The DFL convenes amid lots of loathing but maybe not enough fear

Congeniality reigned among delegates at the 2012 Minnesota DFL convention.

ROCHESTER — On the second day of the 2012 DFL convention, 800 delegates, seemingly in imitation of some strange biological experiment, separated into dozens of amoeba-like clusters.

Each had a nucleus — a man or woman perched dangerously on a folding chair or table waving a hand-lettered sign that read “Obama Suburbanites Against Both Constitutional Amendments” or “Obama Against Bullying and Hatred” or “Obama Not a One-Termer.”

Like flagella, messengers reached out from one cluster to another to negotiate mergers, and gradually, the blobs of Democrats re-clumped themselves into perhaps a dozen giant cells.

This odd DFL Party game, called “a walking subcaucus” is how participants chose Minnesota’s delegates to the national convention. A candidate (or his BFF) establishes a group — its name has to have the word Obama in it — and tries to attract enough people to elect him. If the group is too small, it is disqualified — thus the negotiations and the mergers.

After lots of milling around, haggling and number-crunching, the groups select 20 at-large delegates, 12 PLEOs (don’t even ask what they are – well, actually they’re Party Leaders and Elected Officials) and eight alternates. Their picks, in addition to surviving this procedure, have to meet the party’s affirmative action goals — to increase the number of Hispanics and Asians and to be split 50-50 between men and women.

Obama interest groupsMinnPost photo by Marlys HarrisAll delegate-supporting groups had to have the word ‘Obama’ in their names.

Trying to understand all this made me cross. But delegates took the pettifogging procedure in stride — even a guy from Lino Lakes who claimed to have been thrown out of a group.

“What did you do?” I asked, hoping, like the gutter journalist I am, to have uncovered some internecine strife.

“The group was called (most unfortunately I thought) ‘Obama No Jobs in My Uterus,’ ” he said with a laugh. “They only wanted women.” 

Congeniality reigns

In fact, everybody in the hall at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester seemed pretty happy. “I’ve been coming to conventions for 30 years, and this is the most congenial one I’ve ever been to,” said Chuck Repke of St. Paul.

It should be.

Unlike the Republicans, who settled somewhat unenthusiastically on Mitt Romney as their presidential nominee after a series of primary bash-ups, the Democrats are united behind President Obama. Their Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar, whom they endorsed by acclamation on Saturday, has a 61 percent approval rating and a $5.1 million war chest.

Barring some unforeseen act of God or nature, she should easily beat Republican nominee Kurt Bills, a high school economics teacher and one-term state representative. And the DFL doesn’t have to waste time, as does the GOP, dealing with a large debt, a reputation for financial mismanagement and a lawsuit stemming from a sex scandal.

Nonetheless, the Dems have a huge to-do list.

On the ballot this fall are two proposed constitutional amendments, one to bar same-sex marriage (already prohibited by law) and the other to require voters to present a photo I.D. at the polls. DFLers are hoping to defeat both.

They also would like to take back both houses of the Minnesota legislature, which they lost in 2010. And, although the task seems hopeless, they want to rout from office Michele Bachmann and Chip Cravaack, two Tea Party congressional headliners they detest. 

Arrayed against the Democrats, however, are some daunting forces. Thanks to the Citizens United case, a tsunami of money will engulf this election, much of it coming from billionaires and millionaires gunning for Democratic causes and candidates. According to Politico, Republican super-PACs plan to spend $1 billion this fall to defeat Obama and take the Senate. That’s about double what Democratic super-PACs are expected to raise.

What’s more, Republicans have embarked on a nationwide campaign to root out supposed voter fraud. Even without a photo I.D. law in Minnesota, Republicans at their convention last month promised to sic thousands of poll “challengers” on the electorate to question any possible irregularity. The GOP’s head of Election Integrity declared, “This is the only way we are going to win.”

Are the Democrats up to the test?

“People are pretty stimulated,” said Repke. 

Pretty stimulated? Call me crazy, but I think they should be scared out of their skivvies.

And some of their leaders tried to tell them so.

