It was the most civil and visionary of mornings but the most partisan and business-as-usual of afternoons.
Today offered a tale of two approaches, both seeking change in extremely different ways.
As Minnesota’s Secretary of State Mark Ritchie played host to the grass-roots National Civic Summit at the Minneapolis Hilton and prepared to welcome his colleagues of the National Association of Secretaries of State, the Minnesota Republican Party pulled out its political cannons in St. Paul. Then, the party officials aimed them directly at Ritchie while he was in the national spotlight among his peers.
GOP Chairman Tony Sutton announced the launch of an anti-Ritchie radio ad campaign that is set to begin Friday and run through next week. The GOP also has created a new anti-Ritchie website.
GOP targeting Ritchie in 2010
They’re the first steps in Republican efforts to unseat Ritchie in the 2010 election. Ritchie, the state’s chief elections official, oversaw the Al Franken-Norm Coleman recount and is a leading national figure in election reforms.
“We wanted to take advantage” of the other secretaries of state being in town, Sutton admitted. “We believe Minnesota needs a new secretary of state.”
Sutton added later, in response to a question: “It’s not about embarrassing the secretary of state. It’s about informing the voters.”
But it clearly was embarrassing. The GOP’s 1 p.m. news conference came as many of Ritchie’s colleagues from around the country were arriving for their summer convention. It came four hours after Nate Garvis, Target Corp.’s governmental relations vice president, spoke to an audience of about 100 leaders of civic organizations on the importance of “common ground and common good.”
“Loud is only bad when it’s noise. Loud is good when it’s music,” Garvis said. “Are we going to give in to the voices of anger?’’
Garvis called for a change in politics and policy to one in which bipartisanship is rewarded. He called for “moderates” to define themselves by what they are and not by what they’re not.
It was a call to reason. It was a sermon to a choir of civic-advocacy, good-government, election-reform and scholarly leaders.
Twelve minutes into Garvis’ speech, the GOP emailed an alert to journalists about Sutton’s upcoming attack news conference. Irony isn’t a strong enough word.
In the radio ad, set to air on stations of the Minnesota News Network and WCCO-AM, the GOP claims that Ritchie “lied about using state resources for political purposes” in 2007.
That charge, made then by Republicans, that Ritchie misused public resources for campaign purposes was shot down in 2008 by Legislative Auditor James Nobles. As for “lying,” the legislative auitor’s report never asserted that; it criticized Ritchie for “his failure to provide a complete and timely response” to an original request for information. Here’s the link to Nobles’ report.
Ad blames Ritchie for ‘recount mess’
The ad claims Ritchie “helped create the recount mess” by not properly training election officials statewide.
While there was inconsistency in some counties and precincts on how some absentee ballots were evaluated, in most quarters, the recount was considered a model exercise. A three-judge panel and the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the recount results.
The ad claims that “under pressure from members of his own party,” Ritchie “switched his position on which ballots to count.” The main GOP point is that Ritchie allegedly changed his position on whether previously rejected absentee ballots in the Coleman-Franken recount should have been included.
But a Star Tribune report from the day the State Canvassing Board discussed the issue states that it was Ramsey County District Court Judges Kathleen Gearin and Edward Cleary who were most assertive in including those previously rejected votes in the count.
Ultimately, the entire Canvassing Board agreed to encourage the state’s election officials to sort the ballots. Eventually, Attorney General Lori Swanson, a DFLer, offered an opinion that these rejected votes could be included. But it was the Minnesota Supreme Court that ordered certain ballots be counted.
Ritchie was one member of the State Canvassing Board, which, for anyone who watched the Board, was clearly led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson.
What also irked the GOP was an op-ed piece that Ritchie wrote in today’s Pioneer Press congratulating the state on the recount and suggesting some reforms. (All of his reforms were passed by the Legislature this year but vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.)
At the GOP news conference, Sutton said, “Our intention here is not to rehash the recount campaign and relive that battle.”
GOP ‘raw rage’ over recount process
But GOP Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb, who also attended the news conference, said, “There is a great deal, I think, of raw rage and frustration out there amongst Republican activists for this recount process and how there was inconsistent standards . . .”
Sutton said he expects GOP candidates to emerge shortly to take on Ritchie. The DFL-held attorney general and state auditor posts also will be hotly contested, he said.
“This isn’t your grandpa’s Republican Party,” said Sutton, who, along with Brodkorb, was elected to the party’s top posts last month. “We’re not just going to sit back and wait for things to happen . . . We’re going to be very aggressive in talking about people’s records.”
As for Ritchie, he bit his tongue as best he could. Speaking from the Hilton where his fellow secretaries of state were convening, he told MinnPost: “I’ve been very careful throughout this entire [recount] process to not comment or react to political attacks, and I’m going to continue with this policy, but it does strike me that this is a signal that next year’s re-election campaign may be marred by these kind of attack ads and gutter politics … I’m hopeful we can avoid that. I plan on running a very positive campaign.”
He added: “I find it a reminder of the importance of the message from Nate Garvis this morning, which is that whenever the ugly head of toxic gutter politics rears up, it’s important for citizens of good intention to speak out and articulate the necessity of a real vision, a real picture of where we want to go.”
Sutton was asked if he had plans to attend the Civic Summit, which continues Friday.
No, he said.
“We’re not going to pretend this is Lake Wobegon, [where] we just got a couple things we got to fix,” said Sutton. “We live in the real world. My favorite part of DisneyWorld is Adventureland, not Fantasyland.”
DFL fires back
Not to be outdone, DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez fired back in a statement this afternoon accused the GOP of “playing the divisive politics of the past — tactics that voters have overwhelmingly rejected” and accused Republicans of “spinning out their smear campaign.”
Just hours earlier, Garvis who helped Ritchie put the Civic Summit together, railed against citizens “self-identifying into ideological ghettoes … Dogma is a tool people use to stop learning.”
Such was the divide on a day that began on a note of common ground, only to erode into business as usual rhetoric and, finally, end with the opening of a window into the inevitable battles of the next 16 months.
Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.