Typically, campaign finance disputes make the eyes of most Minnesotans glaze over, especially when there are important things going on, like Vikings games and Christmas shopping.
But the nasty dispute spinning around the campaign of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher has an odor to it that may hang around for a while.
What makes this a little different from a run-of-the-mill “inside baseball” spat is that other DFL gubernatorial candidates are more disgusted with Kelliher, and perhaps their own party, than Republicans are.
Sure, the Republicans filed a complaint today with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Dislosure Board regarding the quickly confessed violations of campaign finance rules.
A political soap opera
But Tony Sutton, chair of the Republican Party, had it right when he said, “This looks to me like quite the little soap opera the DFL has going among its own candidates.”
He’s got that right.
Tipped by some of Kelliher’s DFL gubernatorial opponents, Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press published stories Thursday evening and this morning that the Kelliher campaign exceeded legal amounts it could receive from donors with a bit of sleight of hand. When the donors had hit the max amount they could donate directly to the campaign, they were told they could donate directly to the DFL to help Kelliher buy access to the party’s voter database called the Voter Activation Network (VAN).
VAN, it should be noted, can be used by all DFL candidates, but they must pay when they use it.
When the deal was arranged, DFL Chairman Brian Melendez told numerous media outlets that the party presumed it was a legal arrangement.
But it quickly discovered — apparently after loud words with some other DFL gubernatorial candidates — it is not.
By late morning, Kelliher and the party were claiming it was all “a mistake.” The party said it had returned money received via the Kelliher channel to donors and that Kelliher had replaced the money directly from her campaign treasury.
One more time into the fog before getting into the business of why this is might be a problem that lingers for Kelliher and, perhaps to a lesser degree, the DFL.
Under Minnesota finance rules, in non-election years, candidates can raise $500 each from lobbyists, political action committees and individuals. But once that total hits $95,800, they no longer can collect from lobbyists and political action committees, though they can still collect as much as $250 from individuals.
Contributions count whether they’re in cash or in-kind services.
Sutton used as simple an analogy as he could to clarify the cash/services issue.
“If I give you $500 for your campaign for governor,” he said, “I can’t then turn around and give you $500 worth of copy paper.”
Where Kelliher and the DFL ran into a problem is that the arrangement was seen as a coordinated campaign, meaning limits were exceeded.
Sticky internal DFL politics
The sticky part of all of this is the amount of rancor it has raised toward the party and Kelliher from other DFL candidates.
By originally agreeing to the arrangement with Kelliher, many of those candidates are saying, the party was showing favoritism to her. And prior to the completion of the endorsement process, it’s the party’s job to make sure the playing field is level for ALL candidates.
This role of party neutrality, by the way, is a point that Melendez has made many times in the past.
Several DFL gubernatorial candidates — including Sens. Tom Bakk and John Marty and Reps. Tom Rukavina and Paul Thissen — were critical of the Kelliher-DFL “mistake,” with Bakk making the strongest statements about what he saw as the meaning of it all.
“We’re all out working really hard every day by going to all kinds of forums and contacting delegates and trying to raise money,” Bakk told MPR’s Tom Scheck. “I think the assumption on everybody’s part is that we all have an equal chance to secure the endorsement. If you don’t, and the process is rigged, why would you make the commitment to abide by endorsement if it’s not a fair process.”
Kelliher, party call flap honest mistake
Both Melendez and Keilliher repeatedly were saying today that the deal was an honest “mistake,” based on faulty legal advice and that corrections have been made.
Kelliher said she sent a letter today to the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board saying that her campaign had made a mistake. She also said that the campaign had returned $1,500 collected from donors Ruth Usem and Blanche Hawkins and lobbyist Rich Ginsberg.
But both DFL candidates and Republican officers were raising their eyebrows over the “mistake” comment.
“These people have been around,” said Sutton. “They know the rules. It’s so basic. When you file to become a candidate, you get a book: Here’s the rules, follow them. It’s not that hard.”
Sutton, by the way, says he doesn’t believe the DFL Party did anything wrong. The problem, he says, lies at the feet of Kelliher.
The Republicans surely will try to make some political hay from this, though again it’s hard to make non-activist voters care very much.
Besides, when it comes to following campaign rules, no candidate or party can claim the high ground.
Remember, in 2002, the campaign of then-gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty was fined a record $100,000 by the board for violations of coordinated campaign rules. In that case, Pawlenty and the Republican Party were found guilty of colluding on a series of television ads.
But, Sutton said, he believes Republicans can now point out that both Keilliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, another DFL gubernatorial candidate, already have violated rules. (Rybak’s gubernatorial campaign was required by the campaign finance board to return $26,000 to his mayoral campaign.)
“Here are the two people many consider their leading contenders,” Sutton said, “and they’re both violating rules. It just shows that the new left doesn’t believe the rules apply to them. In their way of thinking, the end justifies the means.”
Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, also was trying to use Kelliher’s “mistake” to create some headlines. Emmer called for Kelliher to step down as House speaker.
But where this “inside baseball” issue will really resonate is with the “insiders,” and understand it is the insider — activists of all shapes and sizes — who end up making the endorsement.
And certainly, this “mistake” will raise the rancor between the campaigns of DFL gubernatorial candidates.
As Sutton said, it’s “a little soap opera.” Suddenly, the plot has become a little angrier.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.