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'We need to frame an effective message and close the enthusiasm gap'

MinnPost Asks: New DFL Chair Ken Martin

Ken Martin has been on the job as the DFL Party chair for less than two weeks.

One change from his predecessor, Brian Melendez, has been immediate. Melendez handled the position as a volunteer, turning over many duties to staff. Martin will be doing this as a full-time job.

And, given the outcome of the November elections and the shaky status of DFL finances, full time will be required.

Few could be in a position to better understand the party's needs than Martin.

He was executive director of WIN Minnesota, the progressive independent-expenditure organization that raised substantial amounts of money from unions and Dayton family members. Those funds were turned into ads attacking Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. In the wake of the election, Martin headed Mark Dayton's recount team.

But his political roots run deeper than Dayton. As a high school student, he campaigned for Paul Wellstone. He's worked on the staffs of former Attorney General Mike Hatch, former Ramsey County Commissioner Susan Haigh (who now heads the Met Council), and Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman.

Additionally, he's been a longtime party activist, holding a variety of offices.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin

Earlier this week, Martin took time out to answer a few questions from MinnPost. With the exception of party budget issues, he spoke candidly.

What of the party's finances? I asked.

"We're working on that," he said. "Other than that, I can't comment."

The rest of the question-and-answer conversation was a little less guarded.

MinnPost: When you look at the elections of 2010, what do you see?

Ken Martin: There are several things. There was a huge enthusiasm gap in the last election cycle. Democrats were demoralized going into the last election. There was a feeling that leaders in Washington and the state had not delivered. I'm not saying their attitude was correct, but that's how they felt. There were high expectations coming out of 2008. The president had to focus on what he had to focus on, things like health care. Progressives were feeling left out. That enthusiasm gap never shrank.

MP: Could the state party have handled things differently?

KM: Part of the strategy was to focus on independents and swing voters. We never really talked to our base. In 2010, there were 94,000 fewer (base DFLers) than in 2006, which was a like year. You know there'll be a drop-off from a presidential election year so you want a benchmark to another similar election. When you look at where the dip occurred, it was in the metro area. There was lower (base) turnout.

MP: Why the huge drop-off?

KM: The first thing is the base didn't show up. The second part of that is the messaging. The Republicans have figured it out. Their message is a basic value proposition: Get government off your back and out of our lives. I'm not saying it's right, but it's a concise message. Every issue — guns, abortion, taxes — comes back to that. They use very simple language. We don't do that. We try to educate voters, reason with them. What we have to do is come up with a similar values proposition. It's important how you frame the message. There's a reason people like Palin and Bachmann are effective. They have a simple, emotive message. We have to be able to do that. We're losing our bread-and-butter supporters. The counter to getting government out of your life can't be "more government." That is not a winning message.

MP: Why was Dayton able to win, though closely, in such a big Republican year?

KM: What's interesting about 2010 is that you couldn't find two more polar opposite messages. Cut taxes and Mark Dayton's message, tax the rich. There's a reason both were successful. Voters saw people who were standing up for what they believe in. Concise and simple. … The issue couldn't have been [campaign] money. We [the DFL] outraised them on every level. We did a great job on that front.

MP: Do you see different circumstances heading into the 2012 elections?

KM: That's why I think there's reason for optimism. I think Democrats have a little more fight in them now. President Obama and Senator Klobuchar will help drive turnout of our base.

MP: Did the failure of Jim Oberstar to hold his seat stun you?

KM: That district has changed a lot over the years. But the fact is, Chip Cravaack ran a really good race throughout. Oberstar ran a good race at the end, but I think he was caught flat-footed. That, coupled with the low base turnout, including on the Range, was the difference. I feel optimistic we can win that seat back.

MP: Any guesses as to who might surface as the Democratic candidate in the 8th District to run against Cravaack?

KM: "The funny thing is, I think the top tier candidates have taken themselves out of the race. But I think you will see the next congressman in the 8th announce [a candidacy] in the next couple of months.

MP: Is the Tea Party movement here to stay? Will it strengthen or weaken the Republican Party?

KM: It's too early to say. They've had their moment in the sun. It's way too early to know how important they'll be in 2012. … I think the Tea Party movement does weaken the Republican Party. It moves the Republicans more and more to the extreme right.

