Insider outsider: An interview with Mark Ritchie

Experienced at working with international institutions and grassroots activists alike, Mark Ritchie has been known to use an “insider-outsider strategy.” It's an apt descriptor: A onetime chicken farmer and co-op organizer, he’s addressed the UN General Assembly on commodities and sustainable development. A speaker at the first-ever World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and organizer of a boycott of Nestle (for their campaign urging mothers in developing countries to switch from breast milk to formula), he’s worked closely with corporations like Cargill in developing sustainable practices. For 20 years, he’s lead the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a non-profit he founded that researches global trade's effects on local family farmers, and in 2004, he spearheaded the nation’s largest voter registration drive, in which five million new voters registered through a project marked by blue t-shirts emblazoned only with the text: “November 2.”

On November 7, Ritchie hopes to unseat Minnesota's incumbent Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. With just days before the election, I caught up with him to discuss not just the race, but the ideas that shape his politics that are unabashedly progressive, deeply humane, and solidly pragmatic.

We’ve discussed the zero-waste campaign events you’ve hosted, IATP’s work writing standards for the production of biodegradable, plant-based polymers for industrial use, and your work on the global trade issues that affect family farmers. How will you bring your knowledge of sustainability and environmental practices into the office of Secretary of State?

I’m going to be very busy as Secretary of State dealing with certain messes and finding out the problems. But there are three things I believe I can contribute. One is sitting on the board of investment policymaking for the pension funds. $50 billion: it’s pension money. It should have a 50-year perspective, because that’s about how long most folks are working these days. And to have a 50-year perspective is to have an ecological and a sustainable perspective long term.

Second, the Secretary of State’s office spends money, so you can set standards. We have standards now for buying from veteran-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses. We have standards for mercury reduction. Having a standard that looks at bio-based, Minnesota-based, renewable sources is not that complicated anymore and certainly could be done.

And finally, people are interested in vision. What’s your vision of the democracy? What’s your vision of the country? What’s your vision of the future? As Secretary of State you get the opportunity to speak to audiences—sometimes it’s one reporter and sometimes it’s a thousand students gathered for a conference—so being able to articulate a vision that’s holistic, so that the democracy fits into respect for rights and responsibilities which then extends to the communities around us.

Who are some of the thinkers, in Minnesota or elsewhere, who’ve inspired you?

David Morris from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In the ‘30s, Henry Ford and others spearheaded the Chemurgy Movement, which was a movement to get off of petroleum and base our industrial economy on plant matter, on things that would grow. They were essentially defeated by cheap oil. The US invaded north Africa. We seized control of the oil fields—the British did with the US—guaranteeing cheap petroleum, and it basically killed off the chemurgy movement.

But David Morris began talking about the carbohydrate economy, and he began educating all of us about how we could do all these things with plant matter and how that would affect Minnesota’s economy, and how we could stop importing oil and stop killing ourselves with these poisonous petroleum-based products and destroying the ozone and destroying the climate. David Morris single-handedly rebirthed that movement.

Will Steger, as an explorer, basically set out to go places and do things that nobody’s ever done, and in the course of doing that he became intimate with the details of how human-generated changes in the climate have begun to alter everything from the tiniest plants to the glacial ice shelf of Greenland and Antarctica. He was able to bring a vision by being able to talk about it from the personal in a way that no one has ever done, at least in my experiences no one’s done it quite like that.

There’s a lot in our history. The artist [Francis Lee] Jaques was able to capture some of this in painting and in art. Ann Bancroft is also somebody who, through her own experience is able to articulate another way to see the world and be able to communicate that—especially to young people. Minnesota’s loaded!

In your work with IATP, you’ve befriended everyone from CEOs to small-scale organic farmers. How will that experience come into play in the Secretary of State’s office?

I feel fortunate that I’m old enough to have learned a lot of things over time, like how to be respectful of other views and how to draw on the experience of others and make the emphasis on finding win-win solutions and getting things done. I feel fortunate to be old enough to have gotten to that stage. Especially with elections. Because township officials, city clerks, and county auditors: those are the people who actually run elections. They’re a mix of every political stripe you’ve got. So, if you’re able to include and involve all those election officials, then you’re going to have a richness that transcends a single partisan perspective or any perspective in that way.

Elections are the most prominent part of the Secretary’s job. What about the other aspects? There are business filings, you’re the keeper of the state song or whatever…

(Laughs.) The two other big things: the Secretary of State sits on the pension board. This has been pretty secretive until the big flap over Mary Kiffmeyer’s support of William McGuire and the whole United Health board debacle. Mike Hatch and Pat Anderson voted to remove the board of United that had all these corrupt executives and Pawlenty recused himself, because he takes a lot of campaign contributions from these corrupt executive. Mary Kiffmeyer voted in favor of the corrupt executives. That whole process needs to be transparent. The second is that the conflicts of interest need to be put out there. I mean, Mary Kiffmeyer is a major owner of a very large bank, so there’s all kinds of potential conflict of interest, because banks have customers and pension funds are making investments. There’s a lot to that pension fund that hasn’t been talked about much.

