Minnesotans take care of their own, but not the businesses destroyed by arson. Why? | Column

March 4, 2021 8:58 am

Rob Yang, 44, and his wife Glory Seying, 42, of Maplewood, pose for a portrait on June 19, 2020 at their St. Paul store Phenom, which was looted after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. Photo by Caroline Yang/Minnesota Reformer. (No relation to Rob Yang.)

I had been in Minnesota less than a year when then-Gov. Mark Dayton announced he wanted to call a special session of the Legislature to deal with an emergency: A shortage of walleye in Mille Lacs. The local resorts were suffering because anglers weren’t coming. 

The scenario was so parodically Minnesota I was sure the hidden cameras would pop out to announce I’d been punked. 

I also questioned how this was a matter of any public policy interest, let alone worthy of a special session of the Legislature.

I had most recently been reporting in Nevada, a callously libertarian state where sob stories were viewed with suspicion because every hustler had one. 

I would come to learn, however, that Minnesotans help their neighbors in need. (Even if they’d never invite them into their homes.) 

When a fire swept through Madelia, the Legislature delivered $1.7 million in aid in 2017 to restore its business district. When the mining industry collapsed in 2015, the Legislature extended unemployment benefits to workers on the Iron Range. 

In 2013, after severe storms in southern and central Minnesota, there was a special legislative session and the vote was 127-1 in the Minnesota House in favor of sending money to communities that needed it. 

Flooding, tornadoes, a bird flu outbreak that destroyed millions of turkeys. 

Time and again, Minnesota’s government has helped people all over the state when they’ve suffered disasters through no fault of their own. 

Now turn to 2021: The businesses along Lake Street in south Minneapolis and the Midway in St. Paul are still struggling to recover from the looting and arson that destroyed their dreams. 

Consider Rob Yang, who built his sneaker and apparel business Phenom, only to lose more than $400,000 in inventory and probably another $50,000 to $100,000 in damage to his stores. Insurance won’t cover the losses, he told Reformer contributor Cinnamon Janzer a few weeks after the catastrophe. 

And what is the response of the Legislature, and specifically Republicans who control the Senate? 

Tough luck. 

They are unwilling to consider Gov. Tim Walz’s $150 million proposal to help businesses damaged in the riots. State Sen. Julie Rosen wants to ban cities from getting disaster assistance to repair infrastructure damaged during rioting. As MinnPost reported, she said her constituents wouldn’t have it: “I’ve heard over and over again from greater Minnesota, from my constituents, that ‘Please, do not pay for this out of our taxpayer dollars.’”

(Senator, your constituents aren’t really paying the tab. As the Reformer’s Ricardo Lopez reported this week, metro residents paid nearly $4,000 in taxes per capita in 2016 compared to the $2,565 paid by greater Minnesota residents. Also, federal charges say men from cities like Staples, Brainerd, Long Lake, Savage and Rosemount were among the ones who committed arson.)

The question is: What’s different about a business owner whose store or restaurant was burned or looted, from one damaged in, say, the Madelia fire, or a turkey grower who’s lost his flock to the flu? 

And why would Republicans turn their backs on these entrepreneurs — the very people they claim to love whenever there’s a debate about the minimum wage or labor law?

The likely answer is that it’s politics: These businesses — many of them Black- and immigrant-owned — are in the Twin Cities. And slagging on the Twin Cities and the people who live there makes for a good show with the delegates at Republican conventions. They’ll endorse a candidate for governor in 2022, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka fancies himself governor material. Gazelka told MPR recently that he wants to help “but it will not be through dollars through the city of Minneapolis that’s dysfunctional.” Count me a skeptical. He’s had nine months to put something together.   

If it came down to sheer political expediency, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, has every reason to join the anti-Minneapolis mob. Former President Donald Trump won Marquart’s district by 19 points, and Republicans ran a brutal campaign tying him to the rioting and the “defund” police movement that has gripped the city’s politics since. 

“You woulda thought I was running for mayor of Minneapolis,” he told me recently. 

But Marquart is tired of what he called the “demonization” of the city of lakes. 

“I’m from rural Minnesota, but I say we should be funding those businesses that — through no fault of their own — were destroyed.” 

While others forget everything but their grudges, Marquart has a long memory for the people who have helped his community.  

“I come from Red River Valley. There’s been hundreds of millions of dollars put in for flood mitigation, and to help communities rebuild after floods. We’re all Minnesotans. We’ve just gotta do what’s right on this,” he said. 

I agree, and the next time the resorts up in Mille Lacs need help because the walleye aren’t biting, I’ll make a caustic joke about it, but I’ll be all for it.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children