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DFL school-board endorsee dispute: guilt by association?

Even for an electoral contest that many assumed would devolve into a slugfest, this year’s Minneapolis School Board race turned surprisingly ugly surprisingly quickly.

In recent days a fight has broken out over whether DFL-endorsed candidates can appear at events, pose for photos or otherwise share a platform with non-endorsed candidates. For at least one candidate the dispute has morphed into a Catch-22.

The flare-up has fanned a decade-old conflagration over whose interests are served by the traditional process for selecting candidates, the teachers union or the city’s communities of color. And it has bolstered fears that qualified individuals will see the campaign process as too bruising to attempt.

Within days the dispute had become so heated that Minneapolis DFL Chair Dan McConnell took the highly unusual step of sending an e-mail to party endorsees outlining ground rules. Candidates who “undermine” the party’s efforts might lose DFL campaign support, he warned.

Five of 9 members to be elected

Simmering in the background is talk about potentially huge amounts of money being spent to influence the races, which will elect five of the board’s nine members. The board will oversee an ambitious school reform effort and vote on the $250 million-a-year teacher contract.

Supporters of several affected candidates have called the dust-up a red flag, arguing that particularly when it comes to education, the endorsement process — long the focus of criticism when it comes to board races — is broken.

Iris Altamirano

At the center of the dispute is a four-way contest for the two board seats to be elected by citywide vote. Occupying the hottest of the hot seats in those races is Iris Altamirano, a labor activist and DFL-endorsed candidate who placed third in the August primary.

To win, Altamirano must beat either incumbent Rebecca Gagnon, the other DFL endorsed candidate, or former City Council member Don Samuels, whose candidacy has drawn vociferous opposition from some teacher union members. A fourth candidate, Ira Jourdain, appears unlikely to win.

Gagnon did not seek labor endorsements this year, while Samuels entered the race after the citywide DFL endorsing convention.

MFT didn’t endorse this year

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), whose lead old-line labor has traditionally followed in endorsing in school board races, did not endorse this year. It has thrown its support, both financial and in terms of shoe leather, behind the candidates endorsed by the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation (MRLF).

Rebecca Gagnon

The federation did not endorse directly in the races, declaring instead in the Aug. 22 edition of its newspaper that members should support DFL endorsees. Other party endorsees include incumbent Jenny Arneson and Siad Ali, running unopposed in geographically based districts 1 and 3, respectively, and Nelson Inz, who faces Jay Larson in District 5.

In terms of the 2014 field, Altamirano is a rarity in that she emerged from the primary with support both from the DFL and from “reformers,” education advocates who have called for policies that are anathema to the MFT.

The daughter of a high school janitor, Altamirano started working in agriculture in Texas at the age of 9 and went on to earn a degree from Cornell. She has experience both organizing Latino voters and working as a director in Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

In recent years the SEIU, whose janitor and security guard members are mostly people of color, has endorsed candidates who have not won the support of traditional labor.

Opening salvo

Don Samuels

On Sept. 5, activist Eli Kaplan posted to the online Minneapolis Issues Forum complaining that Altamirano was scheduled to attend an open house hosted by former Minneapolis School Board chair Pam Costain. Samuels would also attend.

Costain was a staff member at the grassroots political leadership training effort Wellstone Action when Altamirano was a fellow in a program for young organizers of color.

“How does one campaign for one endorsed and other not and still support the DFL endorsing process?” Kaplan asked. “Does this imply that Iris is supporting Don?”

Outside of the thread, others noted that there were Facebook photos showing Gagnon standing with Jourdain, who placed fourth in the primary without a DFL endorsement.

Jourdain has voiced his support for Gagnon in public forums. Depending on whether Gagnon retains her primary lead — she captured 31 percent of the vote in a seven-way race — his support could give her an edge.

Others pointed out that Kaplan had Gagnon’s endorsement for his write-in campaign against DFL-endorsed Carla Bates in 2012.

‘A double standard’

“The rules have been rewritten” for Altamirano, complained SEIU President Javier Morillo. “We are starting from such a double standard. I personally as a Latino leader have never seen anything like it.”

