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

If neither leading candidate can reach the 60 percent endorsement level, Sen. John Marty, Rep. Tom Rukavina and Rep. Paul Thissen are still in good position to become that compromise candidate a convention sometimes rallies around.

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.