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Behind the scenes: what reNew did — and didn’t — accomplish

The old king-making days — when the winning political candidate was hand-picked by old-time pols in a smoke-filled back room — are so last century, so pre-Twitter. Saturday we saw an attempt at a 2010 version at the DFL’s state convention. delegates
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Late Saturday, reNew members caucused in small groups before taking a vote that fell short of the needed 60 percent needed to consolidate behind one candidate.

The old king-making days — when the winning candidate at a contentious political convention was hand-picked by old-time pols in a smoke-filled back room — are so last century, so pre-Twitter.

On Saturday night at the DFL Party’s state convention in Duluth, we saw an attempt at a 2010 version.

The behind-the-scenes political drama took place Saturday in a wide-open exhibition hall — no smoking allowed — enclosed by head-high portable dividers and filled with teachers, nurses, government workers and other regular folks, sitting in circles of 10, talking about their feelings and their hopes.

It was reNew.MN, a grass-roots group of 150 or so folks from around the state brought together in a community-activist model to try to make a difference in the coming election by pre-selecting three candidates who shared their progressive vision and then vowing to support one of them at the convention when the going got tough.

They had interviewed all the candidates in advance and settled on Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Rep. Paul Thissen and House speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher as the ones who best fit their vision and had a viable plan to win — and a plan to co-govern with the citizens after the election.

They certainly were the “It” group of the DFL convention in Duluth, attracting attention as they marched together in their white T-shirts with the organizers sporting colorful plastic leis. Orange wrist bands were worn by those who’d signed a public pledge to follow the group’s ultimate choice if at least 60 percent of them agreed to consolidate their votes behind one candidate.

With less than 10 percent of the delegates, even a consolidated bloc vote wasn’t likely to sway the results until the very end (and even then, many wondered, would they all stick to their pledge to support one of the three who wasn’t their favorite?). Even so, they seemed to have influence and attention disproportionate to their numbers.

Did it work?
Organizers say they delivered to the convention a committed, diverse group of delegates — about half of them first-timers — and left there with Margaret Anderson Kelliher, one of their three preferred delegates, getting the nomination. And they’re looking forward to helping Kelliher win the August primary and the November election. Those are all positive results, they say.

Did it work the way many expected?
Events conspired to rob the group of their grand moment — when the group hoped to unite behind one of their three and use their 100-delegate power to push him or her over the top. By the time the group even voted on which candidate to consolidate behind, the ballot-counting drama had all but sailed out under the nearby lift bridge.

In the end, the group never reached its goal of a super-majority for one candidate, and the convention endorsed Kelliher without the much-touted reNew wave.

That led to some grousing on Sunday morning by some reNew members who felt that they’d missed the opportunity to exert more influence on the proceedings. Some wished they’d acted earlier.

“Events did seem to overwhelm them,” said Mark Dayton, who had pitched for the group’s support but didn’t get it, in part because he bypassed the convention and will run against Kelliher in the primary.

But the leaders again pointed out that the goal all along was to either let the convention work naturally to elect one of reNew’s preferred candidates or, if needed, use its clout to jump-start the process toward unity. The jump-start wasn’t needed, they say.

Grass-roots roots
The process began in January 2009, as a project of TakeAction Minnesota, a coalition of progressive organizations and individuals around the state working for racial, social and economic justice. The group recruited 2,000 people with a goal of helping propel a like-minded candidate into the Minnesota governor’s office.

After hearing from 11 potential DFL candidates for governor, the group conducted a vote and announced on Jan. 31 that 643 supporters had selected Rybak, Thissen and Kelliher, in that order, as the three to back. Sen. John Marty was only 11 votes behind Kelliher, but the group wanted to stick with three.

Somewhere around 200 supporters were selected as delegates or alternates to the state convention, and officials say they were pretty evenly divided in support for each of the three candidates. At the convention, though, they were asked to publicly sign a pledge to throw their support behind one candidate that the group would vote to back — at some point in the convention.

Not everyone signed. Some felt they couldn’t abandon their own preferred candidate for the group’s ultimate choice. But about 150 did sign; about 100 of those were delegates, and the rest were alternates.

Meeting Friday night in a hotel ballroom group leaders laid out the guidelines:

All delegates were free to vote for their own choice on the first ballots. But, realizing that the goal was to use their block voting power to ensure that one of their three candidates got the endorsement, they planned at some key point in the convention to pull the group off the floor and take a vote to consolidate behind one of the candidates. If one got 60 percent of those voting — and that included delegates and alternates who’d signed pledges — the group would align behind that one.

How it worked
With designated leaders in each congressional district delegation, the group members kept in touch, and after the third ballot, when four candidates remained — Marty had withdrawn, leaving Rep. Tom Rukavina, Rybak, Thissen and Kelliher — the leaders called a caucus meeting in their wide-open space outside the convention hall.

It was a test run, leaders say, to get the reNew delegates together, keep them pumped up and focused on the group’s vision and test logistics for later when they expected to pull them off the floor for their crucial vote.