That’s one job. The second one is two-thirds of the staff, and it’s business filings. One of the reasons I’ve gotten such strong, positive support from the county recorders—the folks who handle business filing at the county level—is that they’re constantly frustrated by the failures in the office when the computers go down or all the services are unavailable and it makes them look like fools back home.

One thing I hadn't noticed was how angry the commercial business-related lawyers were until I started getting invited to give presentations at all these fancy downtown law firms. When I got to my first one, a guy said to me, “You know, we were all furious when Mary Kiffmeyer decided to just close the business filings part of her office” in kind of a snit with Jesse Ventura. Ventura said all agencies should save money by reducing costs by a certain percent, and she said, essentially, the heck with you, and shut the office down. Many lawyers said, "Wait, you can’t do that. We’ve got clients who want to file as corporations, they want us to do name changes." Some of them switched to doing it in Wisconsin and Delaware. They were furious.

Last week I was doing one of these presentation at a 40th floor of a big downtown law firm, and the guy repeated a story: earlier in the week he was talking to a lawyer in Boston, representing a Boston-based investor in a Minnesota company, and they were arguing that they should reincorporate the company in Delaware not in Minnesota. One of his arguments was: “The Secretary of State is always shutting down the office there. How can you ever deal with them?” Minnesota law firms—big ones—compete with coastal-based law firms in New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles. And the perception is the typical stereotype: we’re flyover land, we’re hicks, things don’t really work, we’re really second tier. When the Secretary of State does something like shut down the office and make everybody look like a fool, it reinforces that perception that we’re just not up to snuff here and it’s damaging to their ability to compete at a national level for legal business. I know that Business Services side doesn’t get much attention, it does take up a lot of staff, but if you don’t operate it properly, you can create a very bad situation for Minnesota businesses…

I’ve spent 20-some months meeting with all the people who interact with that office on a daily or weekly basis, and I’ve gotten an earful from auditors and recorders and everybody. I have a long list of the problems, but I also have a long list of very helpful specific suggestions on ways to fix the problems, improvements that could be made, and really creative—some of them genius—ideas for things we could do going forward. I’m very excited to get in there and roll my sleeves up and reinspire that staff and say, hey, we’re going to turn this around.

I find it interesting that you haven’t played up your huge voter registration experience more in your campaign. You’re the guy behind that, but I suspect more people have seen those November 2 t-shirts than have heard of you.

Yeah, I know. While I’m extremely proud of it and I mentioned it in the ad and I love saying it in speeches, I want to make sure that I’m always clear that this was a huge effort and that I had the privilege of being the leader and coming up with and moving it. But there was a couple thousand groups—400 in Minnesota. Registering five million people is this Herculean task, and one person can have a big role, but one person can’t be that campaign.

I haven’t seen much campaigning by Mary Kiffmeyer in the metro area; is she giving up on the Twin Cities or my demographic?

There’s a lot of billboards and radio, and there are some full-page ads in things like the Senior Federation paper. She has very high name recognition, and I have very low name recognition, so probably she’s pitching her base. Her ads feature Dick Franson speaking, with her coming in on the end saying “I approve this ad.” So her ads are a little unusual in that way.

Isn’t that a bit like what you did on your TV spots with Joan Growe?

Well. Joan Growe was the most beloved and 24-years-serving Secretary of State. Dick Franson is a 22-time failed candidate, in and out of bankruptcy, writes me racist notes and threatening little postcards. He’s like the opposite. So, anyhow. That’s her decision—whatever—but one of the four candidates, Bruce Kennedy, really went after her publicly in the debate in Duluth about this… He called it exploitation. It was a very strong statement, and he really meant it.

In preparing for this interview, I was looking for your critics. The only criticism I’ve heard is that you’re not running for higher office.

(Laughs) Yeah. I feel like there’s a bit of disrespect for the office of Secretary of State, and I’ve noticed it inside the political parties, the media, and the public, and even among my friends. I think the mechanics and the guardianship of democracy and the voting process in the past was well done, so people didn’t worry about it. So the job didn’t seem so important. And then Florida woke us up—and Ohio and Mary Kiffmeyer set off a big alarm—but I’ve found for myself, traveling the state and talking about the democracy every night, that I don’t believe there’s a more important job than being a champion of the democracy at this stage in the nation’s history. It’s not just the question of the elections, but the whole assault on the democracy: attacks on judges and gerrymandering and ripping up the constitution. To my friends who said, “Why are you wasting your time,” I’ve gotten so I answer them with some pretty strong words. Defending the democracy is the most important thing I can be doing, and that’s what I should be doing, and I’m going to do a really good job of it.

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