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Well-spoken Madia worked his brains out for DFL nod

By Eric Black
Monday, April 14, 2008 Ex-Marine Ashwin Madia, who started with name recognition in the zero range, is now the all-but-certain DFL nominee for what’s expected to be one of the hottest congressional races in the nation.

Ashwin Madia
Ashwin Madia

To the politically attuned members of the Minnesota electorate, this story crept up slowly and steadily so that by Sunday, the final outcome was expected and therefore not enough people are noting how impressive, bordering on amazing, it was. But let us pause now to note exactly that.

Ashwin Madia, a very young, dark-skinned, bachelor lawyer with a foreign-sounding name, who had not run for anything since college, who started with name recognition in the zero range, beat state Sen. Terri Bonoff, a bright, attractive, well-regarded, well-financed woman for the DFL endorsement and is now the all-but-certain DFL nominee in what is expected to be one of the hot congressional races in the country.

Madia seems to have done this mostly on the strength of his skills as a communicator — one-on-one and in small rooms, there have been no TV ads — by working his brains out and inspiring a small cadre of political newcomers and amateurs to do likewise, and perhaps by choosing the right strategy for the particular contest.

This is an impressive accomplishment, bordering on amazing.

After leading on all seven ballots (but not making discernible progress toward the 60 percent needed for endorsement) at the convention Saturday at Wayzata Central Middle School in Plymouth, Madia moved up by just five votes on the eighth ballot, but this placed him within three of the number needed.

Bonoff, who had comported herself with class all day, then took the stage, conceded, called for party unity, asked that Madia’s endorsement be made unanimous, and therefore foreclosed whatever possibility remained that she would challenge him in a primary.

Madia, who turned 30 last month (if you’re wondering, the constitutional minimum age for a member of the U.S. House is 25), will face state Rep. Erik Paulsen (who is unopposed for the Republican nomination and has already been chosen by the National Republican Congressional Committee for special financial assistance,) and businessman David Dillon of the Independence Party in November.

The election will fill the 3rd Congressional District being vacated by U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad. (As a point of personal privilege, I hereby reassert that when I reported last October that Ramstad was talking to the NRCC about changing his retirement plans, it was correct.)

Up for grabs

The 3rd District comprises a C-shaped gaggle of suburbs that wraps around Minneapolis on the south, west and north. Although the 3rd has been represented by Republicans for the past 48 years, it is now universally believed to be up for grabs.

Many DFLers with previous political experience considered making the race when Ramstad announced his plan, but only Bonoff got in. Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who had been a Republican until this year, was in for a while but gained no delegates.

Madia also got in early. His slim claim to a place in the race at first seemed to rely on his credential as an ex-Marine, recently returned from service in Iraq, part of a mini-trend of Iraq vets running as Dems.

Then one started hearing reports that the young man was making favorable impressions in front of small groups around the district — so favorable that the reports sometimes concluded with speculation that Madia might be setting himself up to run for something else, after he lost the endorsement to Bonoff.

As the candidates trouped around to various joint appearances and debates, Madia continued to impress audiences. I moderated two debates in the race. Madia didn’t crush Bonoff and Hovland with big put-downs, not at all. As I heard it, his rhetorical charm has been his knack of at least giving the impression that he had actually answered the question he was asked, more often than many politicians do.

When I interviewed Madia one-on-one, I confirmed something I had heard — that Madia had been a Republican until recently. He supported Bob Dole against Bill Clinton in 1996, preferred John McCain to George W. Bush in 2000, but ended up voting for Bush. He switched parties around 2003. As he told the assembled media after his win Saturday: “I can sum up my reasons for switching parties in three words. ‘George W. Bush.’ OK, two words and one letter.”

State Sen. Terri Bonoff
State Sen. Terri Bonoff

Bonoff put up impressive fund-raising numbers. After the Saturday convention, some Bonoff supporters felt that she had emphasized fundraising too much in the early going, delegate-courting not enough.

Madia organized a big turnout of his supporters for the Feb. 5 precinct caucuses. In retrospect, he may have won the endorsement that night, but few people realized it.

