Steve Cwodzinski (pronounced Swodzinski) has long been a man in love.
For 33 years, he loved teaching history and government to Eden Prairie High School students. In 2018 and again in 2020, the Eden Prairie Democrat was elected state senator for Senate District 48 (redistricting has rechristened Senate District 49). He now says he loves coming to his legislative job every day. He also loves a beautiful lady: his new home, the Minnesota Capitol building.
In his book, “Beyond the Lesson Plan,” he declares, “I believe that an educated, informed, enlightened and engaged population is a necessary ingredient for every democracy to properly function. That civic virtue and political efficacy go hand in hand.”
In an autumn 2021 charity auction, I made the highest bid for a Capitol tour conducted by this man whose training as a historian and whose enthusiasm for public service has made him an encyclopedia of facts and feelings about the Capitol.
On April 30, a group of relatives and neighbors and I met our tour leader in the rotunda of the Capitol. He pointed to the walls and floor, saying the basement is sandstone, and the three interior stories are granite from St. Cloud. The exterior of the Capitol had been controversial. Just 30 years after the Civil War, architect Cass Gilbert wanted to cover the building with white marble from — of all places — Georgia! Gilbert firmly resisted objections from what had been Union Minnesota.
The bold rider and team of horses atop the white marble building are 25-feet tall and are made of copper overlaid with gold leaf.
We stood in the dramatic rotunda as Cwodzinski noted the large star design on the floor — L’Étoile du Nord, the Minnesota motto “the Star of the North.” He observed that the eight points of the star were made by the peaks of four M’s — for Minnesota.
Our eyes moved upward to the ornate open second story that overlooked us and from there to the celestial dome, which our guide informed us was 230 feet above us. Cwodzinski told us that it was one of the few domes in the world that did not require a steel support skeleton.
Architect Gilbert went on to create the Woolworth building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court building in the District of Columbia. He insisted that a full 7 percent of the Capitol construction budget be devoted to art of every sort to embellish the building. Amidst the many murals and statuary, there is a modest bust of Gilbert and, opposite it, a stern bust of Hubert H. Humphrey.
Gilbert’s whimsy is evident throughout the Capitol. At the top of the metal gate of the Senate chamber is a depiction of a Minnesota gopher standing on its hind legs, one of many gopher images in the building.
Traveling up to the third floor with our guide, we were directed to a stairway, a building accent that is one of many that show the Capitol’s blending of art and architecture. Tiffany windows spill the sun’s light on three flights of unique cantilevered stairs. During the 2013-2017 renovation of the building, Tiffany itself redid the windows.
On the second floor, we entered the Minnesota Senate chamber, a solemn place where all senators are required to wear business attire. If some senators need to converse, they have to go to a rear room away from the Senate floor. Priority seating is controlled by the majority party, and preferred seating is in the rear of the chamber, permitting majority and senior senators to command a view of the entire chamber.
The ebullient Cwodzinski said that the only part of his job that he hates is the unpredictability of the hours. He tells his wife, “I’ll be home for supper. I’ll see you at about five o’clock, five-thirty, six.” Then one day this week, he got home at 12:30 a.m.
Moving to the House chamber, we saw an immense portrait of President Lincoln above the Speaker’s desk. In 1858 Minnesota became a state. In 1860 Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Cwodzinski noted that Lincoln had a great affection for Minnesota. Minnesota sent the first Union soldiers to the Civil War. Later, in the Battle of Gettysburg, Minnesota’s regiment suffered 83% of its soldiers killed, wounded, or missing.
Minnesota’s legalization of carrying guns means that citizens may carry weapons in the Capitol. When the Legislature has debated gun laws, citizens openly carrying guns have, in fact, stood just outside the legislative chambers.
At the Minnesota Supreme Court chamber, we viewed the sweeping desk at which the seven justices sit. Above their seats is a mural of Moses receiving the law of the Ten Commandments. At the chamber door is a bust of Minnesota’s own Warren Burger, who served as U.S. Supreme Court chief justice from 1969 to 1986. Another Minnesotan on the U.S. Supreme Court was Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, who — noteworthy today — wrote the court’s Roe v. Wade opinion.
At one point, Cwodzinski stopped to focus on his favorite mural, which is above the entrance to the Senate chamber.
“The Sacred Flame (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow)” shows three allegorical women. In its lower righthand corner is the withered woman Yesterday igniting a flame, which she hands on to Today, who in turn passes it to Tomorrow, who steps off into the future.
For our guide, this passing of the flame is the central activity of the Capitol. He sees public service as one of the highest callings. He views citizen involvement as essential for our democracy.
Editor’s note: This story focuses on a tour of the State Capitol led by DFL State Sen. Steve Cwodzinski. The writer, EPLN contributor Frank Malley, is a DFL precinct chair.