Big challenges

Tom Bakk, the state Senate minority leader, a hulking man with a penchant for plain talk and a newly grown goatee, warned, “If you’re a parent or a grandparent, there’s a lot at risk in the state right now.”

Republicans had balanced the budget but only by borrowing some $3 billion from local school districts. “Is that the best we can do?” he asked.   Hammering home bad news, Bakk pointed out that the Dems had lost 39 districts in the previous election. “Our campaign failed for the Legislature. We need to retool,” he declared.

Just how they would do that wasn’t clear.

Bakk left delegates with a dispiriting picture of what they had to overcome. A store clerk he met had complained to him about the $30 in taxes taken out of his paycheck. “Did you drive on a road?” Bakk asked. “Was the road plowed? Did you think it was going to be free?” He added, “We have to talk to our friends and neighbors about that. Just because we work hard, we think we got there on our own.” In fact we succeeded because of government investments in roads, schools, the environment. “We need to change the way people are thinking about government,” he said.

Good luck with that, I thought. Making that case in the current anti-tax environment wasn’t going to be easy.

Next up was Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s secretary of state. Almost angrily — he’s been doing battle against it for months — he laid out the case against the voter I.D. amendment. At the long tables where they sat, delegates studied the one-page proposal. It would require that all voters, whether or not they vote in person, to present some form of government-issued identification. There are no exemptions for soldiers serving abroad, the disabled, the elderly or students.

“No other state has this,” Ritchie said, although I feel the need to point out, 10 states do have some form of a photo I.D. requirement, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. And, although Minnesota wouldn’t charge citizens for the I.D., he asked, “What about the cost to individuals?” His point: Without birth certificates, some would have to hire lawyers to try to trace the documents. Those without I.D.’s would be allowed to cast provisional ballots that would be tossed unless voters could show I.D. within a few days.

Ritchie contended that most of those votes were never counted. He said the amendment, if approved, would eliminate mail-in and absentee balloting and same-day registration, used by some 540,000 people in Minnesota.

Walz decries attacks on public unions

Tim Walz, Democratic congressman from the 1st district, which includes Rochester, railed against Republicans’ nationwide war on public service unions.

“Did we have a financial crisis in 2008 because we paid teachers and cops and firefighters too much?” he asked. Sure it would be nice to work with the other guys, but it’s “hard to reach people who somehow believe that the country will be more prosperous if people don’t have right to basic health care,” he said.

Modestly, Walz mentioned nothing of his major claim to fame this session, passage of the STOCK Act, which prohibits legislators (sort of — it’s got plenty of loopholes) from trading shares on inside information. He, echoed by 5th District Congressman Keith Ellison, urged defeat of the two constitutional amendments. Keeping people from voting was un-Minnesotan, said Ellison.

By this time, several satiric videos had aired on two Jumbotrons mounted by the podium. One, backed by music, sounded like it came from a Laurel and Hardy movie. It showed clips of what the Dems saw as Republican antics: not showing up for ethics committee meetings, barring the press from hearings, lawmakers saying that integration had ruined schools and neighborhoods.

DFLers sneered at another featuring Amy Koch, the disgraced Senate majority leader, and her gentleman friend, Michael Brodkorb. They guffawed at clips of a Swiss couple, the woman in a dirndl and man in lederhosen on a seesaw, mocking Michele Bachmann’s brief flirtation with Swiss citizenship. After she decided against it, the video showed crowds of Swiss citizens celebrating in the streets.

In fact, it seemed as though the Democrats were going to allow videos to speak for them. There was one on voter I.D., one on same-sex marriage and several embedded in a speech by Jeff Blodgett, Obama’s state director, touting President Obama’s accomplishments. Couldn’t they have come up with some more original material? I wondered. I and probably everybody in the room had already heard these talking points on MSNBC.

I had hoped that Al Franken would supply more comic relief. But he’s pretty serious these days.

Sen. Al FrankenMinnPost photo by James NordSen. Al Franken is pretty serious these days.