During March weekends, when delegates from the precincts attended Senate district conventions, which choose the final round of delegates for a congressional endorsing convention, Madia won them all, except for Bonoff’s home district. This was when it became clear that Bonoff’s front-runner status had slipped away. Almost two-thirds of the delegates chosen at those conventions were pledged to Madia. But because almost all of the legislators and party officials, who serve as superdelegates, were committed to Bonoff (she held a 14-2 advantage among these superdelegates) Madia didn’t have the 60 percent needed for endorsement.

Madia’s speech to the convention on Saturday was solid but safe, as if he were more concerned about avoiding a mistake than electrifying the room. He does better speaking without a script, but he read this one.

Bonoff’s best speech came too late
Bonoff, who is very short, sometimes speaks in a sing-songy voice and has trouble commanding a podium, gave the best presentation of the several I’ve heard from her. My favorite line: “Leave no child behind should be neither a test nor a slogan.” She didn’t mention her opponent by name, but several of her lines seemed designed to point out that she, unlike Madia, was a lifelong Democrat. It may have been too subtle, or it was just too late. All of the delegates knew of Madia’s Republican past from letters they had received from Team Bonoff.

When the candidates took questions, including one about how they would appeal to independents and Republicans, Madia waded right in, reminding the assembled that he was a former Repub. (There was some booing at this.)

With 94 votes needed to endorse, Madia was stuck for six ballots over several hours between 82.5 and 84.5. Bonoff ranged from 70 to 74. Six ballots with basically no movement. After each result was announced, a short demonstration was allowed with red-shirted Bonoff supporters chanting “Terr-reee, Terr-reee.” Madia-ites made a pun on their guy’s name: “Win-Ash-Win. Win-Ash-Win.” It was clever maybe the first time. Not the sixth. But what chant would be?

After the sixth ballot, the candidates addressed the hall briefly. Madia made the obvious argument under the circumstances. He was ahead on every ballot. But if he didn’t get a few more votes, there would be no endorsement, he and Bonoff would go on to a primary, continuing to spend money against each other, while Paulsen will pile up the dough. Well of course. Everyone knew that. But afterwards, some delegates told me it made an impact,

Between the sixth and seventh ballots, there was talk among Bonoff team members about just slowing things down and letting the time expire. The DFL had agreed to vacate the school auditorium at 5:30 p.m. (they’d been there all day). Then the chair announced that someone had obtained permission from the school authorities to stay into the evening. It’s just possible that this was the biggest development of the day. On the next ballot, Madia reached a new high of 85.5 votes. On the eighth, 90.5 (with 93.5 needed for endorsement). That’s when Bonoff took the podium to concede.

Reporter’s notebook:
During the pre-balloting hours, many DFL officials and candidates spoke to the convention. But the only standing ovation was for a Republican, state Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina, one of the six Republicans who broke party ranks to override Gov. Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation bill. The six have been shunned by the Republicans, and in Erhardt’s case, he lost endorsement for his own seat. Erhardt didn’t give a speech but said he is considering whether to run in a Republican primary for his own seat, run as an independent or becoming a DFLer.

DFL U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken did a smart thing when his turn to address the convention came. He didn’t. Instead, he brought Val Molin, his fourth-grade teacher and the star of Franken’s adorable early TV ad. The delegates have mostly heard Franken’s stump speech, and Molin is irresistible.

Minnesota Republican spokesman Mark Drake was present all day at the convention. As soon as Madia was endorsed, he handed out a press release headlined: “3rd CD Democrats Endorse Far Left Madia.”

The case that Madia is far left, in the press release, is based on his positions that the top tier of President Bush’s tax cuts should be allowed to expire (“tax and spend liberal,” according to the release), his position that probable cause should be required for wiretaps (“opposes terrorist surveillance programs,”) and that he was endorsed by “extreme Ellison” (referring to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison).

Although I didn’t see it until I got home (and I can’t find a link to it at the moment), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee emailed a press release within minutes of the Madia endorsement headlined: Conservative Republican Paulsen Wrong Fit for Moderate Suburban District.”

It said that Erik Paulsen “has a long record of being grossly out of touch with mainstream Minnesota values…is not only too conservative for this moderate suburban district, but as State House Majority Leader he led the charge on a legislative agenda so extreme not even Dick Cheney would have approved of it. From eliminating health care for working Minnesotans to stopping an effort to cut skyrocketing property taxes, Paulsen has repeatedly opposed common-sense measures to move Minnesota families forward.”