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Fear and loathing at the state GOP convention

ST. CLOUD — The mood inside the state Republican convention was grumpy at the outset.

Fear and loathing at the state GOP convention

ST. CLOUD — The mood inside the state Republican convention was grumpy at the outset.

Only a half hour in, delegates were wrangling over their own voter ID issue: Who should be counted for a vote — only those seated or everybody milling around and schmoozing? After a voice vote, which seemed inconclusive, delegates, citing arcane clauses of Republican rules of order, yelled “division,” meaning they wanted an actual head count. Maybe they were used to watching programs like “Dancing with the Stars” where audience members vote instantaneously by pressing a button. Taking a count the low-tech way — by actually counting — lasted a more than 20 minutes, and the atmosphere turned grouchier.

“If I were paid a dollar for every minute we argued over the rules, I’d be in Obama’s 1 percent,” one long-time convention-goer complained.  (Why it was Obama’s 1 percent rather than, say, Romney’s, George Soros’ or some other zillionaire’s, I don’t know.)

Republicans could be forgiven for being a little out-of-sorts on the first morning of their two-day convention. The site of their biennial meeting was the St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center, a recently expanded facility with a lovely view of the Mississippi. But in constructing the place, city fathers had apparently not bothered to consider where 2,200 delegates, plus hangers-on would park their cars. All the nearby ramps and lots were full, and conventioneers frantically trolled for spots blocks away from the convention and then had to wait in long lines at pay stations to avoid getting towed. After all that, delegates arrived to find that St. Cloud had given little thought to sustenance either. Coffee and munchies were available at only one outpost staffed by two frazzled servers.

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But there were other reasons for the atmosphere to be fraught. The party was getting together at a kind of nadir in its history. Back in December, a financial probe found that the Minnesota GOP was $2 million in debt. A sex scandal — an affair between former state Senate majority leader Amy Koch and employee Michael Brodkorb —  erupted around the same time, giving Republicans a black eye and threatening the Senate with a possible lawsuit. As if all that were not enough, the party narrowly escaped eviction from its St. Paul headquarters last month.

And although Republicans are united in their fear and loathing of all things Obama, there are contentious divisions. With a devastating persistence and organization, acolytes of Ron Paul, the maverick Texas congressman and perpetual presidential candidate, had pulled off a coup and pretty much taken over the party. Not only were they noisily dominating the gathering but they had already in congressional elections garnered 20 of the 24 delegates to attend the national convention, unseating regulars who had been party stalwarts for years. And they had lined up a slate of 13 more at-large delegates to be voted on by the convention as a whole — in opposition to a slate backing Mitt Romney, the party’s presumptive nominee.

“The Paulites are the new establishment,” said Kenneth Powaga, a delegate from Eden Prairie who had become an activist with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010.

The Paulites bring their strict libertarian beliefs (abolishing government departments and functions not authorized by the Constitution, staying out of foreign wars, and keeping hands off private matters like marriage) to a party that has for years been dominated by religious conservatives and old-line Republicans who warm to low taxes and balanced budgets.

Bring them all together, and you have a powerful s**tlist of items that make them flaming mad: President Obama, Obamacare, the Federal Reserve, bank bailouts, Keynesian economics, taxes, kowtowing to foreign leaders, the federal deficit, the state deficit, Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Mark Dayton (“governor goofy eyes,” one speaker called him), Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, voter fraud, environmental regulation, financial regulation, food and drug regulation, wars, same-sex marriage, abortion, cap and trade, the federal bureaucracy ( particularly the Department of Education), government welfare and the possibility that the United States is just another country and not “exceptional.”

To hear them tell it — and we did, many, many times — the United States of America is on the brink of one or all of the following: bankruptcy, Socialism, Communism and Fascism — oh, and rampant inflation. Minnesota too is on the brink — of becoming California or Illinois. And we are all are losing our liberty.

