EDITORIAL: No one wins in this situation -- but citizens could lose

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May 11—On April 22, Minnesota State Sen. Nicole Mitchell, a DFLer from Woodbury, was arrested in Detroit Lakes. She was found, dressed entirely in black, in the basement of a Detroit Lakes home owned by her stepmother. A criminal complaint regarding the incident states Mitchell admitted gaining entry to the house through a window, and that after she was found by arresting officers, she told her stepmother "I was just trying to get a couple of my dad's things because you wouldn't talk to me anymore."

The following day, Mitchell was charged with first-degree burglary. That's a felony charge, and if convicted, Mitchell could face a penalty ranging from six months in jail to 20 years in prison.

And then the political posturing began.

There's never a good time for a legislator to run afoul of the law, but Mitchell's timing could scarcely have been worse. If the DFL held a comfortable majority in the Senate, her arrest would have caused much less uproar, but with a one-vote, 34-33 majority, and with less than a month remaining in the 2024 legislative session, Mitchell's arrest has opened the floodgates for a predictable-yet-pointless torrent of partisan maneuvering and bickering that is wasting precious time.

The DFL quickly stripped Mitchell of her committee assignments and barred her from caucus meetings, but that wasn't enough to appease the GOP. One week after her arrest, Republicans twice attempted to block her from voting for the remainder of the session.

Among the leading voices for the GOP were Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester and Sen. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa. Nelson said that any legislation voted on by Mitchell "would put all of our work under a cloud," and Drazkowski said that DFL "protection" of Mitchell could damage "the integrity and the reputation of the Minnesota Senate."

Mitchell herself cast the deciding tally in a party-line decision that retained her voting privileges, at least for now. And four days ago, a four-member ethics committee — two DFLers, two Republicans — predictably could not agree on any direct course of legislative action against Mitchell. The next ethics committee hearing on Mitchell will be in June, after her next court appearance.

Frankly, that's the best outcome we could have hoped for from that committee meeting. No legislative "investigation" into what Mitchell did or didn't do would make much headway between now and May 20, when the legislative session ends.

Mitchell is innocent until proven guilty. We can say right now that she seems to have shown extremely poor judgment, but that doesn't make her a felon. Expelling her from the Senate now, before she has her day in court, would violate a core principle of our legal system. And, if she were allowed to keep her position but prohibited from voting, then her 80,000 constituents would lose their representation in the Minnesota Senate.

And here's another fact that's worth noting: According to the Minnesota Reformer , during the past five years, five legislators — three DFLers, two Republicans — have been arrested on DWI charges and eventually pleaded guilty. None were expelled from office or lost their voting privileges, and all five remain in office.

Granted, those DWI charges were not felonies, but one could also argue that an impaired driver might well pose more of a threat to public safety than a person who allegedly broke into the home of a family member to retrieve some of her late father's belongings. Which crime is worse?

The truth is that nothing in the Senate's code of ethics provides solid guidance about how such a situation should be handled. Perhaps the code should be changed. We wouldn't oppose the creation of some clear procedures for both the House and Senate to follow when an elected official is arrested and charged.

But those procedures should be created in a thoughtful, bipartisan manner for future use, not on the fly and after the fact to target a specific legislator who faces criminal charges.

If convicted of a felony, we expect Mitchell to be expelled from the Senate (if she doesn't resign first). A legislator who commits a felony while in office should not keep his/her job.

But right now, Mitchell and the rest of the Legislature have a lot of work to do, and it's time to refocus on the tasks at hand. Gun safety legislation remains in limbo, as does funding for rural emergency medical services. Legalized sports betting seems bogged down yet again, and a long-awaited Equal Rights Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution (which would require voter approval) has yet to reach the governor's desk. The DFL could pass all of the above measures on strict party-line votes, and that might indeed happen with some of these proposals.

The capital investment bill, however, is a different story. The proposed package includes nearly $1 billion in funding for higher education, roads, bridges, utilities, clean water and a lot of other no-frills, nuts-and-bolts projects. The bonding bill requires a 60% super-majority in both the House and Senate, which means that the GOP could scuttle it. Republicans might be tempted to do just that if the DFL (with Mitchell's vote, of course) acts unilaterally on other issues.

Threatening (or at least delaying) the bonding bill is the only trump card Republicans hold right now, and we expect them to play it. The DFL might have to give up something to gain the necessary GOP votes for bonding, and we can expect the usual game of beat-the-clock as the session ends.

But we are certain of two things. First, Nicole Mitchell will be on the Senate floor as the final votes are cast. And second, it would be a travesty if Mitchell's legal troubles ultimately nix a capital investment bill that should fund many long-delayed infrastructure projects across the state of Minnesota.