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How a Hennepin County DFL endorsing convention collapsed

Pick your term: political debacle, circus or slapstick. Whatever your choice, it could be applied to last Sunday’s DFL Hennepin County convention. 

Earnest citizens — willing to give up a lovely day to endorse a candidate for Hennepin County board seat vacated by Gail Dorfman — found chaos at Minneapolis’s Ramsey Middle School.

Despite two months of lead time, convention organizers apparently had little clue as to who had delegate credentials for the convention’s District 3 portion.

Roughly four hours after the convention was supposed to begin, the four candidates seeking endorsement suggested the best solution was to send everyone home.

“It certainly isn’t a way we should do civic engagement,” said commissioner hopeful Anne Mavity.

No endorsement vote was ever taken. What this means is that a way-under-the-radar race will stay that way.

The candidates — Mavity, a St. Louis Park city council member; Marion Greene, a former state representative; Ken Kelash, a former state senator; and Ben Schweigert, a Hennepin County district attorney — will have to work ever harder to let people in the district know that there’s an April 29 primary and a general election two weeks later. Two other candidates, the old perennial Bob Carney and recent Minneapolis 13th Ward also-ran Bob Reuer, have also filed.

District 3 includes roughly 100,000 voters in St. Louis Park and the western half of Minneapolis. In all likelihood, given a field of four strong candidates, there would have been no endorsement.

“But it was a key opportunity lost to show your relative strength,’’ said Mavity.

Oh, what an organizational mess it was. Despite delegates selected at Feb. 4 precinct caucuses, there was no complete list of credentialed delegates and alternates two months later. There weren’t even cards on hand to create badges for delegates.

On the other hand, at least some of the candidates showed up with big plans to conduct convention floor operations. Some candidates had “war rooms’’ with food, walkie talkies for communications, and computers to tally which delegates were voting for whom.  They even had t-shirts for supporters.

Though Kelash was disappointed by the lack of convention organization, he was amused by what he viewed as overkill by some of his opponents.

“A guy came up to me and said ‘We don’t have you wired for a computer,’” Kelash noted with a laugh. “I said, ‘I don’t have a computer.’ He said, ‘How are you going to get instant results?’ I said, ‘Look, there are about 120 delegates here. I don’t think we really need a computer.’”

Back up a moment. This was to be a two-part convention. The whole body, roughly 300 delegates, was to endorse county-wide elected officials. Then, a smaller group, roughly 130 delegates, was to make the effort to endorse for Dorfman’s seat.

Given that the only county-wide race last Sunday was county attorney, and Mike Freeman was the only candidate, Freeman’s endorsement created no credentials issues.

The smaller, but more important commissioner endorsement provided something to make just about everyone angry.

Some of the anger was aimed at Sharon Sund, Hennepin County DFL chair and a potential Rep. Erik Paulsen opponent in November.  Sund intended to stay on as chairwoman, but ultimately stepped aside when Becky Boland, a party activist, was nominated from the floor to run against her.

That Boland was not in attendance at the convention, and that Sund was taking the hit for the organizational mess, offended some delegates.

Hennepin County

Sund sent an e-mail to those who had sought endorsement on Tuesday.

“… As the former chair of the Hennepin County DFL, I take responsibility that despite our best efforts to bring it back together we were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, in the lead-up to the convention, our DFLHS Credentials Committee had a complete collapse and did not communicate the issues in time to remedy the problems.’’ 

Rick Stafford, longtime party activist and former state DFL chair nominated Boland, which made him less than popular with some of the delegates.

Still, Stafford describes the convention as “the biggest mess’’ he’s seen in 40 years of attending conventions at all levels of party politics.

He’s the first to admit that the blame shouldn’t fall squarely on Sund’s shoulders.

“It’s getting harder than ever to find people who will take on leadership positions,’’ said Stafford of the volunteer party structure. Those, like Sund, who volunteer often, find it almost impossible to find help when they seek it.

Still, a Hennepin County commissionership is one of the least noticed but most powerful position in Minnesota government. The seven commissioners allocate a $1.8 billion budget, second only to the state’s. They deal with issues ranging from jails to hospitals and virtually everything in between.

That the media and public barely notice commissioner elections is always surprising. That a vote to endorse could not be held because of poor organization is astounding.

“These (delegates) are regular folks who came to the convention for all the right reasons,’’ said Mavity.

A lot of those people left the convention vowing never to return, though the process will be repeated soon. This race is to fill only to fill the remaining months of Dorfman’s unexpired term. Whoever wins the race in May will be back on the ballot again in November.

Before that race, there will be an endorsing convention.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/09/2014 - 10:24 am.

    Will Rogers

    My favorite quote. “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

  2. Submitted by Derek Reise on 04/09/2014 - 10:29 am.

    Why I’m done with the DFL

    I’ve gone to DFL conventions since I moved to Minnesota in 2002. After this experience and the endless pointless bloating at my last SD convention, I am DONE with involvement in party politics.

    At the precinct caucuses, people complained that there were no young people (defined as under 50). Well, when you are insulted repeatedly with this countless wasting of time, you’re going to stop showing up. Which is what I’m going to do.

  3. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 04/09/2014 - 11:21 am.

