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Three others poised for DFL convention endorsement if front-runners Kelliher and Rybak deadlock

Less than two weeks from the DFL state convention, it’s generally believed that House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak are the co-leaders in delegate support in their quest to be the party’s endorsed candidate for governor.

But it’s also clear that neither is close to the 60 percent support needed for endorsement. In fact, Rep. Paul Thissen says he believes neither will receive much more than 25 percent of the vote on the first ballot.

If that’s even close to fact, then, the three other major candidates seeking endorsement — Thissen, Sen. John Marty and Rep. Tom Rukavina — are still in good position to become that compromise candidate a convention sometimes rallies around.

The key, obviously, is showing strong third-place support in the early balloting. (It’s safe to assume that the three candidates who already have announced that they will compete for the nomination in August’s primary — Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza and Susan Gaertner — will get little delegate support at the convention.)

Much already has been written of the KelliherRybak competition.

What follows, based on interviews with the candidates, party activists and political insiders, is a look at the campaigns of the three other significant players in the jockeying for party endorsement.

John Marty
John Marty

John Marty
Strength: Wellstonian Liberalism.
Weakness: Is he electable?
Marty’s a tireless campaigner who grows tired of hearing, “John, my heart’s with you, I agree with you on the issues, but I just don’t know if you can win. … I want to tell them, ‘Vote with your heart. That’s what voters in November will do. They’ll vote for the person who has the courage to speak from the heart.’ “

Marty understands the big albatross hanging around his neck. It’s the gubernatorial election of 1994, when Marty, the DFL’s endorsed candidate, was clobbered by incumbent Gov. Arne Carlson, who did not have GOP endorsement, 63 percent to 34 percent.

“I lost one, and I lost it big,” Marty says. “There were plenty of factors. Some were my fault, but even if we had run a perfect race, we would have lost that year.” Incumbent Republicans were 177-0 in the election of 1994, Marty says.

But that race has no correlation to this year’s race, Marty tells potential delegates. In fact, he tries to tell them he’s the most electable candidate in what almost certainly will be a three-way gubernatorial race in November.

“Of all the candidates,” Marty said, “I have one distinction: I’m the only one who has won in a Republican-leaning district [Roseville].”

Beyond that, Marty said DFLers have lost the last three gubernatorial races by selecting the candidate who “intuitively” seemed to be the most electable. Skip Humphrey, Roger Moe and Mike Hatch all were selected because delegates thought they’d be the most likely to win in November.

“Paul Wellstone — no one gave him a chance — proved you don’t win by being the most centrist. You win by talking about the things most central to their lives,” Marty said.

The seven-term senator’s big hope is that each of the candidates will have time to give a meaningful address to the delegates. Given the chance, he’ll lay out a vision for Minnesota bigger and bolder than anybody in the house: Universal health care for Minnesotans that will become a model for the nation. No funding for a Vikings stadium, but huge bonding programs that will both put people back to work and rebuild the state’s infrastructure. No special-interest money in state politics.

“The Tea Party people, the Green Party, the independents have one thing in common,” Marty said. “They think that people are bought off by corporate interests, and I think there’s some truth to that. But think about that: Right, left and center all have that one thing in common.”

Most believe that Marty enters the convention with a solid core of delegates, made up mostly of health care reformers and environmentalists.

But of the three “other” candidates, he may have the most difficult time reaching the DFL institutional supporters, the labor leaders and super-delegates who most question Marty’s ability to raise money and win in November.

“I tell people, ‘You want a Democratic governor, fine. We can have that. What would it be, the 29th Democratic governor? But if we elect just another Democratic governor, 10 years from now, we’ll have the same problems we have now. We’ll have people without health care, declining high school graduation rates. Jobs, but not good-paying jobs. Any of the DFLers will move us in the right direction, but we win battles and lose the wars. Fundamentally, we have to change that. That’s why I’m running.”

Tom Rukavina
Tom Rukavina

Tom Rukavina
Strength: Straight-shooting likability.
Weakness: Can he be taken seriously?
When Rukavina announced he was running for governor, a number of longtime Capitol reporters didn’t take his candidacy seriously. After all, the Iron Ranger long had been the man reporters turned to for a fiery quote, not for substance. 

Has his past — filled with colorful, sometimes not-so-politically-correct language — come back to haunt him now that he needs to be taken seriously?

