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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”