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 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.


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.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Brian Hokanson on 12/23/2008 - 11:01 am.

    Gaertner said – “Do some of these people believe that I should prosecute based on politics?”

    That comment is laughable almost to the point of hilarious. Let’s remember what happened: Journalists arrested, medics brutalized, peaceful protesters brutalized with chemical agents, rubber bullets and brute force by out of control cops. Meanwhile, what does Gaertner decide to do? Charge the RNC 8 with terrorism in the first ever use of the MN PATRIOT Act, after having them all rounded up before the convention which they didn’t even plan to protest themselves. What could be more political than charging dissenters as terrorists?

    It’s not just the “far left in the DFL” Gaertner is going to have trouble with if she doesn’t drop the charges against the RNC 8. The only people I’ve seen so far who support her have been some lawyers and a few rich folks. Gaertner would hardly be better than Pawlenty and doesn’t seem to have the ethics to hold a park board seat.

    Folks should check out http://www.RNC8.org for more info about that case.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/23/2008 - 12:18 pm.

    Quickly, legislators! Get the Constitution changed to permit no more than two terms for any governor.

    Seriously, important DFL members. Please do not be so quick to endorse candidates instead of letting the BOTTOM-UP process work as it should: caucus, primary, et cetera, with the real decision coming from regular folks.

    Franken was handicapped in this campaign by a lack of grass-roots support from ordinary voters who were hoping to help elect other candidates. After the state convention, many thousands of us had to try to transfer our allegiance from Jack Nelson Pallmeyer or Mike Ciresi to him, and it was not always easy.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/23/2008 - 12:23 pm.

    Any DFL candidate will have basically the same message, “education, healthcare, and the environment.” The same “tax and spend” agenda. So much for change.

  4. Submitted by Charley Underwood on 12/23/2008 - 12:37 pm.

    Gaertner claims that it would be irresponsible to prosecute cases based on politics. I would suggest that she is doing exactly that herself, since she is swallowing Bob Fletcher’s wild imaginings whole, while not believing her own eyes in viewing ample video footage of anonymous black-clad officers arresting or pepper-spraying wantonly, with no legal justification. It is, of course, illegal for police officers in Minnesota to hide their badges, and it is illegal for police officers to assault the innocent, whether with cudgels or with pepper spray.

    Gaertner’s prosecution of the innocent and her blind eye to the crimes of the uniformed should lead anyone to question her judgment and perhaps her ethics. It would be foolish for any who cherish their liberties to support her.

    Gaertner is also quite naive when she states, “That will pass.” Those of us who watched the armed siege of St Paul in early September will never be able to forget it. An apology and some equal justice would help us forgive, but we will never forget.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/23/2008 - 01:12 pm.

    Mr. Gotzman: As opposed to the government-and- all-taxes-are-evil-therefore-we-must-cut cut cut cut from-government until it is no good anymore to anyone except those remaining few with wealth and property to protect?

    We have had ENOUGH of that failed and, yes, immoral philosophy to last forever. It’s time to recognize again that government has an obligation to serve us all, to help us all, to educate us all so we can partake in both our workforce and our culture, and provide an infrastructure that meets the needs of both the public and private sectors. That is why Justice Louis Brandeis noted that “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”

  6. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 12/23/2008 - 02:11 pm.

    The problem with Kelley’s analysis is he compares Franken’s support in a three-way race to DFLers in two-way races. It might be a valid comparison to look a Franken and DFLers with IP opponents. Franken underperformed Tinklenberg, but Coleman underperformed Bachmann, yet no one questions if Coleman was the right candidate. I don’t recall the CD3 results, but with a campaigning IP candidate, that would at least be a reasonable comparison.

    Also, the issues Kelley lists as suburban issues are everybody’s issues. He’s right that the suburbs shouldn’t be neglected, but I suggest that the suburbs are where both parties have focused.

    The DFL’s key problem, unremarked upon in the article or comments, is that the IP takes far more votes from the DFL than the Republicans. If there’s a strong IP candidate again, the Republicans win. Until the DFL addresses that, we’ll keep losing three-way races. The DFL wins a two-way race.

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/23/2008 - 02:23 pm.


    Thanks for your comments. I am not against taxes.

    However, I am against the growth of Government that grows faster than personal income.

    The largest employer in MN is now Government.

    And we already know that no matter how many taxes are raised, there will never be enough money to satisfy the liberal special interests who feed on the public dime.

    If you are so in favor of raising taxes, please have the DFL candidates boldly proclaim how much they will raise taxes and whose taxes will be raised. Hopefully there “tax and spend” agenda will be proclaimed instead of disguised with code-words.

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/23/2008 - 04:17 pm.

