three top Democrats in state government gathered in the governor’s office to talk. Headed into that meeting, Hortman knew how she wanted this session to roll out.

After two decades in the Legislature, she had seen organized and disorganized leaders. She didn’t want to replicate the approach of former GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt and longtime DFL Senate Leader Tom Bakk, who she said had a philosophy of waiting until the last minute to strike deals.

They discussed reaching early budget targets, aligning committees across the two chambers, having shared Top 10 bills and which members should carry the big bills. They eventually designated three weekends where they would be forced to meet if they hadn’t reached agreements by certain points.

DFL leaders were in favor of the same things — to different degrees. House Democrats wanted big K-12 spending, Walz’s priority was the child tax credit and the Senate fought for health and human services funding, Hortman said. They worked collaboratively up until the final week of the session, when they needed to trade some offers to “close it up,” she said.

They had political alignment and were ready for the moment, said Walz’s chief of staff, Chris Schmitter, in part due to strategic goals the governor’s administration developed in the first term, and because they already had been working on Walz’s budget for nearly six months.

After the initial post-election meeting, which Schmitter called “the best meeting of my entire life,” he said state leaders and their chiefs of staff continued to meet at least weekly and coordinated action all session.

Johnson said he “would love to know what happened” in the House and Senate DFL caucuses behind closed doors. Early in session, some Senate Democrats wouldn’t commit to supporting gun-control bills or marijuana legalization, for example. By session’s end, every Senate Democrat voted for the bills.

“For them to just walk over that cliff, I’ve got to give Kari a lot of credit for keeping that caucus together on the agenda that they wanted,” Johnson said. “If they didn’t want to work with us, they had to have those extremely tough votes for their caucus. I am a bit surprised.”

Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, also credited Dziedzic for holding together 34 Democrats who had different perspectives and backgrounds.

“I don’t think it was as hard as we had expected to be going into it,” she said, noting that they shared the mind-set of, “Hey, we’re all partners in this one-vote majority. We’ve got to show up for our districts. It’s been 10 years since we’ve had the majority, and so it was important that we keep it together.”

Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, won in a purple district last year and was among the moderate voices in the caucus. But she said the more progressive fellow freshman Mohamed — “who is half my age and lives in a completely different district” — ended up being one of her best friends at the Capitol. As colleagues got to know each other and understand what was important to different districts, she said they found common ground to move the whole state forward.

But, she said, some of the fights were tough. And they aren’t over.

“Social Security comes to mind,” Seeberger said. “A lot of us fought really, really hard for that. Really, really hard for that. And actually, our efforts paid off because had we not done that, it wouldn’t even been a topic for discussion this session. So we were able to move the dial. And we have three more sessions [until the next Senate election] to continue to move the dial and continue to fight for full elimination.”

Another moderate Senate freshman, Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said the votes on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights weren’t difficult, and as a teacher, neither were new gun restrictions. But she was disappointed with the Social Security tax exemption.

“That was hard, I wanted to make sure that we took care of that. I’m pretty satisfied with where we ended up. I’ll try to get more down the road,” she said.

She said the caucus didn’t have reservations about “anything related to human rights or equity” or restoring voting rights to felons. “Those are good policy changes that help out people,” she said.

When the Senate took longer to pass bills, that meant conversations were happening quietly with Dziedzic, Gustafson said.

Senate Human Services Committee Chair John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, said members of his caucus were consistently receptive to one another’s suggestions. When Hoffman wanted more funding for addiction treatment and prevention added to the marijuana legalization bill, he got it.

When Hoffman told Dziedzic he needed more money for the human services budget and for distressed nursing homes, he said she told him she would work to make it happen.

There were at times points of contention on issues such as whether to eliminate the Social Security tax, Hoffman said. But time and time again, he said members reached a compromise.

“That’s why you saw a strong 34 every time. The caucus stayed together,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think that’s ever happened in the past.”

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Man admits he raped, held St. Kate’s student captive in dorm for days; sentence capped at 7½ years




A 20-year-old man agreed to plead guilty Friday after being charged with holding his girlfriend captive in her St. Catherine University dorm room for four days while he raped, beat and waterboarded her until she escaped.

Keanu A. Labatte, of Granite Falls, Minn., said in Ramsey County District Court that he intends to admit to second-degree criminal sexual conduct in connection with the attack in early September.

The plea deal between the defense and the prosecution calls for Labatte to be sentenced to a term no longer than 7½ years. He remains free on an $80,000 bond ahead of sentencing, which is scheduled for Nov. 4.

A spokesman for the County Attorney’s Office said prosecutors will ask for Labatte to receive the full 7½-year term.

According to the charges:

The woman went to security at the Catholic women’s university in St. Paul to report the abuse she endured from Labatte, who had become enraged by texts, photos and social media content that he discovered upon his arrival on Sept. 7. Security immediately alerted police.

She told police that Labatte squeezed his hands around her neck until she “felt lightheaded and saw stars” and raped her.

