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Seifert-Emmer flap prompts familiar Minnesota memories — and the question: Will it backfire?

Rep. Marty Seifert, Rep. Tom Emmer

MinnPost photos by Terry Gydesen
Gubernatiorial campaign flap: Reps. Marty Seifert, left, and Tom Emmer

With the latest Minnesota political dustup, don’t you find yourself humming “When will they ever learn?” — that familiar line from the 1960s folk song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”?

On Wednesday, the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Marty Seifert released a letter to “fellow Republican delegates.” The letter, written by a Seifert supporter, brought up two drunken-driving charges against Rep. Tom Emmer from nearly 20 and 30 years ago.

Seifert and Emmer, of course, are locked in a tight race for party endorsement, which will be determined at the party’s convention next weekend in Minneapolis.

The big question the letter raised is: Who will it hurt more, Seifert or Emmer?

Not surprisingly, the Emmer campaign was quick to say that their man has never ducked the issue and has spoken with any delegate who has asked about it. Beyond that, the Emmer campaign denounced the Seifert move as smear tactics. Seifert countered that Emmer’s driving record and his legislative stance on DWI laws are “fair game.”

Perhaps that’s so.

But as a political tactic, more than a few Minnesotans likely were reminded of how often last-minute efforts raising questions about an opponent can backfire.

The Boschwitz blunder
The No. 1 example of blowing up your own political career came in 1990, when incumbent U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz sent a letter to “friends in the Jewish Community” just days before voters were going to the polls to decide between him and underdog Paul Wellstone.

In his letter, Boschwitz wrote that Wellstone, who was Jewish, had “no connection whatsoever with the Jewish community.” It was mentioned that Wellstone was married to a Christian, while Boschwitz was known as “the rabbi of the Senate.”

The anger — for Boschwitz, not Wellstone — was nearly universal.

Jeff Blodgett, now executive director of Wellstone Action!, was reminded of the Boschwitz letter when he read of the Seifert campaign’s Emmer letter.

“Rule No. 1 in politics,” said Blodgett, “is don’t do something that becomes an issue itself.”

Jeff Blodgett

MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Jeff Blodgett

If it’s so basic, why does the rule seem to be violated so frequently?

“In a campaign, you have to be careful because you can end up losing perspective,” said Blodgett.

At some point in a campaign, politics gets personal, and the personal gets emotional. Your candidate is good. The other candidate is evil.

“It’s a big mistake when one campaign ends up hating the other campaign,” Blodgett said.

Interestingly, this hatred seems to boil up more among staffers than it does the candidates themselves.

But not always.

Perpich misstepped, too
In another race in 1990, for example, incumbent Gov. Rudy Perpich was so outraged that Minnesotans might be attracted to the Republicans’ endorsed candidate, Jon Grunseth, that he dug out Grunseth’s divorce files and urged reporters to take a look.

“It totally backfired,” recalled longtime political reporter Betty Wilson. “It remained a significant event throughout the campaign.”

The irony for Perpich is that he wouldn’t have had to lose his own dignity in throwing dirt at Grunseth. Reporters already were digging into Grunseth’s life and, ultimately, he was forced to withdraw from the ticket. His last-second replacement, Arne Carlson, ende up being elected governor, however.

There was another irony in Perpich’s decision to wave divorce papers around. He had personal experience in seeing how smear tactics often can backfire.

During the 1982 campaign for governor, a minion of GOP candidate Wheelock Whitney showed a reporter documents that Perpich’s running mate, Marlene Johnson, had two charges in her background. One, she had been busted for unlawful assembly at a civil rights demonstration. Two, as a very young woman, she had been ticketed for shoplifting $6 worth of sewing materials from a Sears store.

(That case became a huge press issue, when Star Tribune editors determined that revealing the source of the story was more important than the mud he was trying to peddle. A reporter’s pledge not to reveal the source was overturned by editors.)

But voters weren’t impressed by the last-minute smear. Perpich — and Johnson — were easily elected.

Of course, many campaigns have “the goods” on their opponents. Most often, Blodgett said, they’re best off never using the dirt.

If the information is substantial, the best approach is to suggest to reporters that they look at whatever the subject might be, Blodgett said.

“But otherwise the only way it [release of negative information on an opponent] works is if there’s enough substance in it that it gets direct coverage,” Blodgett said.

Perhaps the most substantive portion of the letter sent to delegates through the Seifert campaign about Emmer regarded his sponsorship of a bill a year involving driver’s license revocations in cases of drunk driving. That bill was opposed by such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

For the record, Emmer was busted in 1991, when he was 30 years old, eventually pleading guilty to careless driving. And he received a DWI ticket in 1981, when he was 20. Those charges have been reported by the media.

We’ll know in a week, of course, whether Seifert’s decision to use the letter was a sound one.

But Wilson, who covered politics in Minnesota for decades, said, “These things usually seem a little desperate. If I recall, the science of polling suggests that you go negative when you know you’re in trouble.”

One longtime political insider noted from his experience digging up negative information on opponents: “My view always was that a DUI conviction was worth something only if it was more recent than the booze consumed. So even if Emmer were drinking 20-year-old scotch, the convictions are stale.”

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 04/22/2010 - 04:24 pm.

    Both of these candidates are a variation of the same theme. The GOP will have a strict conservative as their candidate no matter who wins the endorsement.

  2. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/23/2010 - 09:58 am.

    If we are talking about last minute DWI revelations, how about 1) the “November Surprise” against George W. Bush that almost worked, and 2) Buck Humphrey’s reluctant response that backfired against him?

    Regarding the Boschwitz letter, here is what I wrote on SwanBlog in 2005:

    The close race in 1990 between Boschwitz and Wellstone was turned upside down by an exchange of letters. Supporters of Wellstone sent a letter to members of the Jewish community in Minnesota promoting his candidacy over that of Boschwitz. Angered, Senator Boschwitz had supporters send a letter to the same mailing list pointing out that Wellstone had married outside his faith and was not as involved in the Jewish community as Boschwitz was. This was an important issue to Boschwitz, having escaped from Nazi Germany as a young boy and having played matchmaker within the Jewish community in Minnesota and on Captiol Hill. Like most hockey referees, the media did not report the initial infraction, only the retaliation. Aside from a few references in passing, one would not know from news reports that Wellstone supporters had sent the first letter the the Jewish community.

  3. Submitted by Leslie Davis on 04/23/2010 - 11:37 pm.

    I’m really excited about my chances for the endorsement at the convention. If you look at my decades long record in executive sales, marketing, trend analysis and as the president of the Earth Protecotr environmental group, you see a man with experience, ability, and a record of trust, to be our next governor.
    To top that off I have the Davis Money Plan to balance our budget and put all workers to work.
    It would be a good idea to take a hard look at me.
    Leslie Davis for Governor 2010

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/24/2010 - 10:44 am.

    “Promoting his own candidacy,” however, seems quite legitimate compared to Boschwitch’s personal attack in return.

  5. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 04/24/2010 - 12:40 pm.

    Bernice, I think people should read the letters and decide for themselves. The media denied us that choice.

    For more on the Marlene Johnson revelation, check out this link:

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