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DFL party problems go deeper than finances and debt

There were no signs of unrest.

There were no signs of unrest. No hard questions about the red-ink budget.

When the DFL Central Committee, a vast body of activists who run the party, met Saturday at Prior Lake High School, good feelings filled the air about financial and electoral successes that surely are just around the corner. Even when the party’s chairman Brian Melendez said the party may not be out of debt until January, no one blinked.

All the good will inside the building almost covered the fact that there seem to be structural fissures in the party that could affect its campaign effectiveness next year. Some large bodies of the labor movement are “re-evaluating” their relationships with the DFL.

In both words and actions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the union showing the most unrest. But the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of unions representing 300,000 Minnesotans, also is cautiously expressing concerns about DFL leadership.

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Start with AFSCME, whose 43,000 members are among the most politically active in the state.

“We don’t want to throw good money after bad,” said Eliot Seide, AFSCME’s executive director, in explaining why his union is inching away from the DFL.

Until a month ago, AFSCME’s Jim Niland was the AFL-CIO representative on the nine-member United Democratic Fund (UDF). This body is the major campaign arm of the DFL, directing where and how campaign money should be spent.

Niland has walked away from the UDF and the AFL-CIO is still deciding whether to replace him.

“We are re-evaluating,” said Diane O’Brien, communications director of the AFL-CIO. “We are still participating in the party. It is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. But our first commitment is to our members.”

Of course, AFSCME and the AFL-CIO overwhelmingly endorse and support DFL candidates in all sorts of races. In that respect, this internal rift may have no impact on what happens at the polls next year.

On the other hand, to leave the UDF would mean that the AFL-CIO is accepting a diminished role in the party. That would mean investing less in terms of money and energy. That would seem to add to the financial problems the party already has.

Seide is fairly specific about AFSCME’s concerns with the party that traditionally has stood arm in arm with labor. He believes the party is lagging in its ability to target supportive voters and its ability to frame a message that resonates with workers. He also expressed frustration that the party is in debt even after enjoying huge success at the polls a year ago. “AFSCME wants to participate in the elections in a huge way,” Seide said. “But we want to do so in the most effective and efficient way possible. . . .When it comes to the elections, we’ll be involved bigger than ever before. On some important issues, I think the party has been absent in action.”

So AFSCME will conduct political campaigns independent of the DFL.

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O’Brien hints that the AFL-CIO may follow AFSCME’s lead.

“Labor campaigns are working,” she said. “Labor has learned that when it reaches out to labor we can be effective. We can mobilize people.

That’s not about anybody else. We are simply re-evaluating.”

Melendez, the DFL chairman, didn’t blink when asked of the unrest of labor.

“I don’t have a comment,” he said. “They’re entitled to their opinions.”

If the AFL-CIO decides not to replace Niland on the UDF, he said there are other organizations waiting for the chance to pay the dues required for a spot on the important board. He also said that the other major union umbrella organization, Change to Win, which includes the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, remains at the UDF table.

Indeed, Javier Morillo, president of SEIU’s Local 26, said Change to Win is happy with the direction of the DFL.

“We thought the targeting and the work the party did to flip the Legislature last year were very sophisticated and very successful,” he said. “I’m not sure where the criticism is coming from, but I don’t see any evidence that there should be an issue. We believe we can have more success if we can get everyone together.”

Melendez suggests that a recent MinnPost report on party problems is making mountains of molehills. The party’s debts are typical in a (non-election) off-year, he said.

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“Republicans have far bigger problems, but the only difference is they haven’t been open with their members about their situation,” he said.

He is right on that. Republicans have been vague on their finances and are in the midst of legal issues that could create even more concern about party leadership than already exists. (Remember, last June, Republican Party chairman Ron Carey held onto his position only after a tough struggle with G.I. Joe Repya. In the DFL, Melendez was unopposed in his second term for party chair.) Melendez also played down the dis-content being shown by big hunks of labor. Such disagreeements are normal, he said.

“We’re all in agreement about the ends, if not the means,” he said.

But if AFSCME, perhaps even the AFL-CIO, decide to step back even a little, won’t the party’s financial problems increase?

“We don’t separate out whether money we receive is from union members,” Melendez said.

Seide makes it sound as if there will be fewer dollars for the DFL to count.

“We will support progressive candidates who support the dignity of workers,” Seide said. “We will do that with financial support, volunteers, phone banks. We think we can do that more effectively and efficiently than the party.”