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How Minnesota can plow a way forward

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Rural Minnesota is losing its influence, reports a new study by the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Echoing the concerns of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who a few weeks ago noted the weakening in Washington of rural America's clout, the St. Peter, Minn.-based nonprofit says demographics and other forces threaten to leave Main Street Minnesota behind.

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So, what should rural Minnesota do?

The answer almost certainly will include this one word:

Unify.

The fact is, rural Minnesota is not going to reverse powerful demographic trends anytime soon. But the region's lawmakers can and should focus on the true-est of the truisms in politics: "In unity there is strength."

In practical terms, that means lawmakers should join hands, put party differences aside and speak with one voice when bills that are important to rural Minnesota come up for debate. If they could do this -- and if, in turn, they started using their newfound unity as a bargaining chip, withholding support on other bills in return for metro and suburban lawmakers' cooperation on rural issues -- then the next policy paper won't bemoan rural Minnesota's lack of clout.

Instead, it'll celebrate the region's facing up to the realities of demography and economics, and forging a productive way forward through good old-fashioned politics.

But how to get from here to there? After all, rural Minnesota elects both Democrats and Republicans; and right now, the prospects of their cooperating on much of anything seem slim.

Is it realistic to imagine the lion laying down with the lamb?

Absolutely, because the sad reality of small-town decline has a way of focusing one's mind -- and if properly directed, the object of that focus can be on practical solutions, not partisan politics.

Two institutions can play key roles. First, the Center for Rural Policy and Development itself should be a player. The center stands out: As its website describes, the center is a "nonpartisan, not-for-profit research organization dedicated to benefiting Minnesota by providing its policy makers with an unbiased evaluation of issues from a rural perspective."

This focus on research and "unbiased evaluation" can be a powerful force, giving rural Democrats and small-town Republicans workable solutions that lawmakers can rally around.

And speaking of research, the second institution is the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, an organization whose power the Center for Rural Policy's new research makes clear.

"Organizations focused on economic development are perceived by survey respondents to be the most effective voices of influence for rural Minnesota," the center's study notes.

"When asked to rank the effectiveness of 11 organizations, 71 percent of respondents said local chambers were 'very effective' or 'somewhat effective,'" and the Minnesota Chamber itself also drew high marks.

Last month, a newspaper publisher in rural Georgia wrote about small-town politics this way: "About the only left or right slant most farmers are interested in is which way you turn at the end of a plowed row." That's the kind of mindset lawmakers in rural Minnesota need. And if they couple well-researched ideas from the Center for Rural Policy (as well as from the state's colleges and universities, another key ally) with the Minnesota Chamber's respected advocacy, those lawmakers can find and stand on common ground.

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