Ira Jourdain

Gagnon, the person the party is concerned is being damaged by Altamirano and Samuels attending the same event, is benefiting from labor’s campaigning without its endorsement, he pointed out.

“In order to win, [Altamirano] has to speak to supporters of Rebecca’s and supporters of Don’s,” said Morillo. “We came in third, we are the underdog here. The other two are an incumbent and a former elected official. To insist she not appeal to their supporters is to insist she take a losing strategy.”

Not in McConnell’s eyes. Attending an event or being photographed with a non-endorsed candidate is the equivalent of campaigning against another party endorsee.

“This is a case where you can vote for two,” he said. “You have to pick and choose.”

‘DFL rules of engagement’

Two days after the start of the online debate McConnell sent out an e-mail containing “rules of engagement” he developed based on state DFL bylaws and school board policy. It is unclear that they are binding without a vote of the party unit’s central committee.

Endorsed candidates could not pose for pictures with non-endorsed candidates, attend coordinated, joint events, appear in joint literature with non-endorsed candidates or “write or communicate in any way, disparaging remarks about another DFL endorsed candidate to a voter.”

The party bylaw in question: “If a candidate who has been endorsed by a unit of the DFL Party gives personal endorsement, financial assistance, or other public support or public assistance to any candidate running against a DFL-endorsed candidate for any public office, or engages in any other act of malfeasance or nonfeasance, the central committee of the unit that endorsed that candidate may revoke the endorsement by a two-thirds majority vote of the members eligible to vote, following the procedures in the Bylaw under Article III, Section 16.”

Party support for the “coordinated campaign,” McConnell reminded the candidates, includes door knocking by paid canvassers, citywide mailings, social media and a sample ballot.

“Candidates that are part of the DFL ticket should not be undermining these efforts,” he wrote. “If individual candidates cannot honor these basic expectations, the DFL’s efforts may not continue.”

Amount of funding is unclear

Just how much money is being directed at those efforts is a mystery, in part because current campaign laws leave literally dozens of avenues for moving money from one political entity to another without transparency. Half a dozen people associated with different campaigns have heard the figure $200,000, which they assert is being funneled to the city DFL effort by teacher unions. At least six full-time canvassers are said to be part of the effort.

Education Minnesota leaders say they have not made any donations in the school board race, but have provided advice to union locals and affiliates. A teacher union organizer is working on the campaigns, although accounts vary whether she is employed by the MFT or Education Minnesota.

According to pre-primary disclosures filed a month ago, Education Minnesota has given almost $170,000 to groups that are interested in the race, including $154,000 to the DFL’s state central committee and $13,418 to the MRLF. The federation had by then spent $30,500 and the MFT $30,000.

During the 2012 election much was made of $39,000 raised and spent by board member Josh Reimnitz, whose opponent had heavy union backing. In the election before that, current board chair Richard Mammen raised $34,500.

Because much of it need never be disclosed, so-called dark money flowing into this year’s race is likely to prove impossible to track. In response to questions from MinnPost last summer, the advocacy group 50CAN said it had made a “small” expenditure on behalf of Samuels and was considering other races.

In an interview Monday, McConnell would say only that the city DFL’s coordinated campaign had received “contributions from multiple places,” and that Education Minnesota was not among them. He referred questions about the group’s donation to the state DFL to that party committee.

“The Minneapolis DFL is doing what it can to elect its candidates,” said McConnell. “We have run a coordinated campaign as long as we have had the ability to do so.”

Morillo’s counter

Coordinated support is fine, countered Morillo. But insisting that candidates cannot engage with divergent viewpoints isn’t just bad for Altamirano, it’s bad for education. Labor leaders, he added, need to ask why people of color often gravitate toward candidates who are calling for change.

“People keep insisting we not talk to key groups, to have key parts of the conversation,” he said. “That’s just not the right way to move the conversation forward.”

In addition to Costain’s event, Altamirano and Samuels were also slated last week to attend one hosted by Mike Ciresi. Both also are expected at an open house hosted by board member Bates and a number of other longtime education backers later in the month.

What will happen if Altamirano shows up?

