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DULUTH, Minn. —
The soaring Blatnik Bridge spans a modest body of water but a
political gulf. 

Most mornings
around 7, Kim and Kyle Smith drive a mile and a half across the
bridge from Duluth, where they live, to Superior, Wis., where they
teach. On the same bridge most mornings, scores of workers from
Superior head the opposite direction, making their way to a foundry
that Andy Fulton’s company runs in
Duluth. 

This is a well-traveled commute between
the Minnesota and Wisconsin cities, separated by the St. Louis
River. Together, they are known as the Twin Ports for their shared
role as a major cargo
port
, and people on both sides share Scandinavian, German
and Irish roots, working-class pasts and a stoic sensibility
hardened by a steady chill off Lake
Superior. 

But these days, when residents cross
the bridge, they enter starkly different political territories.
Since Republicans in Wisconsin took control of the State
Legislature and governor’s office in 2011, and since Democrats
gained full dominance in Minnesota last year, people here have
watched essential elements of their daily lives — their savings
plans, job expectations, personal relationships and health
insurance — veer apart. 

For the Smiths,
like other members of public sector labor unions, working on the
Wisconsin side has meant rising personal contributions for health
insurance and pensions and a union with drastically less
negotiating power. For Mr. Fulton, like many business executives,
running a company on the Minnesota side has meant bracing for new
business taxes and higher income taxes. Mr. Fulton, a
third-generation foundryman, has worked in Minnesota long enough to
recall the decision to open the Duluth operation in 1980, a period
when life looked much the same on either side of the border, many
say. 

“Knowing then what we know now, would
we even do it in the state of Minnesota anywhere?” said Mr. Fulton,
the president of ME Global, which operates the foundry. “I doubt
it. We would go to another location. It’s an expensive place to do
business.” 

The states did not always seem so
different. Animosity between Packers fans and Vikings fans once
seemed the widest divide. Both Duluth and Superior lean Democratic.
Both have their share of Lutheran and Catholic churches. People buy
their clothes in Duluth, their cigarettes in Superior. They ride
mountain-biking trails and join book clubs in Duluth, then cross
back for a burger at Superior’s Anchor
Bar. 

But the political polarization that has
left Washington divided and deadlocked has also pulled the
neighboring states apart. Thirty-six states are now controlled
entirely by a single political party, the largest number in six
decades. Twenty-three states are dominated by Republicans, 13 by
Democrats. 

Far from leading to the paralysis that
has caused debt-limit brinkmanship and government shutdown in
Washington, one-party control has turned state capitals into
feverish testing grounds for the nation’s most-debated policies, on
the left and even more so on the
right. 

A look at two states right next to each
other, Wisconsin and Minnesota, tells the
story. 

In the last presidential race, their
votes were almost identical: 52.8 percent of Wisconsin voters picked
President Obama, and 45.8 percent Mitt Romney; in Minnesota, 52.6
percent voted
for Mr. Obama, and just under 45 percent for Mr. Romney. Yet the
two states have been at the forefront of new efforts by liberals
and conservatives alike to influence state capitals after decades
in which Washington was the main stage for their ideological
battles. 

In Wisconsin, conservative and
Republican groups overwhelmed labor unions and liberals to elect
Scott Walker as governor and insulate him and Republican lawmakers
from a labor-led recall effort. In Minnesota, a coalition of
wealthy in-state donors joined with national labor unions and
gay-rights groups to smother the state’s divided Republican Party
with a blitz of advertising and grass-roots organizing, handing
Minnesota’s Legislature to Democrats, who also held the governor’s
office. 

Few places reveal the chasm like Duluth
and Superior, where life along the border has come to look like a
jarring, real-time experiment in which neighbors’ lives are
suddenly heading along separate
trajectories. 

In Duluth, where Mr. and Ms. Smith live
on a quiet cul-de-sac on a hill, there are signs of labor
expansion. Minnesota lawmakers last year voted to grant in-home
child care workers and personal attendants permission to form
unions. But in Superior, where the Smiths have taught at the city’s
high school for nearly two decades, labor’s power diminished
precipitously after a
decision
by Wisconsin lawmakers, parts of which are still
being contested in the courts, to solve a budget crunch by slashing
bargaining rights for public-sector union workers and raising their
shares of health and pension
costs. 

For the Smiths, the effects were
instant. With more than $6,000 less in an already-lean annual
family budget, Ms. Smith, a Spanish teacher who had worked part
time to spend mornings with her children, had no choice but to move
to full-time hours. “We just weren’t going to be able to make it,”
she said. 