MP: Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton says more people are making their political contributions to groups such as WIN Minnesota. He believes that makes party fundraising more difficult. Do you agree?

KM: I think that's true. But we have to look in the mirror: Why is that the case? The parties have become more and more marginalized. There has been an explosion of groups like WIN Minnesota. But the other side of the coin is that if parties sell their vision the right way, they should be able to convince donors to contribute. You can't blame the landscape for your money

MP: The DFL had great success in the suburbs in 2006 and 2008, but its candidates were wiped out in November. What must change?

KM: Here's the task: Our party is more and more concentrated in the urban cores. The suburbs and exurbs have become more and more Republican. If we don't expand our base, we will become a permanent minority party. That's the challenge. We can't win with our base alone. The base is important. But if all the base shows up and we don't get anyone else, we don't win, either.

MP: You seem to have a big problem. Your base was listless in November because political leaders weren't pure enough. But if you please the purists, how can you broaden the base?

KM: From my perspective, you can never be pure. As Democrats, we do care about some basic values, but we have Democrats of all stripes in this party. You can't run the same type of Democrat in every district. We have to find what unifies us all. What is the tie that binds? What unifies a Tom Rukavina with a Dick Cohen. They are very different, but there is a commonality that binds them.

MP: Have Democrats ever been in worse shape?

KM: There have been more dire times. But it is true that around the country this was one of the worst defeats we ever underwent. [In Minnesota] losing the Senate was a surprise to people. Now that Republicans control both the House and the Senate, they will do a lot of things, including constitutional amendments, that I don't think are good for the state.

MP: You've been on the job for two weeks. So are you more or less optimistic than you were?

KM: I'm generally optimistic. If Sen. Klobuchar would lose, we would have deep problems. She's the most popular member in the entire Senate. I think the president will win the state and so will Sen. Klobuchar and that the base will turn out to support the top of the ticket. I'm confident about the 8th [Congressional District) and the Legislature. We have work to do, but I believe we'll be ready."

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 (11)

FDR's inaugural address (1933) is a good example of what Democrats sound like when Democrats are on a message which resonates with the people.
I believe that Mark Dayton acts in the FDR tradition.

See the link to FDR:

The issue goes deeper than "messaging". The DFL needs to reexamine its core values - what are the moral principles that guide the party? As Mr. Martin noted, one can easily do this for the Republicans - it is a libertarian philosophy of personal freedom. The DFL needs to do this.

And, unlike the Republicans, who pored 10s of millions into developing their messaging in the 80s and 90s, the DFL should do this by engaging its members.

The failure to engage members, especially younger members, in a constructive dialogue, after they flocked to Obama in 2008, is why they just as quickly dropped off in 2010.

Younger members will be voting a lot longer than older voters!

As an "older voter" I agree with Lawrence. But it's more than just the message. People my age need to be willing to step back and let younger voters get a feel for what it's like to be a Precint Chair, a delegate to conventions, etc. And when they achieve those positions we need to be willing to listen to them when they decide that the rules we operate under are antiquated and cumbersome. I've said it before and I'll say it again - walking subcaucuses drive people AWAY from participation. (I'm one of them.) The games that are played so that the old guard continues to be nominated (and defeated) should be evidence enough.

It's time for the DFL to develop rules that nominate candidates that a wider section of the party are willing to vote for. Otherwise we're going to continue to see our nominees defeated in primaries and general elections.

Dayton won because he spoke truth-to-truth. He didn't back away from his beliefs or policies. People listened and decided they wanted somebody who would do what he said. He didn't speak in generalities and hope he didn't have to commit himself to any particular set of actions if he got elected.

Emmer also spoke truth-to-truth, but it was not the future Minnesotans viewed for themselves.

If we want to see DFL candidates elected for anything our message had to commit to actions and a vision for Minnesota's future that DFLers and independents can buy into.

Woops, Mr. Martin owes the next 8th Congressional DFL candidate an apology. He just said that whomever it is "is not top-tier." We'll see that in a campaign ad. Better to have said "the well known" possibilities" have taken themselves out.

