The presenter at Tuesday Group this week was Rebecca Otto, Minnesota’s state auditor, who is running for Governor, and listening to her moved me to change the topic of this week’s column. By the way, the Tuesday Group, for those of you who may not know, is an eight-year-old institution in Ely, which meets from 12 noon to 1 p.m. every Tuesday at the Grand Ely Lodge, featuring interesting presenters on a wide range of topics: updates on how local organizations are faring; stories of adventures by canoe, yacht, steamer and dogsled; fascinating presentations on dragonflies, weasels, and other beasties, winged and legged; informative reports on climate change, proposed copper mining and nuclear energy initiatives; political candidates from all political parties; and people new to the area who have an opportunity for their 15 minutes of introductory fame. I was thinking how lucky we were to have this ongoing group, offering education and entertainment as well as a terrific place to meet people and socialize. It’s sort of like the village green without the grass. I always run into someone I’ve been meaning to call. Sometimes I don’t talk with anyone, but just enjoy being in a room with so many people I know as friends and acquaintances, savoring that bit of small town life.
The group was initiated after Barack Obama’s inauguration when a bunch of us got together to watch it at a local restaurant and decided we ought to get together more often. Hence, the liberal leaning of the group, but it has always been open to all participants and presenters. President-elect Obama had asked that communities reach out to help people who could use a hand on the day before the inauguration, and Steve Piragis offered to organize an ongoing Ely effort through his store, asking volunteers to call and sign up and encouraging people who needed some help snow shoveling, getting groceries or whatever, to call. There were initially about 25 people on that list providing assistance. At the same time, Steve and Nancy Powers were instrumental in setting up the first Tuesday Group get-togethers, and Steve Schoen has been key in keeping it running on an even keel, with a few songs and corny jokes thrown in along the way. Attendees can order lunch or just come to listen with only the occasional request to throw a few dollars in the kitty to purchase coffee mugs made locally by Linda Trapkus of Blue Earth Pottery that are given as thanks to presenters.
Back to Rebecca Otto and her husband Shawn. These two are truly a dynamic duo, working together to create change based on their shared values, including building a wind and solar-powered house and starting a business that grew to employ 50 people. Shawn is extraordinary in his own right, as the screenplay writer of House Of Sand and Fog; author of the novel, Sins of Our Fathers, and the non-fiction books focused on the anti-science movement, Fool Me Twice and The War on Science. He spearheaded a group of scientists nationally to lobby candidates to bring the discussion of science into the election with a debate in 2012 focused on science. That did not happen, but President Obama did mention the importance of science in his inaugural address.
When their son started school, Rebecca learned the Forest Lake school district was going into statutory operating debt, meaning it was going broke. She had taught middle school for five years, and her business experience gave her an understanding of financial matters, so she agreed to serve on the ad hoc finance committee, which decided an operating levy was needed. There was an atmosphere of distrust in the community, which had defeated previous referenda. Rebecca chaired the $52 million school levy campaign in a way that foreshadowed later efforts: she started the community discussion by listening, helping people find what they could agree on and building from those shared values. The referendum passed by a large margin in spite of active efforts opposing it, and she was elected to the school board in the same election. She was later elected to the Minnesota legislature from that very conservative district.
Rebecca has repeatedly found ways to bring people with differing opinions together and has garnered respect across party lines. In 2004, during the “no new taxes” era, while serving in the legislature, she brought former Republican and Democratic State Finance Commissioners John Gunyou and Jay Kiedrowski together for the first time to talk about and agree on what a truly balanced state budget looked like; they later toured the state to educate the public and the media. Her successful efforts to bring together legislators to create a balanced budget earned her the New Legislator of the Year Award.
She lost her bid for re-election but was recruited to run for state auditor by former governor and state auditor, Arne Carlson. She did her research and discovered hundreds of millions of dollars in errors in the state finance summary reports issued by the incumbent; she campaigned on accuracy and transparency in government, and defeated the incumbent by a large margin in 2006. She won again in 2010 and 2014, the first Democrat to be re-elected as auditor, even though she was outspent 4 to 1.
What does a state auditor do, anyway? Before Rebecca Otto spoke up for protecting the finances of the state, voting against the renewal of mining leases without thoughtful consideration of the costs, probably most of us couldn’t name the state auditor nor say much about their responsibilities. She describes it as: “watching over tens of billions of dollars in state finances and investments on behalf of taxpayers so that people can trust their government.” When she took a stand on the mining leases, she wanted to bring awareness to the issue of the very real possibility of Minnesotans being left with huge cleanup costs from mining pollution and/or catastrophic events, as has happened elsewhere time and again. She was immediately castigated by the pro-mining contingency and signs popped up in Ely within days, probably paid for by the Mining Association, saying, “Dump Otto.” Fortunately, a huge majority of people understood what she was doing for the state and re-elected her. She holds firm on her belief that the mining companies need to be held responsible for consequences and must provide substantial financial assurance up front. Tuesday she declared that “as your Governor, the Boundary Waters will not be for sale.”
Her fellow auditors from across the nation share the confidence of Minnesota voters. She was the only Minnesota auditor to serve as president of the National State Auditors Association, and in 2009 they awarded her the prestigious Excellence in Accountability Award for her work on the Best Practices Review: Reducing Energy Costs in Local Government. In June of 2011, she received the League of Minnesota Cities President’s Award for her “unwavering support of Minnesota local government in enhancing effectiveness, efficiency and accountability for all Minnesotans.” She has received innumerable other awards and citations, too many to mention, but she clearly has earned the respect of many. She has also served on countless boards, providing service to the community locally, statewide and nationally.
She says she values the politics of the common good and is clearly fed up with the politics of unfettered greed that have been unleashed in this country. When local DFL organizer and precinct chair Carol Orban asked how she would work to improve DFL unity, Rebecca responded, “My job is to bring people together, and I do that by focusing on values.” Her zeal and dedication were clear for setting things right for ordinary citizens and the need and willingness to work for universal health care, living wages, education, affordable housing, and improved infrastructure for transportation and technology. She says, “When we put our hearts and minds together, we can do extraordinary things.” She and Shawn are models of living their values and working hard to shift the status quo. What are we willing to do to help create the change we want to see?