With more than 14,000 members, Teamsters Local 120 is the largest in the state and, though located in Minneapolis, has members across the state.
Its endorsement of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak for governor — even before he officially announces he’s running — is no small thing.
Two things were unusual about the endorsement:
First, the local did not screen any candidates for governor.
“Look, these people [the DFL candidates] are our friends,” Brad Slawson Jr., the president of the local, told me. “We know them. We like them. Screening would have been a waste of time.”
Process doesn’t please all candidates
Not all of the candidates, it should be noted, agree with that view that screening would have been a futile exercise.
Slawson says he called each of the candidates before announcing the endorsement and told them what the local had in mind. Some of those called asked to be screened first. Slawson held firm. There would be no screenings.
Second, this is a local that had not endorsed Rybak in his two previous runs for mayor.
In his first race, Local 120 endorsed incumbent Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. The second time around, it favored Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
So why Rybak? And why now, so early in the process?
Slawson said that the local’s executive board and its Political Action Committee thought that, in hard times, he has done a good job as mayor.
But the main reason is its belief that Rybak “has the best chance to create some excitement and win.” he said.
As for the timing, Slawson said that the local was looking to do something to help its candidate separate himself from the pack.
A jump-start for Rybak?
“We know it might be a little of a long shot,” he said. “We’re trying to send a message that he would be a great candidate. We’re trying to give him a little bit of a jump.”
Rybak, of course, is thrilled with the endorsement (although he’s currently running for his third term as mayor and has not officially announced he’s in the gubernatorial sweepstakes). And the timing is perfect, from his perspective.
“Getting the first major labor endorsement is hugely important,” he said. “I’m already getting calls. People are saying, ‘This helps change the whole viability picture.’ ”
Rybak said he and Local 120 have been brought together over the years by issues. The Teamsters and the mayor have worked together on city and regional transportation issues, he said. But it was the Obama campaign that likely sealed the deal, the mayor said.
“We loved campaigning together [for Obama],” he said.
In fact, Slawson made a couple of references to the similarities between Rybak’s current campaign structure and the one used by the Obama campaign. Both have begun with a so-called draft movement.
Rybak was on the ground floor of the “draft Obama”movement. Now, there is a “draft Rybak” movement, which is serving as a starting point for the Rybak campaign.
One of the hardest calls Slawson had to make was to DFL Sen. Tom Bakk, an announced candidate from the Iron Range. Bakk, a one-time union carpenter, is an official with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.
“We think Tom would make a great governor, but I don’t think he could be elected,” said Slawson.
Bakk doesn’t hide the fact that he’s disappointed by the Teamsters’ decision.
“I’ve spent my life breaking my back for working people,” Bakk said. “That’s why I got into union politics. That’s why I got into the Legislature, to improve the standard of living for working people.”
By the way, it should be noted that Bakk certainly doesn’t think he’s unelectable. In fact, in these hard times, he’s trying to pound home the idea that the DFL needs to be led by a candidate who understands that “taxing the rich” is not a platform.
He talked about the forums at which he has participated with other candidates.
“You know who gets the greatest applause line?” Bakk asked. “Mark Dayton. He says, ‘If those rich people would pay their fair share, we wouldn’t have the problems we’re having.’ And everybody applauds.”
Bakk said it’s not that simple. As tax chair, he did push legislation that would have added a new tier for the state’s wealthiest people. But, he noted, such a move would not come close to solving the state’s deficits. The problem, he said, is bigger than “taxes on the rich” or “cutting back government.”
Explaining that principle doesn’t generate much applause with party activists, so he’ll need all the help he can get from organized labor.
“Slawson called me Saturday and said what they were going to do,” Bakk said. “I said, ‘I gotta tell you, I’m very disappointed.’ ”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.