Leaders of the Republican Party of Minnesota are performing some political triage in an effort to distance the party from the drama around state Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald, whose DUI charge was not revealed prior to her being the party’s endorsee to challenge Justice David Lillehaug.
At a meeting last week, the state GOP executive committee debated changing the way judicial candidates are selected for endorsement. The group also signaled to delegates that support for MacDonald, an attorney, is limited after further revelations of unusual behavior inside and outside the courtroom.
The controversy began at the state party convention in May, when the 20-person Judicial Elections Committee offered MacDonald’s name for endorsement — but did not reveal to convention delegates that she was facing a DWI charge. At the time, the committee chair, Doug Seaton, wanted to offer a minority report revealing the arrest to delegates, but was voted down by the rest of the committee.
“The minority wanted to disclose to the delegates her DWI, which would have provided the transparency that the delegates deserve,” said Bill Jungbauer, member of the state executive committee that took up the matter last Thursday. “I’d want to know — damn straight.”
At the party executive meeting last week, the committee and party officers read two emails that further eroded MacDonald’s standing as an endorsed candidate.
The first, purported to be from the Judicial Elections Committee, was addressed to convention delegates. And rather than backing down, it used the DWI charge as further justification of MacDonald’s candidacy to be a judge.
“A recent Star Tribune article erroneously claimed that our Committee was unaware of attorney Michelle MacDonald’s DWI charge,” the email began. “That claim is false. We knew a lot about it, and we are convinced that she is innocent.”
“In spite of a lack of evidence, a city attorney from Rosemount … threw the book at her, falsely charging her with a DUI and other spurious charges,”
The email was signed by 17 of the committee members.
But committee chair Seaton has disputed that MacDonald’s email was an official committee document. In an email to Republican Party of Minnesota chair Keith Downey, Seaton wrote that the “decision to recommend endorsement of Michelle MacDonald was not unanimous and was opposed by several members of the [Judicial Election Committee].”
“Although the opponents of the nomination sought permission to present the minority report nonetheless, because of the gravity of the issues…the majority refused to permit this action,” wrote Seaton.
So just who is this majority that didn’t want to reveal MacDonald’s arrest? By the rules of the state party, they are representatives of each the state’s judicial districts. As a result, party insiders say, committee members end up being activists who often volunteer to be on a judicial committee because they feel they’ve been wronged by the justice system in the past — a microcosm of how party activists wield inordinate influence throughout the state GOP.
The executive committee quickly agreed to circulate Seaton’s opposing response to all party delegates. The email supporting MacDonald “came off as coming from the committee itself,” Jungbauer said. “It was misleading on two levels. After the convention, the committee no longer exists. New members need to be named for the next convention.”
That may not happen at all, if some insiders get their way. Party leaders are acknowledging the judicial endorsement system needs to be changed, and privately are considering other ways of vetting judicial candidates.
Jungbauer, for one, has suggested that the party’s nominating committee handle all the vetting, a change that is gaining support but would require a change in the party’s constitution.