Fires and Back Drafts

The politicians, the firefighters' union, and the politics of blame

Pawlenty's people are unmoved by those numbers, of course, and claim to have expected the decline in the governor's popularity given the deep cuts at the legislature and the continuing recession. Larry Jacobs, a U of M political scientist quoted in the Strib this weekend, was not so sanguine about the Guv's waning popularity. "It's not a do-or-die situation," he said, "but these numbers could embolden opponents, both moderate Republicans and DFLers."

In other words, the last two weeks of the 2003 legislative session may prove to contain some room for compromise--assuming Democrats, educators, union members, welfare advocates, and whatever "moderate" Republicans are left come together to press the administration.

In any case, the Pawlenty administration no longer looks to be invulnerable in pushing its legislative agenda. Specifically, the administration is showing signs of buckling on the subject of LGA, in large part because they don't want to be seen as anti-public safety. With a little more pressure at the capitol, Minneapolis might be spared deep cuts both now and in the future--in which case, Rybak says, the city could possibly rehire laid-off firefighters and prevent more cuts in 2004. (Fire Chief Forte has already sent around a memo indicating that, if Pawlenty gets what he wants, the department will have to eliminate 60 more jobs next year.)

Up to this point, though, the union has taken on Pawlenty with kid gloves. On April 14, in fact, Minneapolis firefighters held a protest across the street from City Hall, pointedly abstaining from joining fellow Minnesota unionists who had taken their case to the state capitol.

"The union sent someone to talk to me about that protest," Rybak says. "They told me that if I unilaterally rescinded any fire cuts, the protest would move to St. Paul. And if I didn't, they bring the fight to City Hall. I consider that blackmail. And I will not be blackmailed."

No wonder Pawlenty's people are so blasé about last weekend's poll. Like any good Republican--and most good Democrats, these days--he can make hay braying about overspending, then pass the practical burden of his cuts on to others. If such nonsense is allowed to stand, we will all spend years absorbing just what this "fiscal austerity" is all about.

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