Their fury is hard to fathom. The delegates and their families seemed like ordinary, reasonably successful middle-class people. There was a broad age range — yes, Democrats, young people were there in force and there were plenty of women, too, no matter the vaunted war against them. Some people wore suits; others came in jeans and flip-flops. Dads and moms rocked strollers in the back of the hall. They could have been an audience at a summer band concert. Oh wait, except there were no blacks. Well, almost none. I spotted two: a lady in the restroom and Chris Fields, candidate for the Fifth District against U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. Be that as it may, nobody looked as though he had been tortured, jailed, flayed or deprived of his liberty in any way.  

Picking a Senate candidate

But more about that burning anger later. Chief on the convention’s agenda was the task of choosing its candidate for the U.S. Senate. The nominating committee had cleared four candidates. A fifth, Bob Carney, was not approved because he had in the past mounted campaigns against the GOP’s nominee. Nonetheless, he was allowed to speak for five minutes. A short guy in mutton-chop whiskers, he offered no particular reason why anybody should vote for him and illogically pledged to drop out after the first ballot.

Another minor candidate Harold Shudlick, a former pastor and avowed Tea Party member, gave an address full of pungent quips like: “Send me to Washington, D.C., to remove Obama from his public housing,” and: “We will fight until hell freezes over, and then we will fight on ice.” He added, “I want to kill the beast instead of wanting it to make it work harder.” By “beast,” I gather he meant the federal government.

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The three major candidates all took similar stances, that the current administration, with its emphasis on spending and being big, was responsible for  the bad economy and pretty much everything else. But each had a unique selling proposition.

Kurt Bills, 42, a Rosemount High School economics teacher and state legislator endorsed by Ron Paul — and therefore a shoo-in for the nomination — declared: “I’ll bring Econ 101 to Washington.” The implication: the country needs simple (some would say simple-minded) solutions.

His opponent Pete Hegseth, 31, a handsome veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a Princeton grad, claimed that he could raise the most dough, which Republicans would need to beat Klobuchar. (Her war chest is now about $5.5 million.)

The only one who had significant legislative experience — as state rep for four terms — was Dan “Doc” Severson, 58. His claim to fame: he had spearheaded the battles for voter ID and a ban on gay marriage. He vowed to bring in votes from minority communities in the cities; without them, you won’t win the Senate seat, he warned delegates. To drill home his point, he delivered his pitch backed by about 20 Hmong supporters. Accompanying these pitches were touchy-feely campaign videos featuring testimonials from former coaches, army buddies, wives and kids. They all embraced small town life and “Christian values” which made me feel left out, what with being Jewish and all.

In the end, however — and way after a lot of legalistic party business about the platform that would make your head hurt — Bills took the nomination, easily raking in the necessary 60 percent of votes on the second ballot. “You’ve sent a comedian and an actor to Washington,” he exulted in his acceptance speech. “Finally, you’re sending an economics teacher.”

Only a few rooms away sat a big bus he and his family planned to board to “fight for this country. We are going to take our government back…We believe in liberty, protecting the unborn, and we believe that Washington needs a good dose of Econ 101.”

Enough with Econ 101, I thought. Doesn’t he realize that every president of whatever party has a whole flock of learned economists at his beck and call who sit on something called the Council of Economic Advisers?

‘Harrumph’

By this time — about 4 or so — I was starving; so I made my way to the concession stand. Behind me stood a woman in her 70s with an expression sour enough to produce a good vinaigrette.

“How’s the convention going for you?” I asked.

“Harrumph,” she replied.

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“So are you excited about hearing Ron Paul speak?” He was the convention headliner and up next on the agenda.

“I suppose if he speaks right away, I’ll listen,” she said.”Otherwise I’m leaving.”

So what’s her beef?

“Foreign policy,” she said.

High on her gripe list was his attitude toward Israel. Paul wants to cut aid, though he puts a positive spin on it: “Foreign aid does not help Israel. It is a net disadvantage. I say to them that ‘the borrower is servant to the lender’ and America should never be the master of Israel…we should stop interfering with them.” She wasn’t buying it.