Supervising their two children, Will,
12, and Ilee, 10, before and after school has become a juggling
act. And with the union losing much of its ability to negotiate,
Ms. Smith at one point even considered stopping her dues, even
though her husband is on the union’s labor management committee. “I
got to wondering,” Ms. Smith said, “what am I paying
for?” 

Mr. Smith, who teaches history, said
that he adored his work and his students, but that he could not
shake the sense that the rug had been pulled from under him. This
month, he will start teaching students at a local university one
night a week to make extra money and to get a glimpse at what else
may be out there. 

“It wasn’t
until the last two and a half years where I really started
wondering: Is this what I’m going to do?” Mr. Smith said. “Can I
keep doing it? What else could I
do?” 

Back home in Duluth, the schools have
wrestled with their own uncertainties in recent years — financial
struggles, crowded classrooms and teacher layoffs. But school
officials say they now feel optimistic about the year ahead, given
an added levy approved in November by local voters, as well as
about $4 million in new state funds
expected. 

“Up until just a very short time ago,
these places were always way more similar than they were
different,” Mr. Smith said. “Then this all came down, and they’ve
gone their own ways.” 

‘Put-Up or
Shut-Up Time’ 

In Wisconsin, the change began with
elections in 2010, when a national Republican wave swept through a
Capitol then dominated by Democrats. For the first time in a dozen
years, both legislative chambers and the governor’s office switched
to the Republicans — not to mention a United States Senate seat
long held by Russ Feingold, a Democrat, and the majority of the
state’s delegation to the United States House of Representatives.
Mr. Walker, the newly elected governor, saw the results as a call
from voters for a clear shift in course, he said in an interview
last year. 

“It’s put-up or shut-up time,” Mr.
Walker recalled telling Republican lawmakers after the election
that flipped the state capital, Madison, to Republican control. “It
was a reminder to us that if we just nibble around the edges and
we’re just not quite as bad as the Democrats were before us, the
voters will have every right to kick us out of office two years
from now.” 

During the same period, Minnesota was
trying out divided government. Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and
the two Republican-controlled legislative chambers in St. Paul hit
such an impasse over how to solve a budget gap that parts of state
government shut down for several weeks in 2011. The next year, the
Democratic Party, known here as the D.F.L., won the House and
Senate, gaining sole control of Minnesota for the first time in two
decades. 

It was almost the mirror image of what
had happened in Wisconsin. And in the months that followed, neither
state could be accused of nibbling around the
edges. 

In 2013, Wisconsin’s lawmakers cut
income taxes. They approved an expansion of school vouchers. They
passed a requirement, portions of which are now being contested in
court, that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local
hospitals and that women seeking abortions get ultrasounds. They
rewrote iron mining rules to ease construction of an open pit in
Northern Wisconsin. 

In Minnesota,
lawmakers sent more money to public schools, raised income taxes on
the highest earners, increased the tax on cigarettes and voted to
add new business taxes. They allowed
some undocumented immigrants
to get in-state tuition for
public universities. They legalized same-sex
marriage. 

“It’s staggering, really, like night
and day,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the
University of Minnesota. “You’ve got two states with the same
history, the same culture, the same people — it’s kind of like
they’re cousins. And now they’re looking across the border and
seeing one world, then seeing something else entirely on the other
side.” 

Few cross between these twin ports as
often as Alvin Berg and Vince Nelson, the co-owners of two gay
bars, each known as the Flame, one in Superior, population 27,000,
the other in Duluth, about three times
larger. 

The opening in 2012 of the Duluth
operation, that city’s first gay bar, complete with pool tables and
salsa lessons, has meant more commuting than ever. The couple,
together for almost 30 years, built a house in Superior with
details painstakingly chosen to match their wishes: high ceilings,
a centerpiece stairway, a basement bar stocked with Cher
memorabilia and no liquor. 

But Mr. Berg,
54, and Mr. Nelson, 50, now say they plan to sell their home. They
want to move to Duluth even though the cost of housing is higher
and, they say, they had imagined staying in their Wisconsin house
forever. They say same-sex marriage, which Minnesota began
permitting in August, matters more. “We would rather live in a
state that appreciates us for who we are,” Mr. Berg
said. 

Mr. Berg and Mr. Nelson could marry in
Minnesota yet continue living in Wisconsin. But they say they want
legal protections that accompany marriage, including joint state
tax filings, not the uncertainty they say they would face on
matters like the fate of their shared property if something
happened to one of them. 