    The whole “Tax and Spend” mantra is old and tired. It is a credit to conservative branding that it has stuck. Conservative supply side economics does not work for 95% of Americans, and what more proof do you need? When the economy grows as a whole but 95% of the country is in a depression, something is not fair.

    Democrats want a fair tax system, instead of redistributing to the top 1% through deregulation. If you make less than 200k per year and believe in conservative monetary policy, you really don’t get it.

    The Republicans main emphasis is to depress wages and benefits of 95% of America in order to enrich the top 5%. In an economy driven by wages that is just plain stupid, as evidenced by our economies current state.

    Finally, a Democratic executive has been the only one nationally to spend less than revenue in the last 30 years. Do you conservatives get that? A Democrat was the only one to behave in a responsible manner.

    For Governor, I want someone who is a champion of labor, someone who can return our ecnomy to solvency by supporting those 95% of us who drive the economy.

    It is ust common sense and econ 101.

  9. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 12/23/2008 - 05:21 pm.

    Isn’t it great to have so many candidates!

    While I’m hoping for a positive we can do better campaign, the incumbent Governor can easily be criticized on separate issues by each of the candidates.

    My biggest worry is the size of the egos involved and the prospect that the caucus and convention will not sort them out. My second biggest worry is that neither big city Mayors nor out-state legislators have statewide interests and concerns.

  10. Submitted by Janet Robert on 12/24/2008 - 09:49 am.

    Interesting article on the Governor’s race.

    Your main point about that race is well taken: That a talented women with experience will beat a field of any two males these days as our society is eager to finally move women into leadership roles and create gender balance.

    Unfortunately, your throwaway comment that Bill Luther “never campaigned” is grossly inaccurate. He ran a radio campaign, had lawn signs, was in a several debates, raised money and visited numerous cities around the state.

    It was a very short campaign and the other two campaigns were up and running with volunteers a long time before former Congressman Bill Luther got in the race and it became apparent after it was too late to drop out that it was going to be tough to overcome a lot of the obstacles.

    He was surprised by the DFL’s endorsement, he
    underestimated the power of Senator Kelly’s name in the Irish communities, underestimated the lawn sign campaign that Attorney General Swanson would run throughout the state, was taken off guard when he found out the major radio stations including WCCO would not carry ads for the Attorney General’s race, and had to take a lot of time to raise money for the small contributions required for a statewide campaign.

    The second lesson here is never get into a race late without adequate time to assess the field.

  11. Submitted by Alec Beck on 12/25/2008 - 08:45 am.

    I’m probably just tilting at windmills here (and as a conservative I’m in not particularly friendly territory), but WHY won’t anyone comment on the dirty trick that Mike Hatch played on Steve Kelly? Hatch recruited Bill Luther to run. Luther ran, the vote was split (women will tend to drift to female candidates by five percent or so), and Lori Swanson took the nomination over her own party’s endorsed candidate. This was shameful. Lori Swanson is a smart and capable lawyer, but was ENORMOUSLY underqualified compared to her opponent, or really to any Attorney General in my lifetime. Once she won, she employed Mike Hatch for awhile while he aggressively tried to get a job at every big law firm in town. This seems like a bit of a scandal, or at least a contretemps, but there’s nothing but silence from the media.

    I know the current meme is that we conservatives are “whiny” when we complain about a left-wing slant in journalism. Oh well.

    All of the above “whining,” I hope everyone has a great and safe Christmas.

  12. Submitted by Alec Beck on 12/25/2008 - 08:49 am.

    It makes sense to read earlier comments before commenting, and I didn’t follow that simple rule. But here goes.

    Ms. Robert obviously has a horse in this race, but I would ask what kind of a campaign Bill Luther actually put on, and whether he was specifically recruited by Mike Hatch? I’ve been told by several Assistant AGs that Mr. Hatch sought out Luther to run. Are they mistaken?

  13. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 12/29/2008 - 08:39 am.

    Communities of Support:

    Comments in #11 referred to the ‘Irish Community’ that supported Steve Kelley.

    Lori Swanson’s successful lawn sign campaign has been credited with building her support from the ‘Scandinavian community.’

    What was the community of support for the 21 percent that voted for Bill Luther in the AG Primary: Germans and Lutherans?

    While ethnic identity may influence some voters, it suggests that the 300,000 or so voters that voted in the 2006 Primary voted without being informed on election issues if their candidate choice is made on the basis of which candidate most closely matches their ethnic identity or demographics.

    As a German Lutheran Woman that volunteered in Steve Kelley’s campaign office in both the governor and AG races of 2006, my perspective is that Kelley’s support ‘community’ was comprised more of people focused on issues like education, environment, labor and workforce, healthcare and transportation than on ethnic or demographic factors.

    If we learned anything in 2008, it was that a candidate like Obama can win big in a caucus state like Iowa that has a 95 percent white population when the campaign focus is on issues and not ethnicity or demographics.

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