With caucuses approaching, stakes, passions and suspicions increase among DFL governor candidates

As Tuesday’s caucuses draw near, stakes, passions and suspicions are increasing among those running for governor.

Nowhere was that more true than around the gubernatorial campaign of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who today received the support of Duluth Mayor Don Ness and two members of the Duluth City Council while also fighting off the notion that he’s “anti-widow.”

Those endorsements matter mightily to Rybak, who many pundits believed would have trouble finding support outside the metro area.

“People are underestimating how well he’s known outside the city,” said Rybak’s campaign manager, Tina Smith. “It’s interesting. Where we hear the most skepticism about his chances are from people inside the city. They say, ‘You’re one of us — do you really think people from outside will support you?’ ”

Smith said that the campaign will be releasing longer lists of those in Greater Minnesota who will be supporting the Rybak campaign in coming days.

Meantime, though, the campaign is dealing with a letter sent by the Minneapolis Police Relief Association Political Fund and the Minneapolis Firefighters Relief Association Political Fund to DFLers likely to attend caucuses.

The letter, signed by five widows of police officers and firefighters who died on duty, blasts Rybak for cutting their pensions.

Before getting into the details of the widows’ charges, dig through a bit of the politics surrounding the letter.

R.T. Rybak
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
R.T. Rybak

According to Smith, the Rybak campaign started receiving concerned calls from DFLers around the state a few days ago.

“People are saying, ‘I can’t believe this is true,’ ” she said. “They’re wondering what is true. Some are saying they won’t let this letter shake their belief in R.T., and others are wondering if R.T. has a skeleton in his closet.”

Statewide queries raising suspicions
But as intriguing as the questions being raised, said Smith, is the fact those queries are coming from all over the state, and they’re coming from people who have participated in caucuses in the past.

That means that the firefighters and police had very sophisticated mailing lists to work with; lists that sound suspiciously like the lists that the state DFL would have.

Said Smith, “I am really sure that the DFL is not responsible for this. I trust the DFL. I don’t believe they’ve illegally given their lists to outside organizations. But it does appear to be a list of past caucus attendees, and it’s not just from a certain part of the state. Where could a list like that come from?

“Somebody said, ‘There are old copies of lists here and there. Maybe that’s what this was.’ I suppose that’s possible. But I’ve got to say this is a pretty significant list. It would take a lot of wherewithal and money to deal with a mailing like this.”

DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez told the Star Tribune, “I am absolutely certain they [the fire and police relief associations] do not have our voter file. If they do have access, that’s not legal.”

Second internal spat among DFL candidates
This is the second time in two months that the DFL Party has been in the middle of spats involving the field of its gubernatorial candidates. Last month, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher drew the ire of several competitors over earmarked party contributions. That matter has since been largely resolved.

The charges stem from a longstanding pension dispute between the city and the Fire Relief Association and Police Relief Association that were closed to new employees in 1980. Since then, it should be noted, police and firefighters are served by a statewide pension fund.

After months of failed negotiations, the city filed suit against the two associations, claiming that it was overpaying benefits to the tune of nearly $50 million in the last eight years.

Judge Janet Poston ruled in favor of the city, ordering the two funds to reduce their claims that the city owed starting in 2010. The ruling saved city taxpayers millions.

It also led to a letter from five of the widows about their cuts in benefits. The letter ended with this:

“There are plenty of outstanding DFL candidates who would make a great Governor. R.T. Rybak is not one of them. We hope you cast your vote on the Governor’s preference ballot at your caucuses on Tuesday, Feb. 2nd for a true DFLer — someone other than Rybak.”

Obviously, given the targeted mailing of the widows’ letter to likely caucus attendees, the Rybak campaign was concerned.

It countered that letter with a letter from Smith.

“If Mayor Rybak hadn’t taken on the bad management of these pension funds,” Smith said in a letter to potential caucus attendees, “they would have continued to overcharge Minneapolis taxpayers. That would have meant more cuts to police, firefighters and other basic city services — and higher property taxes for everyone.”

In her letter, Smith also said: “R.T. and the city council beat the high-priced lawyers and lobbyists who represent the fund managers overcharging Minneapolis taxpayers — so now those lawyers and lobbyists are trying to fight back by misrepresenting the facts and spreading smears.”

Still unanswered: Where’d the list come from? Will there be more attacks as the caucuses draw near?

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 (4)

  1. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 01/26/2010 - 05:34 pm.

    This issue with pensions is not likely to cost Rybak much support. Caucus goers are a savvy bunch and will not be swayed by sob story mailings. In fact, the mailings could back fire.

    What will cause problems for Rybak are his expenditures on water fountains and the more recent budget cuts. Here’s what MPR wrote about Rybak’s ten very artistic water fountains:

    “Rybak’s water fountain plan draws some questions, July 24, 2008: Earlier this week, the city of Minneapolis unveiled designs for ten artist designed water fountains to be placed throughout the city. The plans call for fountains that look like river mussel shells, river bluffs and giant blades of grass. The plan is part of Mayor R.T. Rybak’s efforts to tout the city’s water, but the $500,000 cost of the project has some people scratching their heads.”

    The recent budget cuts are likely to be problematic because Rybak cut police programs while apparently leaving a lot of bureaucrats untouched.

    Rybak is going to have to try to explain this stuff to folks and one has a hard time seeing how he can pull this off. When so many families are hungry, as the recent article in MinnPost discusses, Rybak’s budget decisions are going to be problematic for him.

  2. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 01/26/2010 - 11:12 pm.

    I agree with Rebecca that the letter on the pension issue is backfiring. The widows have survivor pension benefits worth #24-25 K per year in 2008. Their ‘losses’ based on the Judge’s court decision is !50-220 / month. Minnesota widows living on Social Security did NOT receive any COLA increase in 2010, so it’s difficult to muster much sympathy for widows receiving an additional $24K in annual benefits.

    The State Auditor in 2004-6 referred the pension matter to the Minneapolis governing officials. The City Council acted with the mayor to take the issue to court, and the Judge ruled in favor of the city. This enabled the city to eliminate $10 million in additional property tax revenue that would have been required to sustain the pension funds, thereby reducing the amount the property owners in Minneapolis need to contribute to a fund that supports a small number of recipients.

    The letter sent by the Minneapolis Police and Fire pension fund chair and treasurer to ‘Dear DFL Friends’ did not malign the city council members, the judge, or the former state auditor that was involved. Former auditor Pat Anderson was a candidate for governor until she became a candidate for state auditor earlier this month.

  3. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 01/27/2010 - 09:48 am.

    I went into the forum the other day a pretty strong Rybak supporter. I still am and I’d love to see him as governor, but I was blown away by Rukavina. There’s a guy who would get me out knocking doors if he were the nominee.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Goldenberg on 01/27/2010 - 12:08 pm.

    Four “big names” in the running and all four with real problems: R.T.’s spotty record as Mayor, Margaret’s corner-cutting fundraising, Matt’s intra-party spying and Mark’s personal and professional challenges. I sure hope caucus attendees look beyond these four “big hitters” on Tuesday.

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