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23 months out, field of DFL governor wannabes keeps growing

Sure, we’re still counting ballots from the last election. But we’re also just 23 months from electing a Minnesota governor in 2010, and the line of DFL wannabes keeps getting longer.

Sure, we’re still counting ballots from the last election. But we’re also JUST 23 months from electing a governor in Minnesota, and the line of DFL wannabes keeps getting longer. 

Start with this: It’s been 22 years since Minnesotans last elected a DFLer to the office. At least half of the people who come to the polls in November 2010 likely will never have heard of Rudy Perpich,  the most recent DFLer to hold a victory celebration following a gubernatorial campaign.

That was in 1986. Since then, the list of DFL losers is long and varied. Perpich lost in 1990, followed in 1994 by John Marty (who announced Monday that he is ready to try it again). Then came Skip Humphrey in 1998, Roger Moe in 2002 and Mike Hatch in 2006.

Next?

Crowded DFL field already
State Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook? Or, another Iron Ranger, Rep. Tom Rukavina? Or, will it be a big-city type?  The mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis both are contemplating a run. Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis is in the race, as is former Rep. Matt Entenza of St. Paul. Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton appears to be itching to go. There are even rumblings that Hatch has not overcome his hunger for the job.

State Sen. Tom Bakk
State Sen. Tom Bakk

There are women in the DFL who are adamant that it is way past time for a woman to represent the party at the top of the ticket. One woman, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, has been running hard for months. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher seems like a natural top-tier candidate, and Sen. Tarryl Clark, assistant majority leader, may make a push, too.

Steve Kelley, a former state senator from Hopkins who has studied the landscape carefully, predicts there will be several DFLers ready to take on the party’s endorsed candidate in a primary contest. He expects to be in that primary field. He’ll be announcing soon that he’s forming an “exploratory committee” to assess his chances.

In fact, he’s already done considerable exploring and has come to some interesting conclusions.

Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley

For starters, he thinks the reason the DFL keeps losing gubernatorial races is that it spends too much time cultivating candidates who can succeed in Minneapolis and St. Paul and on the Iron Range.

“You have to do well in those places,” he said. “But you can’t underperform in the suburbs.”

DFL not valuing suburbs enough?
He’s studied the election-night numbers of Al Franken, who may yet eke out a victory over incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman. In a Democratic year, it’s obvious that Franken underperformed Barack Obama. But what’s more telling, said Kelley, is that he underperformed relatively unknown DFL legislative candidates in suburban districts.

Kelley points to state House District 42B in Eden Prairie as an example. Obama actually won the district with 12,704 votes. Not only couldn’t Franken come close to those numbers, he picked up fewer votes (8,596 ) than an unknown DFLer, Jerry Pitzrick, who managed to get 10,002 votes in a losing House race against Republican Jennifer Loon.

“If you are a statewide candidate and you underperform legislative candidates, you’ve got trouble,” said Kelley, noting that Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in 2006, and Obama, in November, were big successes in the suburbs.

For the DFL to finally put someone in the governor’s office, the party will have to put forward a person who speaks to suburbanites, Kelley said. That means talking about education, transportation and jobs. 

Then, there is the role of gender. Will 2010 be the year of the woman?

More than most, Kelley understands the power of a woman’s name on the ballot. In 2006, he was the DFL’s endorsed candidate for attorney general but lost a primary race to the current AG, Lori Swanson, longtime aide to Hatch. That race likely was tipped to the relatively unknown Swanson when former Congressman Bill Luther, a friend of Hatch’s, filed for the office but never campaigned. With Luther picking up 21 percent of the vote, Swanson managed to beat the endorsed Kelley, 42 percent to 37 percent, and now sits in the AG’s office.

So, in a primary field, won’t a woman have a decided advantage in a DFL gubernatorial primary in 2010?

“If it’s multiple candidates, multiple women, multiple guys, it will be up for grabs,” said Kelley.

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner

Gaertner may not be the best known among women — or men — but she’s been actively campaigning all over the state for months.

“There’s been a little pushback, a few nasty ‘grams,’ ” said Gaertner of her very early start. “They’re saying, ‘It’s too early to start.’ “But for every nasty ‘gram,’ there have been 30 people who have been supportive. They understand that it’s been so long since we’ve elected a governor. It’s going to take preparation.”

Time for a woman?
Gaertner is playing the gender card perfectly.

“I was a diehard Hillary Clinton supporter,” she said. “It was not hard to think that when that didn’t work out, maybe it would work out for [a woman to be elected] governor.”

But then she quickly points out that gender is not a factor in her campaign.

“I’m not running as the women’s candidate,” she said. “I’m running on my record, experience and skills.”

Gaertner may have some trouble from the far left in the DFL because of her prosecution of protesters at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul this summer. There have been protests outside her office and a protest outside a recent fundraiser.

“That will pass,” she said. “A lot of the rhetoric borders on irresponsible. Do some of these people believe that I should prosecute based on politics?”

Like Kelley, Gaertner is presenting herself as a moderate. And she’s trying to turn her disadvantage — an unknown outside of Ramsey County — into an advantage.

“I’m a fresh face,” she said. “I’m a moderate policy-maker, not a career politician.”

Marty, the longtime senator from Roseville, is not a fresh face. But he thinks his old ideas — a progressive, active government — will play better than in 1994, when he lost so badly to Carlson.

State Sen. John Marty
State Sen. John Marty

“That was the height of the Gingrich revolution,” said Marty, who notes that even Carlson is a much more progressive person than he was in ’94.

Marty’s big issues will be health care — he’s prepared a comprehensive statewide universal care plan for Minnesotans.

“I think the political establishment is ducking the issues,” he said. “I think there’s a fatigue among voters about the unwillingness to get things accomplished.”

But mostly, as it’s currently constituted, this is a field filled with fresh faces. There’s not a celebrity candidate in the bunch. Only two — Dayton and Entenza — are in a position to self-finance. All have potential problems.

For example,  Anderson Kelliher and Clark have to lead the their legislative colleagues through a  tough, budget-cutting legislative session that could tie them to very unpopular decisions. The two mayors — Chris Coleman and R.T. Rybak — have the same potential budget-slashing problems.

Rep. Tom Rukavina
Rep. Tom Rukavina

Bakk and Rukavina, meanwhile, have to show they are more than regional candidates. (Bakk points out that being from the Range should be seen as an advantage. “Where was the last DFL governor from?” he says. Answer: Perpich, from the Hibbing area.)  Thissen is not only unknown, but he’s from Minneapolis, which immediately casts the shadow of “big-city liberal” over his name.

“Most of my district is in Richfield,” said Thissen. “My district is more suburban than city.” He also adds that he has family roots in rural Minnesota.

Like Gaertner, Thissen has been quietly campaigning for months and says he’s raised $100,000 “in a tough economy.”

“It’s a big organizational effort,” said Thissen of starting a gubernatorial run from scratch. “But it’s not rocket science. It’s about hard work.”

Lots of questions
And it’s ultimately about unanswered questions. 

• Will incumbent Tim Pawlenty, who never has captured 50 percent of the vote in his two successful campaigns, run for a third term? (Probably.)

• Will the parties, which would need legislative approval, move their primaries from September to June? (Probably not.)

• Will the Independence Party again put up a candidate strong enough to capture 10 percent or more of the vote, likely ensuring another governor elected by fewer than half the voters? (Who knows?)

What is certain is that the new political season has begun even as the old season lingers on and on. 

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.