Richard Painter is not your typical Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, even in my idiosyncratic home of Minnesota. For one thing, he is a Republican, or at least has been for almost all of his life. He served in the George W. Bush administration, in fact, as the chief ethics lawyer. On many issues, he holds conservative positions one might expect from a lifelong Republican who now works as a corporate law professor. Yet he might win, and it would be good for us all if he does.
Everyone in politics, from the far right to the far left, seems to decry “divisiveness,” a call that usually means that everyone else should come to their side and agree with them. The response to our divisions has not been compromise or moving to the middle; rather, it has been retrenchment and retribution. The result is a government that gets little done in addressing the very real challenges our nation faces.
That’s why Painter is important. He has made his name as a conservative critic of President Trump, primarily on ethical grounds (which is, after all, one of his specialties), yet he holds more progressive views on a few key issues, including health care. His support of a single-payer system puts him to the left of many Democrats in the Senate. If he wins, he will be a very rare bird in Congress: a smart, articulate moderate who holds a mix of principled views. Once upon a time, it was moderates on both sides who largely determined our policies on the environment, economy and foreign policy. It served us well then, and can again. Compromise is not evil; the Constitution constructs a government that only functions well when compromise is possible.
Can Painter win? To win the nomination, he must beat the incumbent, Tina Smith. Sen. Smith was the lieutenant governor before being handed the Senate job after Al Franken resigned. Despite having held two important statewide positions, she is not well-known among the electorate. That’s a problem in a state that often favors sharp personalities. After all, Minnesota elected a pro wrestler (Jesse Ventura) as governor and a raunchy comedian (Franken) as senator.
When the Washington Post asked Painter if he could win over Democrats, he responded, “If people want to use party labels, that’s how we get into this problem. If voters just want to say: ‘Anybody who’s been in the Republican Party is going to agree with the Republican Party on every issue,’ as opposed to ‘Look at the facts.’”
It would be good to have facts matter again, wouldn’t it? We seem to be awash in a bipartisan obsession with winning rather than achieving, with blaming rather than solving problems. It’s a good time for ethics, too. The 2016 presidential election offered a choice between two ethically compromised candidates who saw no problems with relying on foreigners seeking influence to finance their projects. We need to expect more from both parties and Painter is the perfect person to press for that.
A few months ago I went back to my alma mater, William and Mary. A mentor and friend, Professor Ron Rapoport, was retiring from a remarkable career teaching government there. He guided me and hundreds of others into careers that are driven by a belief in the possibilities and challenges of democracy. Rapoport is a native of Waco and I happily found myself sitting at the “Waco table” with Chet and Lea Ann Edwards. Chet Edwards was my congressman when I lived in Texas — a smart, moderate Democrat who was able to work across party lines. It was wonderful to spend an evening with them. We didn’t talk much about politics; that’s not what the event was for.
Still, as I walked out into the warm Virginia air, it was impossible not to think about what we have lost with the absence of men and women like Chet Edwards in Congress. Adherence to rigid party orthodoxy or cult of personality is not serving us well.
Richard Painter may not be the typical candidate. But if he can bring what Edwards did, there may be a road away from politics dominated by warring sides rather than servants of the people.
Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) and author of “Contemporary Criminal Law” (West 2018). A former federal prosecutor, he previously taught at Baylor Law School.