Besides, they
said, the thought of living in a state that bars them from marrying
feels newly painful given the change just across the bridge. “Here
we are, living only five miles away,” Mr. Nelson said, “but we’re
treated so much different.” 

New Taxes, New
Cuts 

Inside the foundry that Mr. Fulton’s
company runs in Duluth, as vats of liquid metal glow hot and
finishing machines spin and whir, 193 employees work shifts around
the clock, constructing castings used to pulverize iron ore in the
mining industry. The original business, now owned by a Chilean
company, was started in Minnesota in 1917, and its domestic
headquarters are in the Twin Cities. But Mr. Fulton lately has
grown exasperated. 

In 2013,
Minnesota raised the income tax on individuals making more than
$150,000 a year, a move, he said, that could affect his ability to
recruit executives. They passed a tax on telecommunications
services and equipment. They decided to tax businesses that provide
warehouses for business materials, a tax set to go into effect this
spring, whose cost, Mr. Fulton said, would be passed on to him by
his suppliers. 

And they
approved a tax on some labor conducted at businesses, such as
repair work on farm equipment or maintenance of machines like the
ones in the foundry. With improved revenue forecasts, some state
leaders, including Governor Dayton, say they hope to repeal the
so-called business-to-business taxes this spring, but business
leaders around the state say they are
skeptical. 

“As you layer more and more taxes, it
becomes harder and harder to justify continued expansion in the
state,” Mr. Fulton said. 

Bill Grau, the
Duluth plant manager, jokes that he wishes he could unilaterally
annex the facility to Wisconsin, whose border sits a half-mile
behind the plant. In the end, the business is unlikely to move, Mr.
Fulton said. Too much capital has been invested. The history is
long. 

“Is that one tax enough for us to say,
‘Go’?” Mr. Fulton said. “Probably not, but it certainly is part of
the equation, and it becomes a more significant part of the
equation as that tax environment becomes more and more onerous,
year after year.” 

For those with
far less, these two states’ diverging policies have been equally
jarring. As the federal health care law began rolling out last
fall, Duluth became a frenzy of billboards,
ads and leaflets
urging people to sign up for Minnesota’s
new program, which includes a state-run exchange and an expansion
of the state’s already far-reaching Medicaid system. Superior was
quieter after Wisconsin leaders, deeply critical of President
Obama’s law, turned down a Medicaid expansion, saying they feared
federal funds would soon fade away, and chose to forgo a state
marketplace. 

Diana Gradine, a case manager at a
nonprofit center for homeless people with substance abuse problems
in Duluth, was among those helping the uninsured get coverage under
Minnesota’s new program. Not long ago, though, Ms. Gradine, who
lives in a second-floor apartment in Superior, got a letter about
her own insurance. Wisconsin was removing her from its Medicaid
program. 

“I was shocked,” Ms. Gradine said.
“Here I was thinking I was going to help people who needed to get
insurance, and now I’ve become one of the people who need to get
insurance.” 

In Wisconsin — which, like Minnesota,
has historically been known for broad health care benefits for the
poor — the authorities this spring are ending coverage for tens of
thousands of parents like Ms. Gradine who earn more than 100
percent of the poverty level and pay modest monthly premiums, a
cost Ms. Gradine’s employer had covered. Meanwhile, the state is
allowing tens of thousands of people without children who make even
less to receive Medicaid coverage for the first
time. 

For Ms. Gradine — a 41-year-old mother
of three children under 20 earning $32,557 a year and receiving
some child support — the Wisconsin-Minnesota divide is stark. If
she lived in Minnesota, officials there say, she would be eligible
for that state’s newly expanded coverage for the working poor,
which would require her to pay a $21 premium each month. As a
resident of Wisconsin, however, Ms. Gradine will need to buy
private insurance, though experts say she may qualify for federal
subsidies that will reduce her monthly
premiums. 

Ms. Gradine, who describes herself as a
Republican and whose refrigerator bears a snapshot of her wearing a
“Scott Walker” sticker, so far has not signed up for insurance. She
knows she needs it — she has tendinitis in her right arm and
abdominal adhesions — but she also says the federal online
insurance marketplace seems confusing and
time-consuming. 

“It might be
simpler to just move over to the Minnesota side,” Ms. Gradine said.
But her children are settled, she said, with friends and teachers
and activities in Superior. “If we come to a place where we have to
cross that bridge for good, I would look at that,” she said. “But
I’m not there yet.”

Nicholas Confessore contributed
reporting from New York, and Kitty Bennett contributed
research. 


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