Stick a fork in em, they're done. Notice, the guy didn't even try to offer a "message" after talking about how important one is, and he obviously doesn't even know who his "base is, or what his potential "base" could be. Good night Gracie.

It isn't new that challengers win
in the Primary..I remember Karl Rolvaag's challenge of Sandy Keith...when I was just a tot :)
Look back and it has gone on forever..and it will continue too.
Skip Humphrey ran against our endorsed candidate Mike Freeman,as far as I am concerned that was the kiss of death to the Endorsement process.
Maybe the answer is, to endorse after the Primary is over.

I'd like to see the DFL dispense with Super Delegate designations giving elected politicians and party officers a much greater voice in candidate selection than ordinary people.

I also believe that, in 2010, the reason a lower number of younger Dem voters showed up at the polls was because they (and many my age as well) did not see President Obama FIGHT against right wing policies that harm people.

On health care, for instance, he took single payer off the table before Congress could even discuss it, told the drug companies they didn't have to worry about having to sell drugs to Medicare Part D patients at a discount, and gave Blue Dog Democrats full reign to develop a plan that kept the drug and insurance companies happy but which did NOT include the public option the president campaigned on. He seems to compromise in private with the Republicans and then tells Democratic members of Congress what to vote for. Not that he doesn't do some good things, but this is still discouraging.

The great thing about Dayton (and Paul Wellstone, Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Wisconsin's Feingold and a few others) is that he is a fighter. Whether or not he wins every battle is not as important as that we see him fight.

So, in 2012, I hope we see only fighters being nominated because we really are in a war to save our democracy.

I'm with Bernice. I spent some time as a registered Democrat in Colorado, and did the whole thing – went to the precinct caucus, was a delegate to the county convention, pounded the pavement, handed out literature, knocked on doors of people who didn't want to talk to me in the first place, and so on.

It cured me of party membership, though my instincts and my votes almost always go to the Democrats. I still get seemingly never-ending letters from people asking me to donate yet another $25 to this candidate or that Democratic "victory fund."

While I want a functioning government, which means compromise, I'm nonetheless profoundly disappointed by Obama's willingness to throw those of moderate income under the bus while going along with Republican pressure to continue the tax cuts for the wealthy.

Dayton wasn't my first choice as a candidate, but I liked his campaign precisely for the reason Bernice mentioned – he didn't back down from his message, and made it part of his budget proposal. It makes sense to me that people making big bucks would oppose Dayton's "tax the rich" strategy, but I don't understand why Democrats have not pilloried Republicans at every level for essentially asking the rest of us to just shut up and accept a new class of robber barons with aristocratic pretensions.

I agree with Ken Martin and some of the comments above – there's been both an "enthusiasm gap" and a "message gap." If the DFL can out-fundraise the GOP in this state, they certainly should be able to hire a competent ad agency to nail Republicans to the wall for promoting mean-spirited selfishness (masquerading as "personal freedom") as some sort of positive value. Like Bernice, I'm going to vote for fighters.

Thank you for clarifying the record of Mr. Martin.

I am glad to know that he is the one responsible for the negative gutter politics and personal attack campaign, financed by an independent group.

He sounds like a perfect candidate to lead the DFL.

Thanks, Ray.

Perhaps the "fighting" message could demonstrate to voters how the far right has harmed them and who on the Democratic and Green side is ready to go to war to redeem our democracy. Candidates could then amplify the message as they campaigned.

I hope folks will read the Bill Moyers article that appears in this month's Progressive Magazine (The Rule of the Rich), in which he quotes Howard Zinn as saying:

"The Constitution gave no rights to working people; no right to work less than twelve hours a day, no right to a living wage, no right to safe working conditions. Workers had to organize, go on strike, defy the law, the courts, the police, create a great movement which won the eight-hour day, and caused such commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, and Social Security, and unemployment insurance.... Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice."

I think we're seeing that "fight" in Madison this week (where other unions are joining public employees in protest of the governor's planned attack on them) and in the all the Middle Eastern countries that are fighting for better lives.

Thank you for making this

Thank you for making this clear, you perfectly nailed it. I had no idea he was the one in charge for running these campaigns funded by side groups.

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