Mary Cathryn Ricker
Mary Cathryn Ricker

Mary Cathryn Ricker, chairman of the reNew board, used a megaphone to talk to the 150 or so delegates and alternates. They arranged groups of 10 chairs in circles, so delegates could talk about how things were going.

It seemed more like a retreat than a political rally.

Ricker, who is president of the St. Paul teachers union, said it was important at that point to meet in small groups. She asked the groups to talk among themselves about what fears they had in the next few ballots, and how their three candidates inspire them.

“Everything we’ve been doing has been about building relationships, so we wanted to find common ground, and remind people that this was not just about the convention, but in the bigger picture this was about our vision for Minnesota,” Ricker said.

Leaders also said it was important at that point to “pull the delegates away from the group think” that was starting to pervade the convention, as the fervor for individual candidates might begin interfering with the group’s mission to eventually unite.

“We wanted to dial back a bit, to ratchet down the tension of the convention, and I think it helped people put the tense convention in larger perspective,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, “and we reminded them that we were ready to consolidate later on, if the will of the group was there.”

The plan was to return after the fifth ballot to re-evaluate the situation, and most expected that would be the time to take the consolidation vote.

After the calming exercises, the group chanted, “We’re stronger together,” as they marched back to the convention hall — right through the line of people waiting to buy pizza, sandwiches and pop.

The time has come
Then, after the fourth ballot, Rukavina dropped out, sending his support to Kelliher, leaving only the three reNew-supported candidates to battle it out. On the fifth vote, Kelliher began pulling away, garnering nearly 47 percent of the vote, with 60 percent needed for endorsement.

After delegates marked their ballots for the sixth ballot — but before results were read — the call went out: reNew delegates should return to their meeting space.

This time, there was talk about whether the group even needed to flex its muscles and consolidate behind one candidate. The group was granted special permission to take extra time to meet, so they asked all three candidates to come make one last pitch. Thissen and Rybak appeared quickly, making impassioned pleas:

“Your decision can make a difference … the Republicans are most afraid of me,” said Thissen.

Argued Rybak: “This is not about one person; it’s about your vision.” Then Rybak, knowing there was maneuvering happening back on the floor, told them: “I won’t be part of any deal on stage.”

When Kelliher didn’t show up right away, the reNew delegates became testy, but floor organizer Erik Peterson told them: “The three campaigns bent over backwards to make this [extended time for the group to meet] happen, so be patient and let everyone be heard.”

There was some concern in the room that Kelliher was delaying in order to block the group’s ability to vote, fearing they would favor Rybak.

But Kelliher campaign manager Jaimie Tincher said Sunday: “No, we never had a strategy to block any thing they were doing. … The really positive thing they did is bring a lot of people into the process who hadn’t been involved before.”

She said that the Kelliher campaign paused for a bit before deciding to give reNew extra time to make their decision.

“There was a moment of concern that the momentum that had been built up [for Kelliher] would be hurt. But as one of their preferred candidates, we weren’t too concerned. Even had they reached 60 percent [for Rybak] when we looked at the numbers, we knew it wouldn’t have put him over the top. It might have just led to a couple of more ballots.”

Kelliher finally appeared in the reNew room and told delegates: “Winning in November, we can live up to our progressive issues.” And: “We’ll make sure we are governing together.”

Then the reNew delegates got paper ballots and voted. But before the votes could be counted, they were hurried back to the convention floor.

No consensus
Back on the floor, the leaders passed the results to the reNew delegates scattered at tables throughout the room: there was no 60 percent consensus: The vote: Rybak, 52 percent; Kelliher 27 percent; Thissen 20 percent.

So, in the end, there was no reNew bloc vote for anyone.

As it turns out, it didn’t matter. Before the sixth ballot results even were announced, Thissen withdrew. Long moments later, so did Rybak, giving the endorsement to Kelliher — a reNew candidate to be sure, but as the reNew vote showed, not their top choice at that moment.

What’s next
As the delegates left the center, about 50 of the reNew delegates returned to their meeting space to evaluate events the next day.

“People overwhelmingly felt powerful and proud of the interconnection that was built with these folks over the past months and solidified at the convention,” said Dan McGrath.

He said he did not hear rumblings that the group should have moved earlier to consolidate, to use its power when it would have mattered.

“To those who say they wish we’d been more powerful, I’d say: We were incredibly powerful. We played a role throughout, and now we’re able to lay to rest our individual candidate preferences quickly and get behind Margaret,” McGrath said.

The group already has a May 15 event planned to help Kelliher win the primary: a rally at Christ Lutheran Church in St. Paul, following by door-knocking.

“This is different than the traditional union or political group’s endorsement: We don’t write checks; we put boots on the ground. Our people organized around beliefs and ideas,” McGrath said.

Ricker said group members will continue to work for Kelliher, even though many had backed one of the others.

“The convention was not our end game,” she said. “The end is a better future together, and that work starts in a campaign and will continue after the November election.”

Joe Kimball covers politics, regional events and other issues.