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Minnesota DFL chair discusses infrastructure, recent scandals, redistricting and the future of legal cannabis

During an interview in Detroit Lakes on Aug. 17, Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL chairman, said he is excited for the new $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill because it will show both political parties agreeing to do what's best for their constituents and highlight a government that paves the way to regain the trust of U.S. citizens. He also discussed the sex-trafficking scandal involving Minnesota GOP donor Anton Lazzaro and what the future holds for his own party's scandal-plagued state legislator, Rep. John Thompson.

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Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL-party chairman, smiles next the Detroit Lakes Newspapers building in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, on Aug. 17, 2021. (Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

He was in Detroit Lakes to talk about the federal $1 trillion infrastructure package recently passed out of the Senate.

Not only how it would be a generational investment in the nation's crumbling infrastructure and bring new economic avenues to thousands of businesses, but how the bipartisan end result would show citizens that government can actually work for them.

But, with so many hot button political topics in the news recently, Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota DFL, talked at length about the recent scandals plaguing both Minnesota major political parties, how redistricting will affect the balance of political power in the state and how marijuana-party candidates in the 2020 election delayed Minnesotans access to recreational cannabis.

"As (Gov. Mark Dayton) was handing out jobs in the new administration, he asked me to be party chair and my first response was, 'hell no,'" said Martin. "I eventually relented, obviously, and I'm glad I did. I care deeply about the party."

Martin was elected to his first term as Minnesota DFL chairman after the election of former-Gov. Mark Dayton in 2010. He is now serving in his 10th year as leader of the state party and, in 2017, was elected president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, which is comprised of all Democratic state party chair from across the country.

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Scandals in the Minnesota GOP

When describing the situation unfolding in the Minnesota GOP concerning former state party chair Jennifer Carnahan , who resigned her post as party chair Thursday evening , and her close-ties to GOP donor Anton Lazzaro, who is facing multiple federal charges for sex trafficking, Martin said there needs to be a full, independent investigation of this because there are "disturbing questions that need to be answered."

"There is no place in our society for people who are going to commit those types of crimes, sex trafficking of underage minors," he said. "The real travesty of this whole thing is, what is lost in this story right now is, people are focused in on who knew what, and when, and there are at least, at least and probably more that we don't know of, six underage minors who were essentially exploited."

Martin added this issue should not be partisan. It should be condemned and there should be no equivocation, he said.

"I do think there are probably people on all sides of this who are using this for political opportunism, to try to take a hit against someone they might not like, or score some political points, or advance their career and that's just also, equally, unseemly to me," said Martin. "This isn't about politics right now, but there does need to be an accounting on this, if there's a political leader, of any office, elected or appointed or otherwise, who is involved in trying to cover this up, then they need to be held to account."

State Rep. John Thompson

Within his own party, Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, has refused calls to resign from state DFL leaders following the release of police reports and court records detailing multiple instances of domestic assault. Thompson's wife, through an attorney, said didn't recall making the allegations, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Martin said he was one of the first party leaders to call on Thompson to resign.

"I believe as MLK (Martin Luther King) used to say that, 'it's always the right time to do the right thing,'" said Martin. "These are not about partisan issues, or even race, or gender, or how ever people want to excuse their behavior, the reality is, for me, this is about right and wrong. This is about what are we trying to teach our kids."

He also said he believes in redemption, forgiveness and second chances, but those pathways begin with being remorseful.

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"The challenge, as it relates to Rep. Thompson, is the pattern just continues of very disturbing stories of behavior towards individuals, behavior towards women, behavior towards institutions, that does not really justify the second chance that was given to him," said Martin. "At some point, you have to be better than that."

A society, he said, has a responsibility to "call out" bad behavior when it's discovered, even if it involves their own political party.

The 2020 census and redistricting

He also discussed the release of the preliminary 2020 census data and how he believes the Minnesota GOP will lose seats once the final district maps are drawn for the next 10 years.

"I said this 10 years ago now, that the Republican party was in deep, deep trouble because they have created this divide, this greater Minnesota and metro divide … but as a result, they haven't won a statewide race since 2006 because they've done nothing to appeal to suburban voters," said Martin.

Large portions of the new population growth in Minnesota were centered around urban areas and suburbs, places Martin believes the DFL is strong.

He said, "The truth is that greater Minnesota is going to lose legislative seats in this next round of redistricting … and what it means from a purely political, partisan standpoint, is that Republicans are going to lose power in the Legislature."

The future of recreational cannabis

He also talked about the push to legalize cannabis in Minnesota for recreational use . Martin said he believes the two pro-marijuana-parties and their candidates cost Minnesotans a chance to have a recreational marijuana industry in the last legislative session by syphoning votes from single-issue-voters during the 2020 election, which led to a slight state senate majority for the GOP and a stalled legalization bill.

"The DFL has been on the record for years supporting, not only medicinal-use, but, in recent years, full legalization of recreational marijuana" said Martin. "The benefits (would) be tremendous to this state and this region in terms of agricultural benefits."

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He said there so many benefits like: criminal justice benefits, tax benefits in terms of revenue and less drug arrests would translate to less mass incarceration.

"Look, if you want to legalize marijuana, you're not going to get there by supporting pot-party candidates," said Martin. "In fact, that's only going to put you further away from actually legalizing it. There is only one party in this state that actually supports it and can get it done, and getting it done is the key, and that's the DFL."

The federal $1 trillion infrastructure package

Finally, after nearly an hour of conversation, Martin talked infrastructure.

"President Biden on the infrastructure plan was able to deliver what Donald Trump, Barrack Obama, George Bush and Bill Clinton could not deliver, which is a major infrastructure investment in this country" he said. "This is the largest investment in infrastructure we've seen since the interstate highway bill."

The federal $1 trillion infrastructure bill was passed out of the Senate on Aug. 10 with a bipartisan vote of 69-30. Nineteen Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined their Democratic Senate colleagues in voting for the spending package, but the bill still faces challenges from progressives in the U.S. House, where the Democrats enjoy only an eight seat majority.

Martin, however, assumes the measure will eventually pass and be signed into law. With its passage, he said, it will show that governments can still operate with bipartisanship and work for the people they serve.

"If we're going to start to turn the page on the American cynicism that exists right now, people need to see government working again," he said. "For me, one of the real tangible benefits of this is that people are going to see that bipartisanship is not dead."

Martin believes the historic investment in roads, bridges, transit, electric vehicles, water utilities and broadband will put the country on a pathway to becoming more economically competitive with countries who have continually improved their infrastructure over the years, like China.

Acknowledging the difficult 2022 mid-term elections ahead, Martin said seeking a seventh-term as chairman of the Minnesota DFL isn't on his current radar.

"I don't plan on making this a lifetime appointment," he said. "My hope is that when I hand off the baton that the party is strong, which it will be, and that the next person builds upon the success and has even greater success than we've had."

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Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL-party chairman, profile photo. Aug. 17, 2021. (Michael Achterling / Detroit Lakes Tribune) portrait inline

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