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Citizens League

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Art Rolnick, Steve Seel, and Rep. Carlos Mariani at a Policy and a Pint session.

Art Rolnick, co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota and a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute, left, joins host Steve Seel of The Current and Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, at a Policy and a Pint session Monday, July 23, 2012 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis to talk about student debt.

Since 1952, the Citizens League has had a major impact on public policies in Minnesota. A group of civic leaders had the idea of inviting leaders from different parts of the community to the table to solve big policy issues. This meant bringing together lawmakers, union leaders, heads of Minnesota companies, and experts from universities and industries. As a group, these experts and leaders would study an issue and then write a research paper they could all agree on. Then they would do the political work required to make their conclusions a reality.

"The League was started when things weren't working, when Minnesota had challenges that weren't being met," said Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw in a 2012 interview. "Our goal was to bring citizens into solving the issues in new and different ways."

Starting with its first report in 1952, "Citizens League Report on Park Board Referendum," the group began to contribute ideas and affect policies in Minneapolis and, later, the broader region. They did this by studying issues, drafting and publicizing policy proposals, and then working to get them adopted. They also rated political candidates and wrote election guides for citizens.

An influential paper written by the League in 1967 led to the creation of a governmental unit that is unique in the United States. In "A Metropolitan Council for the Twin Cities Area," the League proposed a regional government entity that would support Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding area. The report was followed by an intense and ultimately successful effort to create the Metropolitan Council. Among other services, the Council operates the area's largest bus system and provides affordable housing opportunities.

Another regional effort, "New Formulas for Revenue Sharing," was published in 1970. Wendell R. Anderson adopted it as his platform in his race for governor. After he won, he worked with the League to implement the reforms, which raised state income and sales tax rates to take the burden off of local property taxes. This had the effect of making government more progressive and of equalizing the money available to schools and local governments. The result became known as the Minnesota Miracle.

The League studied higher education in 1971 and issued "An Urban College: New Kinds of Students on a New Kind of Campus." This led to the creation of Metropolitan State University, which was designed for working adults.

In the 1980s the Citizens League tackled health care and children's education. It published "Start Right with Right Start" in 1987 which helped create Minnesota Care. This landmark program ensures health-care coverage for the state's working poor. In 1988, the League issued "Chartered Schools = Choices for Educators + Quality for all Students." Three years later, Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation allowing for charter schools.

A report titled "Driving Blind" was issued in 2005. It called for more transportation choices in the metro area. Proposed choices included "free flow pricing" and better choices for transit. They also included options like flexible work schedules, which allow drivers to stay off the road during rush hours.

In the early 21st century, the League is working to help improve effectiveness in higher education. Another area of study is how to make mental-health care more efficient, affordable and available. The League is addressing improving the financial affairs of people as they age and electrical efficiency in the state. The League also follows up on its previous policy issues.

Kershaw, the League's sixth executive director, has been working to involve more citizens in the process. The League has gone into workplaces to make presentations on policy issues and promote discussion. It also began the "Policy and a Pint series of seminars designed for a new generation. Rather than having breakfast meetings, young people meet in the evening to talk about policy issues.

The League also has had to change the way it implements its proposals. In its early years, the League would issue a report and then work with lawmakers to enact the policies. Now it must include many more details in its proposals.

"We have to build a complete infrastructure and determine how it's going to affect Minnesotans far into the future," Kershaw said.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Citizens League: An Inventory of its Records
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Minutes (1971-1981), correspondence, reports (1958-1984), subject files, notebooks, financial information, and printed materials relating to the Citizens League.

Citizens League. A Metropolitan Council for the Twin Cities Area.

Citizens League. History of the Citizens League.

Minnesota Historical Society. Public Education Funding Reform: The "Minnesota Miracle of 1971".

Reichgott Jung, Ember. "Zero Chance of Passage; the Pioneering Charter School Story."

Related Audio

MN90: The Citizens League | Details

Related Images

Art Rolnick, Steve Seel, and Rep. Carlos Mariani at a Policy and a Pint session.
Art Rolnick, Steve Seel, and Rep. Carlos Mariani at a Policy and a Pint session.
Ted Kolderie
Ted Kolderie
Sean Kershaw
Sean Kershaw

Turning Point

In the late 1950s, the League expands its studies and its membership, leading to successful proposals to form the Metropolitan Council, establish Metro State University, and create other regional policies.



The League's first organizational meeting is held in February. In April, Ray Black is hired as the first executive director. He serves until 1958.


The League recommends a metropolitan parks system, leading to the establishment of the Hennepin County Park District.


Frank Lloyd Wright speaks to more than one thousand people at the League's annual meeting, the largest gathering in the organization's history.


Verne Johnson is hired as the League's executive director. He initiates public policy breakfast meetings.


The legislature adopts the League's recommendation to create the Metropolitan Council. Ted Kolderie becomes executive director, serving until 1980.


The League issues the report "Why Not Buy Service," urging new approaches to the delivery of public services.


Curt Johnson becomes executive director, serving until 1991.


League membership reaches 3,400.


Lyle Wray becomes executive director, serving until 2003.


Sean Kershaw becomes executive director.


The League celebrates its sixtieth anniversary.