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After his long-shot DFL run for U.S. Senate, a dismayed Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is back to teaching

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, shown speaking during a TakeAction Minnesota forum in January 2008, is dismayed by how the Coleman-Franken campaign played out.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, who built the most loyal, if not the largest, base during his unsuccessful run for Minnesota's Senate seat, is back to teaching peace and justice courses at the University of St. Thomas.

Nelson-Pallmeyer, who was considered more liberal than his DFL competitors Al Franken and Mike Ciresi, often defines himself as "a pragmatist." But as the recount process between Franken and Norm Coleman goes on and on, he sometimes allows himself a little fantasy.


"I keep thinking maybe in the end, they'll have to flip a coin to determine the winner, and if the coin stands up on its side, they'll decide to choose me," he says.

Nelson-Pallmeyer's long-shot bid for the Senate came to an abrupt end at the DFL endorsing convention last spring. At the start of the convention, there was considerable speculation that the 58-year-old prof might be able to survive the first ballot and then slowly pick up delegates and either win or, at least block, an endorsement. (That was in part because Franken was facing strong criticism from some in the party over his controversial satirical writings.)  

It didn't happen. In the hours before the first ballot, Franken supporters, including labor leaders, worked the floor hard, twisting arms to make sure that wavering delegates stuck with Franken.

Before the outcome of the first ballot was announced to the convention, Nelson-Pallmeyer was told by party leaders that he had fallen short of the 40-plus percent of the votes needed to force a second ballot. He spent a few moments alone with his closest advisers and then spoke to the convention, urging everyone in the hall to get behind Franken.

"The time felt so short," he says of the moments between hearing the outcome of the first ballot and when he approached the podium. "First, you're getting the news and you're processing it and trying to think about how to proceed. It was all quick and disorienting. But going into the convention, I'd made my peace that I'd live within the process.

"People questioned my decision not to go a primary. They said, 'You'd have built on your base and you could have pulled it off in the primary.' But I wouldn't have gotten to the place I did without promising that I'd abide by endorsement. I needed to abide by that commitment."

Dismayed by Coleman-Franken race
In the months that followed, Nelson-Pallmeyer was dismayed by the tone of the Coleman-Franken race.

"It was a campaign that was ugly, costly and without substance,'' he says. "The nastiness didn't allow for meaningful discussion."

He believes the results — with both major-party candidates drawing 42 percent of the vote — show how unimpressed Minnesotans were with the campaigns they'd witnessed.

"Whoever ends up with the seat in the Senate — and at this point it looks like it will be Franken — I hope recognizes that there shouldn't be a victory celebration," Nelson-Pallmeyer said. "The reaction of whoever wins should be to begin rebuilding relationships with Minnesotans."

The fact that neither candidate could score a clear-cut victory is the one ray of hope in the whole mess that is this Senate race, Nelson-Pallmeyer says.

"My own experience in the campaign made me hopeful for the potential of politics,'' he says. "The Coleman-Franken campaign didn't take advantage of opportunities because the nastiness didn't allow the discussion that I think most voters wanted to hear. The people are, in many ways, ahead of the politicians. There's a great, great potential for those emerging to run future campaigns to be honest about the serious economic and environmental issues we face.''

At the moment, it appears unlikely that Nelson-Pallmeyer has a political future, at least as a candidate.

"I'm told by my friends to never say never," says Nelson-Pallmeyer, "but …''

He sees only two spots where his interests fit, the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate. He lives in south Minneapolis, making him a constituent, friend and political ally of Rep. Keith Ellison. So, he won't be running for the House.

Minnesota's next U.S. Senate race will feature incumbent Amy Klobuchar on the DFL side. And though Nelson-Pallmeyer finds her politics a little too moderate, he's certain he won't be running against her.

That means the only thing that likely would get him back into a campaign is if Coleman somehow ends up winning the recount.