On my way back to the hall, hotdog in hand, something dawned on me. Signs were everywhere, for Hegseth, Bills, Severson and a batch of congressional candidates. I stopped in my tracks. “Where are the Romney signs?” I asked out loud before I could stop myself. “I don’t see any Romney signs.”

“You won’t find many supporters here,” a man told me with a smirk. His friend added, “Nope. No buttons either.”

Well, never mind. Paul was about to make his appearance. “President Paul! President Paul! President Paul,” screamed the crowd as he took the podium. That seemed beside the point since he had suspended his campaign only a few days earlier.

“There are a lot of friends of liberty in this town,” he announced before launching into a rambling speech. His biggest applause line came when he proposed abolishing the Federal Reserve. The crowd leapt to its collective feet, shouting: “End the Fed! End the Fed! End the Fed!”

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His main message was that the country’s founders intended for the government to protect liberties and nothing else, “not to go to foreign wars and not to manage an entitlement system.”  

It was late in the day and nerves were starting to fray. A discussion of the platform, 71 provisions long, quickly got into the weeds. By that time, many delegates had bailed for dinner. Just before the close of business came a report from Janet Beihoffer, head of the Election Integrity Committee, that should make every Democrat reach for a bottle of Advil. The party, she announced, had assembled 9,000 volunteers to be election judges. Those who didn’t train as judges would learn to be poll challengers, presumably to root out fraudulent votes. “This is the only way we are going to win,” she announced.

Back to work

When I arrived the next morning at a dilatory 9:30, the delegates had long been at work. Already some 600 had turned out for a breakfast fundraiser with Ron Paul that reeled in $12,000 or so for the party. The Romney supporters had opened a hospitality room and replaced all the Severson and Hegseth signs with Romney signs. But the Romneyites, coffee and Danish had disappeared like elves.

Two major actions — adoption of the platform and a vote on delegates to go to the national nominating get-together in August — were on the agenda. The platform was long and complicated.

Harry Niska, chairman of the platform committee, who looked like an earnest 14-year-old but is, I was told, in his late 20s, announced that conventioneers would vote on each and every issue at once. If a plank received a 70 percent approval, it would be adopted; less than 50 percent, it would be tossed aside; and if it received between 50 and 70 percent, there would be a discussion.

After seemingly endless calls for clarification and information, delegates sat down to cast their ballots. Some of the juicier proposals: repeal Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment and the state’s Next Generation Energy Act of 2007; phase out Social Security; get rid of the Federal Reserve; reject the Keynesian model of economics as the basis for federal policy (which, let me tell you as a long-time financial reporter, is a lot like rejecting gravity); repeal the Affordable Care Act; establish statewide testing of students’ academic skills but keep local control over core curricula; restore states’ rights under the Constitution and so on. Interestingly, the committee had recommended striking a provision that would discourage the expansion of gambling in Minnesota. That made sense since the passage of the Vikings stadium bill, which many Republicans had backed, did just that. 

While the delegates pored over the platform, I talked to two Log Cabin Republicans who manned a table in the foyer. “So you are against same-sex marriage?” I asked.

“No! Not at all,” they said almost in unison.

Well, then what were they doing here? The platform had explicitly advocated “traditional marriage,” and I hadn’t heard any candidate say anything to the contrary.

Their tactic: “We are trying to change the party from within,” said Alan Shilepsky of Minneapolis. “We are trying to make them realize that the best social welfare program is a strong family.”

And presumably gay couples can produce them. I wished them luck with that.

Across the hall was another table for a group in favor of the amendment pushing bumper stickers that read “One Man, One Woman.”  It would sound more appealing in French. Un Homme, Une Femme.

Limiting government

I next met with Paula Kneeland, a delegate from Marshall. A handsome woman with long gray hair, she was a member of the local executive committee. We talked almost surreptitiously — her delegate leader didn’t want her leaving the hall — in a vacant hospitality room. She was happy with the selection of Bills as Senate candidate because he was an economics teacher. “That was a major factor in why people voted for him,” she said, echoing what five other people had told me.