“I think it only shows I never aspired for higher office,” he said, then paused. “Ahh, frankly I wouldn’t have acted any differently no matter what.”

Rukavina enters the convention with solid, though not universal support, from the 8th Congressional District. He has the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. The last candidate in the field from outside the metro area, he expects to pick up good support from much of Greater Minnesota.

But he’s pulled at least some support even in the most liberal areas of the state because of his passion, if not his beliefs.

He admits his support of the controversial Polymet mining operation in northeastern Minnesota causes some environmental activists to pull back from his candidacy.

“Some of them beat me up,” Rukavina said, “but I think some of them appreciate the fact that I’m honest with them.”

But that issue allows him to speak on the issue of jobs with passion.

“I can tell you, there is not a better DFLer in this race,” says Rukavina after pouring out his heart over the pain joblessness creates.

He also pounds on the idea that Minnesota “must re-invest in higher education. … we’ve never prospered in this state unless we’ve invested in higher ed.”

How will he separate himself from the crowd of candidates seeking endorsement?

“I think I’ve shown that I’ve been separating myself from the crowd for years,” he said. “When I asked my son [Victor] to come up with some sort of slogan for the campaign, I think he nailed it. ‘Refreshingly Honest.’ We all liked that, though I have to admit I thought about ‘Brutally Honest.’ ”

When he speaks to the delegates at the convention, he’ll make ’em laugh, he’ll make ’em like him. The one big question: Will they cast an endorsement vote for him?

Paul Thissen
Paul Thissen

Paul Thissen
Strength: Seems competent.
Weakness: But who is he?
The four-term representative from south Minneapolis/Richfield believes one of his great advantages is that he has no label. In a field that includes Marty, “the bleeding-heart liberal,” and Rukavina, “the fiery populist,” and Rybak, “the big-city mayor,” and Kelliher, “the partisan House leader,” he’s the guy nobody can quite pin down.

His politics, it should be noted, are classic DFL. He believes government does matter.

“It’s been very humbling getting to know people across the state,” Thissen said. “You talk to people who have lost their jobs or who fear losing their jobs, you hear about their frustrations with health care, high property taxes, higher education costs. You listen to those stories and you know how important this election is, how important politics is.”

He doesn’t try to paint himself as philosophically different from the other candidates.

“I think on policy, in general terms, we’re all pretty similar. It’s more about leadership style and how you get things done. I’ve been a workhorse, more interested in getting things done than making headlines.”

His style, he believes, puts him in strong position as the convention approaches.

“There are a lot of undecideds yet,” he said of the delegates. “There is a clear path [to endorsement]. We’re a strong third above anyone else; the second choice to more than anybody. That combination is really significant. If they haven’t decided yet, there’s a reason. The closer we get to the convention, the more people are paying attention and the more that benefits us.”

Both Marty and Rukavina would argue about who currently is in the strongest position in pursuit of the Big Two. But Thissen has some strong stats to back up his point of view, the strongest being that he was one of three candidates (along with Kelliher and Rybak) receiving the endorsement of TakeAction Minnesota, the umbrella organization for several progressive organizations. TakeAction, which wants to be able to show some muscles at the convention, hopes to come together behind one of those three candidates at a crucial point in the convention.

Thissen believes he can appeal to old-line liberals at the convention by pointing to his legislative work in such areas as health care for the poor and children. He thinks he’s in good position to get union leadership to move his way because of his work in creating law to strengthen pension protections. He can attract the old-line party people because of the work he’s done over the years across the state on behalf of DFL candidates.

Of all the candidates, he’s the one who focuses most on an issue that state demographer Tom Gillaspy tries to warn Minnesotans about: our state’s aging population.

“No one else in the Legislature is talking about the age wave,” Thissen said. “But the fact is, we have to talk about it. It’s going to drive everything: transportation, housing, health care. By focusing on that, it demonstrates my administration will be one that’s looking around that next corner.”

The next corner for Thissen is the convention. Of all the candidates, he seems most confidently optimistic that the endorsement is still out there for the taking.

“No one can predict the convention outcome,” he said. “But I do know that people are listening.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Gary Peterson on 04/12/2010 - 09:06 am.


    Unless history has been re-written, Skip Humphrey never was endorsed for governor. Mike Freeman was. Thirty minutes after the endorsing convention in St. Cloud concluded, Skip was announcing his primary gambit, which he won. In the general, Ventura won the three-way race vs. Skip and Norm.