Convinced campaign messages would resonate more now
What he is convinced of is that his campaign messages, which would have seemed radical only a couple of years ago, would have resonated in the unending 2008 election.

"What's interesting is how much of what I framed my campaign around is coming true," he said. "What most troubles me is that there still is almost no political awareness that our very serious problems — as shown by the economic meltdown — are rooted in the militarization of the country. Not many are talking yet about the fact that we're an empire in serious, serious decline. That can be an opportunity if we don't cling to old things."

For example, Nelson-Pallmeyer doesn't think the country should be bailing out the auto industry.

"We should be retrofitting those factories to build windmills for energy and to build trains for transportation. But we don't have the resources to do that unless we move away from militarism.''

He has hope for the Obama administration.

"It's so refreshing to have someone in office who is articulate and intelligent," he said. "There's more reason for hope than there was before."

But he has grave concerns, too.

"I'm deeply troubled by the slow withdrawal from Iraq and the idea that we will keep a residual force there into the future. I'm deeply troubled by increasing our forces in Afghanistan. These decisions put limitations on our ability to do what needs to be done."

As for Coleman vs. Franken and the recount without end ...

"I think my thoughts are like that of a lot of Minnesotans," he said. "We're sick of it. The campaign was ugly, and the continuation of that is like trying to get the taste of vomit out of your mouth."

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (7)

"Arm twisting" at the convention? I was there and while it's certainly possible I just didn't see it or hear about it, well, I didn't see it or hear about it. What leverage would Franken supporters have had for arm twisting? Both candidates' supporters worked the floor, but there's nothing wrong with trying to persuade someone to vote for your candidate. "Arm twisting" implies delegates were told to vote for Franken or lose something, but would could be withheld from them?

I believe Jack Nelson Pallmeyer would have won the endorsement on the first ballot if those who felt honor-bound to vote for Franken on the first ballot (and intended to vote for Jack N-P on the second) had not been so bound to their honor.

Franken may become a wonderful senator, but too many people were put off by his first career as a humorist and voted instead for Coleman, giving us the near-tie.

Amy Klobuchar is a good senator, but if we want another Paul Wellstone, it's not she. I would encourage the professor to run against her or Franken or (especially) Coleman should we be so unfortunate, but just start building support much earlier.

I love Jack and every thing he stands for..but I am convinced his laid back personality would have been stomped on by Norm Coleman and it would have been a slaughter.
He may think like Paul Wellstone but he didn't have the charisma to pull it off.
I was at the Convention and nobodies arms were being twisted to vote against their conscience.
Even though they may have liked Jack better they knew they needed a pit bull to fight Norm Coleman's camp.
That man is sleaze with a capital S.

Jack needs to fight for our jobs.

Even though I wasn't a delegate, Jack was my preferred candidate -- and still is. Could he not become another Gene McCarthy -- well for MN anyway but not for Pres!

May I add, also, that it would be an unbelievable TREAT to have a senator who understands Latin America. Hugo Chavez, for instance, does not "hate America." And nor do Morales of Bolivia or any of the left-leaning, freely elected leaders in Latin America who have repudiated the so-called free market ideology pushed by the U.S. and instead have told the IMF and World Bank bye-bye, created their own association of countries for security and their own source of funding for economic development.

We have a terrible foreign policy record in Latin America. From the assassination of Chile's Allende to the CIA's establishment of the drug trade in Columbia in the '80s to the abduction of Haiti's freely elected president in 2002 (from which it is still sunk in the ensuring chaos). And our Congress seems not to have a clue.

There was arm twisting. Many delegates came wanting to vote for Jack but were told they could not until after the first vote. Many undecideds were also heavily courted. I am sad for Minnesota. Our Senator would be seated by now and working. Instead, we have the same old thing. Politics, not people. Shame on the DFL. I was a Franken observer at the recount. They were desperate for volunteers. I kept wondering where all those crazy Franken supporters went. Oh well.