While many other pols wore golf T’s and sports shirts, Franken was buttoned into a conservative business suit. He cleverly did some humble-pie ingestion to extol his record: Only because of the efforts of the people in this hall — their doorbell ringing, phone calling and money donating — would he have had the privilege to extend the Violence Against Women Act, stick a provision in the new health care law requiring insurance companies to spend 80 percent of their premiums on medical care and so on.

And the future was up to them, too. We can deal with the deficit, prepare kids for the 21st century, take care of veterans, make college affordable, he said, but it all “depends on what you do between now and November.”   

Praise and applause for Dayton

DFL Chairman Ken Martin introduced Gov. Mark Dayton, declaring him “the only adult in the room,” assuming, I guess, that the figurative Capitol room had been filled with Republican legislators. Thanks to him, Minnesota is not Wisconsin, said Martin.

The delegates stood to commend Dayton — and they owed him big-time. Only two years earlier, they barred him from speaking at their Duluth convention when he chose to run without their endorsement. Without his vetoes, Democrats would have faced what they would consider an abyss of lousy legislation: a stand-your-ground law, more government cutbacks, a phase-out of the business property tax, licensing of abortion clinics, so-called tort reform and dissipation of the state’s rainy-day fund on tax cuts. 

Appearing in rolled-up shirtsleeves, as though he had been up to his elbows creating high-paying jobs with good benefits, Dayton evoked the future that Democrats could have if they elected Democratic majorities in Congress and the Minnesota Legislature.

Taxes, he said, would be fairer, with hikes for people earning more than $1 million. Health care would be better and cheaper. The state would cooperate with teachers unions, instead of working to undermine them. He derided Republicans for what they styled a “jobs bill” — an attempt to cut business property taxes. A business with property worth less than $150,000 would have seen a tax cut of $27. A business with more than $1 million in property would have received a $128 reduction. “Can you imagine the explosion of jobs that would have resulted?” he asked.

I had to hand it to him: He was much more entertaining than Al Franken.

In the press scrum afterward, it was hard to get Dayton’s attention.

Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Strib held a tape recorder in his face and tweeted on her phone simultaneously. They can’t possibly be paying her enough, I thought.

Anyway, reporters wanted to know how he felt speaking to the DFL after they dumped on him two years ago, and he graciously claimed to have no hard feelings. Would he help Democratic candidates? “I will campaign for them,” he said. “Or I will campaign against them, whatever will help.”

Roaring Klobuchar endorsement

The high point of the day came around noon with the endorsement of Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota’s star senior senator. After a video touting her accomplishments — adoption simplification, I-35W bridge reconstruction, saving the Walser GM dealership from extinction — delegates suspended the rules and voice-voted a roaring endorsement.

Sen. Amy KlobucharMinnPost photo by James NordSen. Amy Klobuchar won DFL endorsement for re-election by acclamation on Saturday

Cheers went up, Bruce Springsteen boomed from loudspeakers, and I fully expected Klobuchar to enter the auditorium on a sedan chair carried by muscle-bound Iron Range mineworkers. But she made the journey across the floor on foot, shaking every hand she could reach, her slow progress displayed on Jumbotrons.

At the GOP convention, Kurt Bills had accused Minnesotans of having “a warm fuzzy for Amy,” and I plead guilty. After meeting her at a luncheon a few months ago, I came away wanting her to be my best friend. She is so Minnesota nice, so adorable, so smart, so hard-working. Sad to say, her speech was kind of tepid.

The theme: Minnesotans’ spirit, their kindness, volunteerism, how they ran toward the I-35W bridge collapse, not away from it, inspired her to do all the stuff itemized in the video, which she itemized again. Her mantra was to “put Minnesota first.”

Was that a signal to the state’s medical device industry that she would continue to plead their case for deregulation? Who knows? “Even in the wilderness that is Washington, I know that the way to lead is to follow the North Star,” she said. 

I should have asked her what that meant when I was conveyed to the green room for a private interview an hour later. But, I was flummoxed by her flack, who told me I had three minutes, four tops. Duuuh. Ummm. Ubb. Klobuchar sat in the corner of a sofa, a bit crumpled from efforts to fight off a cold.

