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Yes, the Star Tribune’s political endorsements still matter. Here’s how the editorial board makes its decisions

Call it brave or foolhardy, but among the major news players the Star Tribune remains the big game in town for endorsing.

Call it brave or foolhardy, but among the major news players, the Star Tribune remains the big game in town for endorsing, be it for president or the local school board.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Despite conventional wisdom regularly saying that, “No one cares about newspaper endorsements,” I challenge you to find a candidate who doesn’t want a stamp of approval, or at least preference, from their city’s biggest media outlet.

And yet, it is true that what used to be a grand enough American tradition has dwindled along with the financial prospects of most papers. Here in the Twin Cities, the Pioneer Press has exempted itself from presidential picking since 2012. (Given the paper’s we-can’t-decide-so-we’ll-endorse-’em-both decision in the 2000 Gore-Bush race, some may think it’s just as well.)

Pioneer Press Editor Mike Burbach, who’s a member the paper’s four-person board, says: “We talked very briefly about going back to the presidential endorsement before deciding: ‘What could we say that hasn’t been said 8,500 times already?’”

And, despite constant self-promotion as “news leaders,” TV stations and radio news are still keeping a (very) safe distance from choosing and possibly upsetting someone in their audience.

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So, call it brave or foolhardy, but among the major news players, the Star Tribune remains the big game in town for endorsing, be it for president or the local school board.

Scott Gillespie, editor of the editorial pages, anticipates the paper making its presidential choice known “on or about [October] 23rd. I hate to say it’s set in stone, because it always depends on events in the campaign. But that’s our target at the moment.”

Burbach, meanwhile, expects the PiPress’ slate of (non-presidential) endorsements to begin rolling out, “sometime in the final week of the campaign.” Along with the one St. Paul board seat, he sees most of his board’s attention going to the hot races in the Second and Eighth Congressional Districts. “We operate by consensus here,” he says with a laugh. “And so far we haven’t had to resort to anything like the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

For the Strib, the decision on Donald Trump v. Hillary Clinton (v. Gary Johnson v. Jill Stein) will lead off a series of roughly two-dozen endorsements, from school board elections on up through the state’s congressional races. To date, Gillespie counts 44 candidates who have made the trek to the Strib to meet with at least three of the board’s seven primary members.

That board includes Jill Burcum, Denise Johnson, Lori Sturdevant, Pat Lopez, John Rash, Doug Tice and Gillespie. Publisher Mike Klingensmith is an eighth voice, when he chooses to participate, and — as you would expect — owner Glen Taylor has the right to make his thoughts known. But no one has a vote. “It’s not a democracy,” Gillespie reminds. All who care to do so make their argument, and Gillespie produces the final copy.

With their re-elections pretty well locked-up, neither Keith Ellison or Betty McCollum will be getting much face-time with the Strib. (The PiPress is also passing on interviewing for those two not-in-doubt races this year.)

Everyone else is told to budget approximately an hour for a conversation, which may include recently retired reporter David Phelps and editor Jim Kern, two veterans woven into the Strib’s process to bring an additional layer of questioning and research.

“All the candidates show up,” says Gillespie, getting into the now-conventional-wisdom that newspaper endorsements don’t matter to 2016 voters (which raises the question: what does? Your uncle’s Facebook posts?). “The thing is we’re not telling people how to vote. We’re saying, ‘This is what we think.’ It really is a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of thing. What we want most is for people to read more and talk more about these races.

“I’m well aware that a lot of papers have scaled back on endorsements,” Gillespie continued. “But frankly, I think that’s a cop out. We publish two editorials a day. It’s the business we’re in.”

The big news in endorsements these days includes several prominent Gannett-owned papers, including the Arizona Republic, the Cincinnati Enquirer, breaking tradition and endorsing Clinton, a Democrat, or — in the case of USA Today — arguing vigorously against Trump. (The Republic was reportedly hammered with death threats and cancelled subscriptions.) Earlier, The Dallas Morning News, which last time I checked was still in Texas, stunned its audience with its endorsement of Clinton.

Meanwhile, the eye-roller of last week was the once reliably Republican Chicago Tribune endorsing … Libertarian Gary Johnson as “a principled option.” (Asked for a personal opinion on that one, Gillespie paused a moment before saying: “A personal opinion? I’d say I was surprised. Was that before or after his second brain-freeze? It just seems to me [Johnson has] disqualified himself.”)

The parade of candidates into the Strib offices over the years has produced a few memorable moments, like the late-in-the-race meetings with Norm Coleman and Al Franken in 2008. “Both of them knew how close it was,” said Gillespie. “It was down to the last days. They were exhausted and stressed. But it made for very interesting conversations.” (The paper ended up endorsing Coleman.)

If you’re thinking, “I’d like to see that,” Gillespie says the Strib is edging closer to video-recording the interviews. It won’t happen this year, “But we may go there in the next Senate race. We kick the idea around from time to time. But video really changes the dynamic of these meetings. Our thinking though is that Senate candidates are more used to that kind of exposure than others, so maybe we’ll try it there first.”

“The thing that worries me right now is the quality of the candidates farther down the ballot, at the school board level, for example. It’s frustrating to see how unprepared some of them are when you consider the really tough problems facing schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I just don’t see enough of the professionalism that’s needed.”

He adds: “You sit through hundreds of these candidate interviews over the years and every once in awhile you come across someone and you think, ‘This one is a rising star.’ But just as often you talk to someone and you think, ‘Jesus, we’re in trouble.’”