Dan Skogen was about 20 minutes from going on the air Saturday morning to broadcast a third-place game in the girls’ state high school basketball tournament — Parkers Prairie versus Northern Freeze — when he got a phone call.
“It was Tom Bakk,” said Skogen, a DFL senator from Hewitt, a Bakk supporter and sports director of KWAD-AM and FM in Wadena. “He told me he was dropping out.”
The decision by Bakk, the DFL senator from Cook on the Iron Range, to leave the race for gubernatorial endorsement creates the DFL’s first major game-changing moment in the scramble.
By all accounts, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak are outpacing the field in the race for committed delegates, but there’s a large contingent of formally uncommitted delegates with progressive ties.
Bakk staying neutral till after convention
In leaving the race, Bakk said he believed one of those two would end up with endorsement. But he also said he would not be supporting any of the still-standing candidates until after the April 23-25 convention.
That means he does have a core of supporters who are on the market. And such “second-choice candidates” as Rep. Paul Thissen and surprisingly strong Rep. Tom Rukavina could benefit from Bakk’s departure if neither Rybak nor Kelliher can nail down the endorsement in early ballots.
The big prize for any remaining candidate would be nabbing the endorsement of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, the umbrella organization for a cross section of craft unions in the struggling construction industry, which had endorsed Bakk.
Where does that organization’s support go now that Bakk, a union carpenter by trade, is gone?
“Let me say, he would have been a great governor,” said Harry Melander, president of the building and trades organization. “He’s a smart guy, a big heart. That said, he made the right decision. He’s real. He’s practical. He could see the numbers.”
But where does that leave the Building and Trades Council?
“Our executive board will make that decision,” Melander said. “We have our quarterly meeting on April 8 and we’ll decide what we’re going to do then.”
Three key union groups still in play
That means that there are now three major unions — the trades council, the Service Employees International Union and Education Minnesota — that are not tied to any candidate as the convention draws closer.
It’s possible those three unions could coalesce around a single candidate just before, or during, the convention.
“We talk with each other,” said Melander. But he quickly added that each organization will decide which candidate is best for its membership.
Melander also said his organization never cut ties with the campaigns of other DFL candidates when it threw its support to Bakk.
“But we felt tremendous loyalty to Tom,” said Melander. “He was one of us.”
There is a vulture-like quality to these political races. Even after a person — or union — announces support for a specific candidate, the other candidates continue to circle.
“If you’re guy doesn’t make it,” they say, empathetically of course, “I’d sure like to have your support. I’d like to be your second choice.”
Now that Bakk has fallen, the other candidates are reaching out as diplomatically as possible to attract his supporters.
On the surface, Rukavina could stand to gain the most immediate support because the feisty populist from Virginia is now the lone Ranger in the field.
There appeared, however, to be some tension between Rukavina and Bakk, each knowing the other was making it impossible to build a unified northern Minnesota base.
However, Scott Johnson, mayor of Silver Bay and a Bakk supporter, doesn’t believe any tough feelings between the two candidates spilled over to supporters and/or delegates.
“The sense I have,” said Johnson, “is that after getting beat up for eight years, either of the Toms works [for DFLers in northern Minnesota].”
Where will Bakk supporters go now?
Johnson, who failed in his effort to become a Bakk delegate to the state convention, believes the vast majority of his supporters now will switch comfortably to Rukavina.
Johnson said a lot of old-timers sense “a bit of Rudy Perpich” in Rukavina. Perpich, of course, was the last DFLer to be elected governor.
But the chance to unite northern Minnesota support isn’t the only gain for Rukavina. He’s the only non-metro candidate still standing, though Kelliher, who lives in south Minneapolis, constantly talks about the fact that she was brought up on a farm.
Consider the thoughts of Skogen.
“For me, Tom is not only a gem of a colleague,” Skogen said, “he brought a rural perspective to things. We’re a state that really has only a couple of metropolitan areas. I think that rural perspective is important.”
Skogen, who served as a Bakk fill-in at a number of district conventions in northwestern Minnesota, was perplexed by his candidate’s inability to pull larger delegate numbers.
“He’d finish first or second in the straw polls,” Skogen said, “but then he might get only one delegate. It was hard to understand.”
Those who are doing well in Skogen’s territory around Wadena are Kelliher and, to his surprise, Rybak. And Rukavina, too, always picks up some support, Skogen said.
“He comes into Wadena,” said Skogen of Rukavina, “speaks a little Finnish to the people and they love him.”
But Rukavina hasn’t just been appealing in outstate Minnesota; he’s actually fared well in the metro area, where crowds have been delighted with his passion, humor and knowledge.
It’s still Kelliher or Rybak’s endorsement to win or lose, but Rukavina is a stronger candidate today than he was Saturday morning.
Skogen, who is a convention delegate and already has received “a couple of calls” from hovering candidates, is going to wait awhile before he decides on his second choice.
“I’m just not ready to have that conversation yet,” he said. “In a few days, I’ll talk to Tom [Bakk] and see how I feel after that.”
Meantime, he’s got the boys’ basketball tournament to broadcast for KWAD this weekend.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.