I asked her about Republican efforts to challenge voters at the polls. I asked her about the lousy jobs report (only 69,000 added in May) that had come out the previous day. Wouldn’t that hurt Obama and possibly all Democrats? She waved away both concerns. Democrats would have their own poll monitors in place, she said. And Obama was building in the long-term stuff that would improve the economy and create jobs.

But what about the short-term, I lamely asked, wanting to demand, like Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow, that the president and the Dems take immediate, bold action. But what could they do with an oppositional Congress? I slunk out of the room having failed at hard-ball political reporting.

Graves, Nolan rouse crowd

The most rousing speeches came from Jim Graves, who is running against Michele Bachmann, and from Rick Nolan, who hopes to defeat Chip Cravaak. But you can read all about Nolan and his competitors in Doug Grow’s report.  When Nolan called for an end to the war in Afghanistan, adoption of a single-payer health insurance system and a reversal of the Citizens United verdict, he touched the stalwarts of the party much as Ron Paul had the Republicans last month, when he called for the end of the Federal Reserve and Social Security. “Nolan, Nolan, Nolan,” shouted the delegates.

After listening to so much speechifying, I had to take a break. I went out into the ballroom where various issue groups had arrayed themselves in hopes of recruiting supporters. There were anti-gun folks and conservation groups (Save the BWCAW) and education groups.

But the two getting the most attention advocated defeat of the voter I.D. and same-sex marriage amendments. In fact, when I thought about it, I realized that almost every speaker had emphasized how important it was to avoid putting these two provisions in the Constitution.

But are they what Democrats should worry about most? After all, the world probably won’t come to an end if the two amendments pass. But if DFLers don’t take back the Legislature, they could see an amendment on the ballot next time that would turn Minnesota into a right-to-work state. Such a provision would make union membership — and union dues — voluntary. Without money and volunteers from labor, where would the Democratic Party be?

Maybe they ought to rethink their strategy. Sure it would be great to win on principles, but getting people into office this election looks to be more crucial for them.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/04/2012 - 05:03 pm.

    The world won’t end

    No, but lot of people’s voting rights will end. Just like right-to-freeload is about breaking unions so they can’t support Democrats, as you correctly pointed out, photo ID is about taking voting rights away from people thought to lean Democratic. I’m not sure that’s true of the seniors who have the most problems getting valid birth certificates or the married women whose birth certificates get rejects because they took their husband’s name, but the principle that they have the right to vote is at stake.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 06/05/2012 - 04:05 am.

    Remember the Old Mantra “When you assume…”?

    Nobody (including you) should assume ANYTHING at this point about the November elections–five months away. Democrats stayed home in 2010 and the result was deserved.

    Is this a news item or a column?

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 06/04/2012 - 08:54 pm.

    Whatever one’s political sensitivities…

    you’ve got to enjoy the punchlines?

    Reporter Harris may view the ‘party convention’ as one investigating a bowl of vanilla ice cream…so what does she do but ladle on a bunch red hot peppers at the end of every cameo scenario she observed? Got to envy her approach.

    So why am I laughing…it’s my old party, hey… yet it is most delicious ; a cynical response indeed to the political gathering. Or is it any convention?

    Guess one could call it stand-up reporting with all those one liners and can’t say I agree with all the backlash arguments of Harris…but some of them some of the time, maybe.

    Certainly she manages to pop a few sacred party balloons, but I do wonder if carrying a verbal hat pin in one’s hand bag can be considered a dangerous weapon?

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 06/04/2012 - 10:55 pm.

    .Come to think of it,

    …there are some great photos tagged with this story.

    Note the classic one at the top of the article. Great shot. I bet there’s an old party lady the reporter didn’t dare mess around with,eh?

    Then switch back to in-tandem piece; the Republican convention coverage. Fewer words and do notice also, the single pic topping the page…the photo chopped off their heads!

    At least Democrats have all their body parts, whatever?

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