“I don’t know,” said McConnell. “We’re having a lot of discussions.” 

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/16/2014 - 10:09 am.

    One of the many

    and lesser reasons to rid ourselves of party endorsements in school board elections.

  2. Submitted by Steve Carlson on 09/16/2014 - 11:15 am.

    Everyone’s coming out of this looking awful

    Despite generally supporting the education policies of the DFL endorsed candidates, I’m growing concerned about how the DFL endorsed candidates (Rebecca Gagnon in particular) are running and questioning my support for them as a result. It’s defensive, counter-productive, and focused on power games, not education policy.

    It’s also absurd to claim that Iris attending an event with Don Samuels is tantamount to campaigning with him. It’s guilt by association and unhelpful.

    I’m also concerned about Rebecca Gagnon’s role in the CSI contract debacle–if it’s bad as it looks to be, I question her fitness for public office. I hope it’s not what it looks like.

  3. Submitted by Ian Bicking on 09/16/2014 - 11:24 am.

    Sidestepping democracy

    I personally find this requirement of loyalty to the endorsement process to be offensive. Neither I nor any other parent I know participated in the DFL endorsement process. But here we see that endorsement process used as a way to try to shut down a vigorous election that actually goes before voters. They are even trying to shut down relationship building and basic association between candidates. This is exclusionary, not just of minorities or other groups, but excludes EVERYONE outside of the tiny and non-representative group that runs the DFL endorsement process.

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/16/2014 - 01:18 pm.

      Just because you didn’t participate

      doesn’t mean there weren’t many other parents who did. The endorsement helps candidates run without being completely dependent on big money. If we get rid of endorsements, then let’s just put the school board up for auction. Whoever has the most dark money supporting them wins, and we’ll never know who actually supported the winner.

      • Submitted by Steve Carlson on 09/16/2014 - 02:30 pm.

        We do put it up for auction

        It’s just a different pool of money. My own politics are closer to the EdMN/MFT side of things but let’s not pretend the DFL endorsement isn’t its of form of auction.

        The DFL endorsement gets you EdMN/MFT/MRLF money, Don Samuels gets MinnCAN/ed reformer money.

        I’m guessing Don Samuels scares the crap out of the local DFL because his pool of dark money presents the very real opportunity to win citywide elections in Minneapolis without the DFL endorsement.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/17/2014 - 04:33 am.

        “Without being completely dependent on big money”

        You didnt mean that, did you?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/16/2014 - 01:11 pm.

    I endorse

    …the comments of James Hamilton and Ian Bicking. None of what I’m reading in Beth’s column passes any reasonable “smell test,” and that doesn’t reflect well on the DFL, the endorsement process (regardless of party), or the candidates.

  5. Submitted by ira jourdain on 09/16/2014 - 01:20 pm.

    I always enjoy reading your articles. I’ll address the so-called picture of Director Gagnon and myself. My son (who is a student at South) and I were attending the Vikings pre-season opener at TCF Bank stadium and he pointed out Director Gagnon in the halftime crowd on the concourse and wanted to take a picture with her. First and foremost I am a parent of MPS students and a candidate second. If my son wants to take a picture with a board member (regardless of the situation) and his parent alongside with him then I will.
    Yes, I do voice my support for Director Gagnon in forums. I also voice my support for other candidates as well as all 4 of us have good ideas.
    I continued to run due to the fact that I could not in good conscience vote for just one candidate while I can vote for two. The other candidates were choices who did not-could not represent my views-thoughts and experiences as a MPS parent about the direction I feel the district should go. I also did not want to be limited to just one vote as other parents have also stated. Case in point is the discussions I have had with many fellow MPS parents across this district since the school year has started. I attend these school events not as a candidate but as a fellow MPS parent and people respect that. I have been active in MPS since 2003.
    And lastly I encourage people to attend the forums to better understand where we are on the issues because in the end it’s about the education of ALL our children in MPS.

    Coalition for Critical Change
    Thu Oct 2 6-8pm. Mpls Urban League

    Theatre for Public Policy
    Mon Oct 13 630-830pm. Bryant Lake Bowl

    Ira Jourdain
    MPS Parent
    MBE Candidate At-Large

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/16/2014 - 02:53 pm.

