by Reed Anfinson
Perhaps the most common complaint we hear about Congress today is how bitterly divided it is. Democrats and Republicans don’t socialize anymore. They don’t have friends across the aisle like they once did – friendships that helped them respect one another and negotiate important legislation together.
Now the vast majority are in lockstep with their parties on voting with few crossing over to vote principle over party.
Not all members of Congress are this way but those who genuinely are respected on both sides of the aisle are hardly more than a handful. U.S. 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson is one of those few.
Make no mistake about it, Peterson is a conservative Democratic. He is pro-life, highly ranked by the National Rifle Association, and is a fiscal conservative who votes with Republicans at times. He was one of only two Democrats in the House to vote against impeaching President Donald Trump on the charge of abuse of power and one of only three to vote no on charging him with obstruction of justice.
Each time he has run for office Peterson has observed that Republicans keep trying to run to the right of him. It doesn’t work. It takes them too far right and out of the mainstream of mostly conservative but practical western Minnesotans.
Peterson couldn’t get elected in more than three-quarters of the congressional districts now controlled by Democrats. The more liberal wing of the party would oust him in favor of a candidate more suited to the base of their districts. However, Peterson’s conservative, “Blue Dog,” mantle wears well in the 7th District. Still, he is a Democrat
Peterson understands rural America, and not just agriculture. He understands what rural businesses need to survive. He knows the challenges small towns face as they deal with declining rural populations that result in lost businesses, schools that have to merge, churches closed and financially threatened hospitals.
In one of the most rural, agricultural House districts in America, we have an asset we will likely never have again – a chair of the powerful House Agriculture Committee. His chairmanship gives Peterson not only an influential say in how agriculture policy is shaped, but also in the many rural development programs that help small towns across the nation.
His ability to work across the aisle with Republicans serves the needs of Minnesotans. We were recently on a call with Peterson about the desperate need for rural community newspapers to receive support. He pledged his help and said he would be acting quickly. Just over a week later we were invited to participate in call with Republican South Dakota U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson and his state’s newspapers.
Peterson’s leadership and ability to work across the aisle has been recognized by two national organizations. Earlier this year he was presented with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship.
“America’s elected leaders should be men and women of conviction and principle who are also able to find common ground with those with whom they disagree,” the description of the award states. “Since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton, America has benefitted from leaders who found ways to work together despite their differences. The new Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship recognizes those members of Congress who in their actions have demonstrated a willingness to work across the aisle in support of common objectives.”
The Chamber gives the award to the top 20 members of the U.S. House and the top 10 U.S. Senators who have shown through their records and actions that they can work across the aisle. Peterson earned a 99 percent ranking from the Chamber in its scoring for House members on their bipartisan character.
In May, the Lugar Center and McCourt School presented their new Bipartisan Index Rankings for the first year of the 116th Congress. Peterson ranked 8th out of 435 members of the House in his ability to work with members of the other party.
“Many functions and decisions within Congress remain bitterly partisan, especially those pitting the leadership of the parties against one another,” said Lugar Center Policy Director Dan Diller. “Yet the Bipartisan Index continues to find an undercurrent of bipartisan cooperation between individual members of Congress on introducing and co-sponsoring legislation.”
The rankings are based on the frequency with which members work with members of the other party on their bill sponsorships and co-sponsorships.
“Today, our interdependencies are more obvious and urgent than ever,” said Maria Cancian, dean of Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “While hyper-partisanship continues in Congress, our latest Bipartisan Index–– a nonpartisan and data-driven tool––points to a crosscurrent of cooperation among lawmakers. This offers hope, as our future depends on our ability to work together across the aisle and across differences for the common good.”
Peterson’s opponent on the November ballot Republican Michelle Fischbach would be a competent member of Congress. She served as a Republican state senator from the Paynesville area and then as the state’s lieutenant governor under Democrat Mark Dayton. However, if she is elected and Democrats retain control of the U.S. House, the 7th District will have traded a powerful, conservative, committee chair with a proven ability to work across the aisle for a freshmen member of the minority party with little influence.
When Peterson speaks on rural issues, his voice carries the weight of a committee chair not just with his colleagues, not just with the leadership of the Democratic Party, but with American industry and foreign countries. A strong voice for rural America is essential at a time when our rural population continues to fall and our voice in the halls of Congress gets ever weaker. Peterson is that essential voice.