I raised the Council of Economic Advisers thing, and she laughed. “Well, that’s true. But it doesn’t hurt to add somebody familiar with the economic realm.”

One of the key issues for her and people in her area was limiting government, getting it out of their lives. Any government interference made them furious.

Just how had the government impinged on their lives? I asked. She paused, unable to give me an example. So I raised the issue of the sale of raw milk. I mentioned the cases of two farmers in the state were going on trial for allegedly selling raw milk that caused people to fall ill. Ron Paul in his speech the previous day had told delegates people should have the right to sell raw milk and raise hemp.

“Well, I suppose with that we would want the government to step in,” Paula said. When people got sick, they’d have to step in.”

And what about this big encroaching government thing? “We have few specifics,” she admitted. “It’s just a general feeling. The Republican theme is that the more you expand government, the more you take away rights. You have to constantly keep a watch on it.”

Back in the hall, would-be delegates to the national convention were delivering one-minute pitches about their suitability. They were all asked whether they would support the nominee of the party. The subtextual clause would have been, if uttered, “even if it’s the hateful Romney.” Most said yes, but some laid on caveats, such as “if he abides by the laws in Exodus” or “if he follows the Constitution.”

Typical of the statements was one from Colleen Smith-Savage, a self-declared devout Christian and homeschooling mom: “I want to erase the federal government from the ground up,” she shouted.

Meanwhile a green flyer called “The Chaos Slate” circulated the room urging delegates not to vote for the people it listed. They would not support Romney, it claimed, thus leading to chaos at the national convention and an eventual win for Obama.

Missing delegation

While votes were tallied, Chip Cravaack, the Tea Party candidate who had swept DFLer James Oberstar from his long-held congressional seat in 2010, came to the podium. His appearance brought up a burning question, burning to me, anyway: Where were the members of Minnesota’s Republican congressional delegation?

Michele Bachmann nor John Kline nor Erik Paulsen had turned up to meet, greet or speechify. I asked Gary Gross, a conservative blogger who sat next to me in the press trenches. “I’m sure they had something else on the schedule,” he said. Unh-hunh.

My take: If their grass roots were possibly going to diss the nominee of the party by voting for Ron Paul in August, maybe they’d be smart to keep their distance. In the meantime, Cravaack urged unity: “We’re like a big family; sometimes we have our squabbles but when we walk out the door, nobody better mess with us.”

In the end, the Ron Paulistas took all the delegate spots. Michele Bachmann made it onto the delegation only because one man, “out of respect,” gallantly gave her his spot. Tallies from the platform vote then came in. By my count, 34 issues were up for discussion. I groaned. Debating just one plank could conceivably take 2,200 people several hours.

Pat Shortridge quickly came to the platform.”We have to be out of here by 5,” he said. It was 4:15. He proposed adopting any plank receiving more than 60 percent of the vote. That left only seven for debate, and delegates quickly approved the idea.

Immediately, the group voted down number 21, which proposed inspecting and licensing abortion facilities. Even though one delegate asserted that such legislation would reduce the number of procedures, it was voted down. Two forces united to defeat it: those who believe abortion should be eliminated altogether and those who believe that the government shouldn’t interfere.

Similarly, another plank advocating “traditional marriage” was voted down by a combination those who thought the government shouldn’t mess with marriage and those who thought the plank should more explicitly bar same-sex marriage. Were the more hippie-like Ron Paul elements combining in an odd way with the faith-and-values voters to create a kind of wash? Dare we think, a more moderate platform. Nah, delegates were still planning to ditch Social Security.

By this time, most of my fellow journos had left and so had a good chunk of the delegates. I packed up and as I left St. Cloud I trailed a Prius that was covered in Republican bumper stickers, including one that proclaimed: “Abortion is not medical care.”

Later, when I was telling my daughter-in-law about the convention, she remarked: “A Prius? Isn’t that a liberal car?”

“It’s a new day,” I replied.