  2. Submitted by Jean Cole on 04/12/2010 - 09:34 am.

    As a Rukavina constituent, supporter and delegate, I’m disappointed in your flippant appraisal of this veteran state representative and gubernatorial candidate who is blessed with intelligence AND a sense of humor. If “long time capitol reporters” didn’t take his campaign seriously and rohave utinely sought him out only for a “fiery quote and not substance” then there is a problem in the ranks of (city-centric) capitol reporters. His quick wit might make us smile (or cringe), but he’s dead serious about his campaign to return Minnesota back to the great state it once was. I’m trying to think what’s not to like here: a highly intelligent, experienced and progressive DFL’er who shoots straight, is refreshingly honest, and makes you laugh. He’s not in it for the glory(?), he’s in it because he’s sick of what’s become of Minnesota.

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 04/12/2010 - 10:30 am.

    I think T Clark would have been a good candidate for governor.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 04/12/2010 - 10:49 am.

    DFLers should consider themselves relatively blessed with these options. Anyone one of the five is an order of magnitude improvement over Hatch.

  5. Submitted by Colleen Morse on 04/12/2010 - 02:03 pm.

    Now I just can’t decide again. Good thing I’m only an alternate instead of a delegate. I’m going with Thissen first, and then, if I have to switch, it would be to Rybak.

  6. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 04/12/2010 - 02:31 pm.

    I once heard someone observe that while Minnesota politics are progressive on the balance, the most consistent theme is that people tend to get elected that are perceived as genuine. Hence, Wellstone, Bachmann, Ventura, Franken. Such a pattern would be a good thing for Rukavina.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/12/2010 - 04:55 pm.

    Jeff K (#9) AND for John Marty, whose strength is described above as Wellstonian Liberalism. As being like that senator who stood up to vote against the resolution authorizing Bush to make war against Iraq and for so many things because they were the right thing to do.

    What better antidote to the last 10 years could we possibly have than a governor who is motivated by the values held by Paul Wellstone? Than a governor who will fight for universal health care — for Minnesota to be America’s Saskatchewan, Canada’s point-the-way province that led to that country’s popular and truly effective system?

  8. Submitted by Tim Rollins on 04/12/2010 - 11:46 pm.

    I like all three of these men, but don’t think any of them are fit to be the next Governor. I’m so tired of hearing John Marty blame us voters for not having the courage to vote for him. Get over yourself Senator and stop blaming us for having common sense. I’m not going to support Sen. Marty for Governor and that has nothing to do with electability but has everything to do with Sen. Marty not being an executive leader. He never has been and never will be. It’s just not his personality. If people thought he had the ability to lead, he’d be electable. It’s not a lack of courage by voters, it’s a lack of leadership and personality by Sen. Marty. Neither he nor Rep. Thissen demonstrate the kind of confidence that is needed to be a strong executive leader. I like Paul and John, a lot. They are both fairly smart men who have the right views on the issues but they don’t inspire people. They are not executive leaders who can deal with the of crisis the state is in. Rep. Tom Rukavina doesn’t seem to lack confidence at all. The first time I met him he impressed me. However, he does lack other executive skills needed to be Governor such as the ability to listen to others, to see other viewpoints and to compromise when needed. I don’t know him as well as I know the metro candidates but he seems like a great guy and a great representative. I hope he will remain one for many years to come.

    All three are good men, none of them can or will win. All three should drop from the race prior to the convention so that Speaker Kelliher and Mayor Rybak can go head to head and let the chips fall where they may. Supporters of these three men will be split but I think more will fall to Rybak which will likely help put him over the top. Either way, we have to get behind the endorsed candidate and elect a DFLer in 2010. I wanted my mayor, Chris Coleman, to run but since he’s not I’ll support whoever in endorsed, either Kelliher or Rybak. Anyone for Govenor besides Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza, Tom Emmer or Marty Seifert.

  9. Submitted by Jess Mines on 04/15/2010 - 05:32 pm.

    This is a race that should be decided by the people and just not a small group of Delegates..I will wait and make my decision
    at the primary.
    After that I will support the Democrat unless it is Matt Entenza, then I will look closely at Tom Horner.
    I can’t support someone who has been so tied to the Insurance Lobby.

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 04/17/2010 - 06:40 am.

    The DFL will have to move towards the middle to win this election. Anything less will alienate the independent voter, which is the key to winning the governors race this year.

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