On Sept. 9, he forced her into the bathtub and “engaged in waterboarding by covering her mouth with a wet washcloth,” the charges said. He also brandished a knife and threatened to kill her.

The woman escaped after persuading Labatte to let her go to the cafeteria, but she went to police, who noticed black, blue and red marks on her neck. While she was telling police what had happened to her, Labatte was calling and texting her cellphone, which he had given back to her under the condition that she take a photo of herself getting food. He texted at one point asking why the police were outside.

Police went to the woman’s room, found Labatte still there and arrested him.

At the time of his arrest, Labatte was on probation for violating a restraining order issued in November in Yellow Medicine County on behalf of a 17-year-old girl who had been his girlfriend.

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Massive expansion of MSP airport will bring with it years of demolitions and disruptions




Terminal 2 will more than double in size. Concourses and parking ramps at Terminal 1 will be reconstructed or demolished. And an “automated people mover” may ferry travellers between the two terminals.

These are some of the changes included in a $9 billion expansion of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP, recently approved a comprehensive plan that will fundamentally change the airport’s terminals, parking and airfield to accommodate growing throngs of passengers through 2040.

The plan “is a roadmap, a recipe, if you will, and it’s all subject to change,” said Bridget Rief, a civil engineer who is the MAC’s vice president of Planning and Development. “We’re very good here about building when we need things, we don’t build things and then wait for people to fill it up.”

The plan takes into account demand for air travel in the post-pandemic era, the fickle cycles of the airline business and the economy and the challenges of growing in the confines of its urban Twin Cities location.

Efforts to craft the long-term plan, which is required by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Metropolitan Council, were delayed nearly 15 months due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which decimated air travel.

Leisure travelers have since returned to the skies with a vengeance: MAC officials predict the number of annual passengers will surge by nearly 50% to about 56 million by 2040.

What’s happening next:

Terminal 2 continues to get bigger, with the addition of 21 gates by 2040.

In the near-term, 11 gates will be added to the south side of Terminal 2. Work is already underway on a $240 million two-gate expansion, with construction beginning on another two gates later this year.

Terminal 2 is home to Minneapolis-based Sun Country Airlines, as well as Allegiant, Condor, Frontier, Icelandair, JetBlue and Southwest. Rief said the gates under construction have not been assigned to an airline yet.

“We’re actively planning the phasing and what the structure will look like,” Rief said. “This is due primarily to Sun Country’s growth.”

The plan also calls for Terminal 2 to be converted to geothermal power, a renewable energy source that has a smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

The Orange and Purple parking ramps at Terminal 2 are expanding. This includes includes two more levels of parking atop the Orange Ramp and seven additional levels at the Purple Ramp.

The second level of the Purple Ramp will be reconfigured for passenger pick up and drop off, with access to the terminal through the skyway. A similar configuration could result at the Orange Ramp.

“We have congestion at certain times during the day and during the week and this will hopefully help,” Rief said. “It’s not a ton of space and we want to see how well it works and see if we can divert people into the parking ramp.”

The Federal Inspection Services Facility in Terminal 1 will be improved to move international passengers arriving at MSP more efficiently.

Mid-term changes

At Terminal 1, Concourse A will be reconstructed to accommodate larger aircraft and Concourse B will be demolished. The two currently fork off the tip of Concourse C.

Both were designed when 50-seat aircraft were common, but MSP dominant carrier Delta Air Lines no longer flies them. Post-pandemic, Delta and other airlines are increasingly relying on larger aircraft with 130 seats or more to meet growing demand, according to industry group Airlines 4 America.

The plan calls for Concourse F at Terminal 1 to be reconstructed to handle larger aircraft and some international flights. All told, the plan calls for nine fewer gates at Terminal 1 by 2040.

The aging Green and Gold parking ramps will be reconstructed into a new multi-purpose facility that will include parking and Federal Inspection Services for processing passengers from international flights.

This work will complement an effort to widen both levels of the roadway serving the terminal for departures and arrivals, which can clog with vehicles picking up and dropping off passengers at peak times.

“The whole renovation of the Green and Gold [ramps] creates a huge opportunity to do all kinds of things,” Rief said.

Longer term:

Nine more gates on the north side of Terminal 2 will be added, allowing for airlines to expand there, and accommodating reconstruction of the Terminal 1 concourses. This will require the relocation of fixed-base operator Signature, which provides business and private aviation service to the public, elsewhere at the airport.

Terminal 1′s Concourse G is slated to expand by seven gates, and Concourse E will be reconstructed, absorbing Concourse D. That will make it necessary to rename all of the concourses in Terminal 1.

“What we’re trying to do is better balance the number of passengers between the two terminals as a long-term play, so we’re not so heavily over-weighted at Terminal 1,” Rief said. “Recent growth at Terminal 2 has kind of organically provided some of that balance already.”

And there’s a plan to construct an automated people mover between Terminals 1 and 2, eliminating the need for passengers to use Blue Line light-rail service to travel between the two.