    Adrain Peterson is going to be tried for hitting his son with a stick. While certianly beyond ressonable, his son will recover from the mistreatment. In my opinion, the leftists and union bosses running the public schools damage kids far worse. Their greed and powermongering rob kids of their education; that damage lasts a lifetime.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/16/2014 - 04:34 pm.

      Your politics

      are as tired as the scientifiction novels written about your namesake. “Leftists and union bosses”, indeed.

  7. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 09/16/2014 - 08:45 pm.


    I’m just going to pop in here and note that Samuels’ kids attend Minneapolis Public Schools. 

  8. Submitted by Patty Wycoff on 09/17/2014 - 08:13 am.


    Don’s youngest attended Annunciation Catholic School and moved to Anthony Middle School(57th Ave. S.) before his run for Mayor. They drive 55 blocks south of Anwatin Middle School.

    Did one of his children also attend Harvest Prep Charter?

    Beth, you compared the $39,000 that Josh Reimnitz raised to Richard Mammen’s $34,500 yet failed to mention Richard ran city-wide while Josh ran in 1/6 of the city. Why?

  9. Submitted by Doug Mann on 09/18/2014 - 12:36 pm.

    Guilt by Association

    Don and Iris are being invited to open houses, which are about raising funds for the invited candidates, by individuals associated with a school reform movement that calls for “pay for performance” tied to student test scores and elimination of seniority and tenure rights. At the People’s Forum, Don Samuels called eliminating seniority as a factor in determining teacher layoffs, and “pay for performance.” Political Action committees of Teach For America and other Ed Reform groups sponsored the Peoples Forum and are backing Don Samuels.

    SEIU has backed Reform candidates, including Carla Bates in 2008 when other labor unions did not. SEUI sponsored Chris Stewart in 2006. I saw Chris on several occasions during 2006 with the SEIU state political director, at screenings and other candidate forums. Chris benefited the support SEIU before he was formally endorsed by SEIU. He need some coaching in order to say what union PAC screening committee members and a majority of delegates to the DFL nominating convention wanted to hear.

    Rebecca Gagnon did not ask for union endorsements, and neither the Central Labor Federation nor the Teachers union directly endorsed any candidates, but those unions are supporting both of the DFL endorsed candidates. SEIU endorsed Iris Altamirano. Both Ira Jourdain and Iris Altamirano voiced support for Rebecca Gagnon prior to the DFL convention. Significantly, there was no open alliance between Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano, no support for Altamirano from the Ed Reform groups supporting Samuels until after the primary.

    Ira Jourdain’s support Rebecca Gagnon, without criticism, is a concern for me. Gagnon is a member of the school board who has been for “staying the course” and has not publicly opposed many initiatives by the district that required board approval, including the promotion and sponsorship of charter schools, “performance layoffs” of probationary teachers, the continuation of the contract with Teach For America after Gagnon joined the board.

    It has been many years since the Board last approved a report to the Minnesota Department of Education about disparities in “Education Inputs” between schools that are “racially identifiable” and school that are not racially identifiable, which are required by Minnesota Administrative Rules, chapter 3535, related to equality of opportunity in education as a matter of enforcement of title 6 of the civil rights act of 1964, the equal protection clause of the US Constitution, and the Education Clause of the Minnesota Constitution.

    The Minneapolis School DIstrict’s “5 year strategic plan” of 2007 to 2012 didn’t even address the issue of racial disparities in exposure of students to inexperienced teachers and high teacher turnover in high poverty schools. There has been no plan to eliminate these disparities since 2002. The 2002 plan obviously didn’t work because the district fired all its probationary teachers every year, and replaced the large majority of them with newly hired teachers before they finished their 3 year, post-hire probation. It was a finding of fact in the Statement of Need and Reasonableness for Minnesota Administrative Rules, chapter 35345, that such disparities affect the quality of education and student outcomes to a very large degree, and that the presence of such disparities are deemed to be racial discrimination by a school district, especially in the context of a racially segregated school district.

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