She Is Running
Minnesota’s Rebecca Otto Is Ready to Help Her State Lead on National Issues
After a dozen years of overseeing the state budget, Otto has earned a large following that may just propel her into the governor’s mansion.
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With more than a decade of experience as state auditor, Rebecca Otto hopes to move into the Minnesota governor’s mansion next fall. The widely lauded auditor has extensive on-the-job experience and previously served in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Victorious in the state auditor election in 2006, she won by the largest margin over an incumbent opponent in more than a century, taking over a position that had been held by a Republican for 134 of the 149 years that Minnesota has had a state auditor at all.
We spoke about the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Minnesota’s history of electing state auditors as governors, and why states have to band together to lead the nation’s policymaking.
What’s the relationship between meeting the needs of Minnesotans and what’s happening with the federal government right now?
Right now, we don’t have the leadership we need on the federal level. Issues like climate change, healthcare, and the wealth gap are not being dealt with. I would contend that states are going to have to lead the way out of this.
In Minnesota, we pride ourselves on leading on good public policy for the nation, and we generally do deliver that. Because we have paralysis at the federal level due to big money interests—and we see the effects of that every day—we’re going to have to lead as states to change what’s happening. States aren’t totally paralyzed at this point, but with the Trump administration doing all kinds of deeply dangerous things and striking fear into the hearts of Americans, we have to band together.
How did being auditor prepare you to run the state as governor?
There is a tradition of state auditors becoming governors in Minnesota. Our current governor (Mark Dayton) was a state auditor, and Arne Carlson was a three-term state auditor like me who became governor.
Auditors are a great fit to run this state because we oversee $20 billion in taxpayer dollars a year and understand how money flows between the state and federal government. We also concentrate on public policy, and I’ve been doing this job for almost 12 years.
I sit on several state boards, including financing for affordable housing. I’m also on the State Board of Investment, and we invest over $80 billion a year. Public pensions as a policy matter is something I understand intrinsically and deeply. I’m on executive councils overseeing our state’s mineral resources, rural projects financing, and budgeting for state emergencies. I could keep going, but already you can begin to understand how this job provides a broad view of how everything works, how government works at all levels, and the importance of working together across party lines.
The auditor, in particular, knows how government works and is accountable to the people. When people trust government, they support government to do the things we can’t do on our own.
What makes the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) the best fit for you politically?
It’s a unique Democratic party, and we’re the only state in the nation that has this particular combination of interests represented in a party name. To sum it up, we’re a party that fights for the common good. That means the DFL represents family farm interests, and we represent our labor brothers and sisters and support their right to collectively bargain for good working conditions and to be paid a fair wage. In Minnesota, we value work, and we support small businesses as well. And we understand that democracy means caring about the common good and understanding that efficient, effective government plays an important role in our lives.
Are you often asked whether you were planning to run before the 2016 presidential election results?
There’s this thing about running for office, and for governor, which is that just because people ask doesn’t mean you should do it. I’ve run three times for auditor, and each time I engage in a lot of self-reflection. I ask myself, do I have a strong agenda? Do I have that fire in my belly? Every time I take office, I set goals, and this time, like the last, I got almost everything done I’d planned to accomplish.
When I contemplated this run, I was again thinking thoroughly about whether I have a strong agenda. And, can I win? And I believe I’m the right person for the right time with the right skillset. Frankly, people want a strong leader with integrity who isn’t afraid to lead.
I have some special climate credibility as well, which is that my husband and I built an energy renewable home decades ago. I have real life experience transforming my life, in ways like getting credit on my energy bills and not going to the gas pump. My husband has a pure electric car, and I have a Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid. We’ve shared our home and educated people for decades. It’s not a tree hugger thing, though I do love trees. It’s just that the world is changing, and the time is right for this.
My campaign focuses on issues such as the economy, health, and right now, the price point on solar is cheaper than coal. Now is the time to radically change what we’re doing and benefit so much! It’s easy to understand when you look at how issues are interconnected. If you have cleaner air, everyone, including people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), breathe better. When kids are healthier, they are in school, and healthy workers stay on the job.
What have you encountered on the campaign trail so far?
One particular aspect of this campaign has been a delightful surprise! In Minnesota, we have an annual state fair that is a big deal culturally and is very well attended.
The DFL party has a dedicated gazebo, and I put in lot of time there because it’s the very best meet-and-greet I could hope to have. But this year was different than what I’ve seen over the past decade. There were lots of first-time voters in groups, with parents, and even alone, interviewing governor candidates, sometimes from both parties. There were high school students registering voters. I’ve never seen so much activity!
It gives me great hope because they understand what is at stake in a big way. We have taken things for granted, from labor unions fights to reproductive rights, and there is so much to be unwound at the federal level. Lots of young people of all genders want to be involved and engaged, and they are a really important voting block.
Do you think there’s something non-Minnesotans misunderstand about your state?
One thing people probably intrinsically understand about Minnesota is our Boundary Water Canoe Area. It’s really an international treasure. It makes us special and changes lives every day. Besides our big water reserves, we have an extraordinary wilderness area. And of course we have the Twin Cities. The quality of life is really high here, and I don’t want to lose that.
We also have the second most vibrant theater community next to New York City. And we really have to show the world that what we have here is extraordinary.
Do you find it challenging to explain some of your more progressive policy proposals?
What I am proposing is what the federal government should be doing, and they’re not. We gotta do this as state.
One example is that we need single-payer healthcare that is affordable and guaranteed regardless of age, employment status or pre-existing condition. People need freedom from the fear of a health issue causing bankruptcy or resulting in them losing their coverage. They want it, and they need it. But it does take a minute to take this information in and realize lives depend on it. Also, financially, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. This will have a meaningful impact on people’s lives but also the economy. Again, this goes back to the politics of doing what is best for the common good.
What other issues tend to get overlooked as you focus on climate change policies and revamping the healthcare system?
Something special I’ll be focusing on as governor is talking regularly about and making sure fellow Minnesotans understand how much we need to focus on mental health services and substance abuse treatment. Being healthy mentally is fundamental to one’s physical health. We have a lot of work to do, especially with opioid epidemics raging around the country and the economic desperation that can cause those things.
The nature of work is changing thanks to mechanization and outsourcing, and we need to focus on creating and supporting 21st-century jobs. I’m talking about clean energy economy jobs, and wind technician training comes to mind as one example. If I were in high school right now, I’d be training to work in the clean energy economy and trying to go into a field that would change the world and improve human health. Part of my 15-5-2 plan is to offer two years of free tuition that should help young people consider these kinds of opportunities.
I know you must not have a lot of time for it right now, but are you reading anything good these days?
Well, there’s this book, The War on Science, written by a guy I love, Shawn Otto, and beside him being my husband, his book is important because it’s about making sure we have evidence-based policies. I really believe in that!
I have a favorite book that I keep on my phone at all times that is equally inspirational. It’s Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and there are some days when I need to glance at it. She writes about how leading is hard and following is easy. We all face challenges in life, and it’s good to remind yourself that winning is hard, but it is still important.
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