“The basic idea is that, like many other airports, you would have gone through security and, while on a secure side of the airport, you could get on a tram or a bus or something that would take you between the two terminals,” Rief said.

“That’s very long term and a significant undertaking,” she added. “What it would look like hasn’t been defined.”

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Crookston reels from back-to-back fatal police shootings




CROOKSTON, MINN. – Not again.

That was Crookston Mayor Dale Stainbrook’s reaction to a second fatal police shooting in his small college town and farming community of 7,300 people just 45 days after an officer shot and killed another civilian.

“You just don’t see that here and I think we’re all trying to come to terms with it,” Stainbrook said.

Within a matter of weeks, Crookston joined rare company. It’s among 36 other Minnesota cities with two or more fatal police shootings since 2000, according to a Star Tribune database. Those include larger cities like Duluth, Rochester, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Twin Cities suburbs. Few small towns have had two or more police-involved shootings in the past quarter century. Some include Little Falls and Mountain Iron.

Even more rare in Crookston is that both shootings were at the hands of the same officer: Nick Fladland, 31, who has five years of law enforcement experience. Fladland is on paid leave for an unspecified time. Chief Darin Selzler said that Fladland’s previous leave following the May 16 shooting was 16 days.

On June 30, Fladland shot and killed Christopher Ryan Junkin, 44, of California, in the town’s homeless shelter that remains closed as staff recovers from the tragedy. Junkin’s family said he was unarmed, naked and having a mental health crisis. Andrew Scott Dale, 35, of Crookston, was wielding a hatchet when Fladland shot him on a residential street six weeks earlier.

“The fact that it’s the same officer in such a short period of time, and the fact that this person [Junkin] didn’t have a weapon, you know, that’s deeply concerning from a PTSD standpoint,” said Deb LaCroix-Kinniry, a mental health advocate working with Communities United Against Police Brutality, a police watchdog group.

A 73-year-old woman who placed the 911 on May 16 and ducked for cover on her front porch when police shot Dale in her neighborhood said the back-to-back police shootings are deeply personal.

She lives with two grandchildren who have mental health conditions. Her grandson, 19, diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), tends to have outbursts with his episodes. Several times she has had to call police, but she said responding officers were excellent. She worries, though, what might happen the next call and has considered moving out of Crookston after just moving here in October from Westbrook, Maine.

“[Westbrook] had a community liaison officer. She accompanied each call,” she said. “I really believe they they need something like that here.”

The woman didn’t want to be named out of fear of retaliation in the event that officers respond to her home again.She said her grandson is “seeing people that have the same kind of meltdowns that he has, that he can’t control, that he doesn’t remember half the time when it’s over, and wondering, ‘Mom, what’s going to happen if … you have to call a police to help calm me down?’ That’s a big fear in our house right now.”

On Friday afternoon, downtown Crookston streets were hot and bare. Residents asked about the shootings declined to comment or said they didn’t know enough about the situation to say anything.

One man leaving the library said his son-in-law, a police officer in Minot, N.D., always says that if people follow commands, no one gets hurt. The man declined to provide his name, but said that he sees officers killed in the line of duty, like Fargo officer Jake Ryan Wallin, 23, killed a year ago Sunday.

A memorial ceremony is being held that day at Fargo City Hall to honor Wallin.

Responding to crisis

Crookston’s deadly shootings raise questions about the mental health of officers and citizens, especially those in crisis. But LaCroix-Kinniry underscores that Minnesota passed Travis’ Law in 2021, which requires a referral to mental health crisis teams “when appropriate.” The wording of the statute left it open to interpretation, but sponsors of the measure said the intent of the law is to end police-only responses.

Travis Jordan, 36, was threatening suicide and talking about getting a gun in 2018 when a friend called 911. Minneapolis police told him to drop a knife but Jordan moved toward an officer and shots were fired.

LaCroix-Kinniry said post-Travis’ Law, “we’ve had a number of deaths with people that have mental health issues where Travis’ law was not followed. So there are some serious concerns around that.”

Every county has access to mobile crisis teams through a Department of Human Services program.

Selzler would not say if a crisis worker responded to the shootings. The 911 call at the homeless shelter was reported as a fight, but Junkin’s roommate at the shelter said Junkin was in crisis. The BCA says Junkin was combative and ignored commands before Fladland fired.

Stainbrook said he doesn’t know Fladland personally. “We’ve got a lot of new officers in Crookston. There’s just probably a couple that I know that have been here forever.”

He said prior to a pay raise a few budget cycles ago, the department was “kind of a training ground.” New officers get a minimum of eight weeks training with a senior officer “before they’re even flying solo,” he said.

“I got all the respect for our officers. You know, what’s going on in the rest of the country, even 60 miles south of us [in Fargo], and we’re very fortunate, or have been, that you don’t see this on a daily basis.”

The chief said his department is trained and fully staffed with 18 full-time officers and no vacancies.

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