    Speed of Democracy

    Decisions are made by those who show up. Some times that decision is to not make an endorsement. Democracy is not always expedient, and not always organized. And I guess that means that the “decisions” might be made by the “old timers” that are not accustomed to having everything happen at the speed of a remote control.

    • Submitted by Derek Reise on 04/09/2014 - 01:15 pm.

      remote control speed?

      I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect a convention to be organized in such a way that it doesn’t take four hours to figure out that you messed everything up so bad you can’t take any action.

      I think it’s also reasonable for a convention not to take two hours of the same repeated political speeches before you get to the actual business of appointments, delegate elections, and endorsements. Democracy means opening up the process to as many voices as possible. Not closing the door to anyone who doesn’t have the ability or desire to waste hours. Hours spent not doing democracy, but hours waiting for party leaders to stop talking and get properly organized.

      • Submitted by Jim Young on 04/09/2014 - 02:13 pm.

        Convention organizing/time wasting/speed …

        Derek – I think you’re right. The conventions could be *a lot* better organized and could finish much more quickly. That said, I’d suggest you give it one more try and see if you can’t help with the convention organization & setup. I’ve done it. It’s not rocket science. It just takes a small group of people one or two meetings prior to the convention to plan it and execute it. One reasonably well organized individual with fresh ideas and a commitment to making things work better can make a huge difference in a setting like that. Give it a go and see what you think.

  4. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 04/09/2014 - 11:57 am.

    politics requires organization, not just participation

    The two DFL party conventions last weekend demonstrated that politics requires good organizational management, not just participation. Good government requires good politics for, as any good dictionary will tell you, politics is the art and science of governance. Sadly, political parties–and the media–concentrate too much on candidates, campaigns and elections, and neglect party organization. Neither the party nor the public gives recognition to the volunteers or the rare paid staff who are good organizational managers who take responsibility for running the organizations on which democracy is based.

  5. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 04/09/2014 - 12:10 pm.

    Endorsing nonpartisan offices

    As a former elected county commissioner myself, in a different county (4 terms), I am against party endorsement of candidates for supposedly nonpartisan offices. Let the people decide in the primary. In this particular seat, then two nonpartisan Democrats would probably face each other in the general election. Which is OK. Endorsing one candidate gives too much power to political insiders, especially in “safe” one-party-dominant districts like this one. Keep local government nonpartisan.

  6. Submitted by John Ferman on 04/09/2014 - 01:26 pm.

    How Sad

    There are few ways if really know who a candidate is. So I rely on a party convention to weigh the merits of all against the party’s principals – its platform. One would expect a candidate to clearly tell why they are running and what the hope to achieve, but I sense that isn’t so true anymore – that a convention is a contest to win like any sports game. The current debacle might perhaps be due to a lessening importance of a conventions endorsements. At the last convention I attended all I heard from the candidates was that touchy,feely, sounds good mish mash – nothing solid. So I have much less incentive to participate and at my age it takes a lot. The challenge is should the party processes be fixed and are competent people willing to invest.

  7. Submitted by Tim Milner on 04/09/2014 - 02:40 pm.

    My 1st and last

    time participating in a DFL party gathering was the 1978 caucus. We were all asked to go as part of my HS political science class. My dad went with me.

    There were about 25 or so people in the room. After the pledge, etc., we started the delegate nominating process. We had been allocated 30 delegated to the district convention. A number greater than the number of people in attendance. Oh well.

    In a about 20 minutes of time, everyone in the room had either been nominated as a delegate or had declined. So, the chair moved to the various platform petitions. Or should I say, tried to.

    One old timer raised a point of parliamentary procedure. We could NOT move forward on to the platform until alternate delegates had been elected!!

    I looked at my dad – he looked at me. We had asked everyone in at room – and we had not even filled the delegates needs. Where in the world were the alternates going to come from?

    A 15 minute recess, followed by another 20 minute conference with what looked to be some “caucus leadership”, followed by a another 15 minute recess. We reconvened – to elect alternates!!

    At that point, my dad and I left. I have never returned. It was abundantly clear that common sense was not going to be among the rules followed in local political gatherings.

    Based on this report, it looks like 40 or so years later, things have not changed.

  8. Submitted by Josh Lease on 04/09/2014 - 09:00 pm.

    bored now

    I see this article has become the opportunity for the self-righteous to declare how they’ve opted out of the caucus process (in hopes that the media might praise them for their willingness to sit on the sidelines and complain?)

    Democracy isn’t easy. It requires people to get educated and participate in the process. No one who says “I gave up in 19XX” or “I went once and I’m not going back” wins any points. I’m sorry you didn’t care enough to try and help make things better or have a modicum of patience for VOLUNTEERS who were trying their best.

    Yes, the Hennepin County DFL convention blew up. It looks like the necessary prep work to execute it well didn’t happen. I’m going to guess it’s because out of the DFL units in the area, it’s the one that gets the least attention (until now). The Senate Districts are where the day-to-day work of the party happens in the county, and hennepin county crosses a lot of them. so at a time where those folks are doing their own conventions, they needed to pull from the same VOLUNTEER pool that run the SD conventions in order to make it work. And couldn’t make it happen. Sometimes all it takes is a couple of people not coming through for the whole thing to collapse…because it’s all VOLUNTEER. (did I mention ain’t no one gettin’ paid? maybe I should say it again).

    No one covered themselves in glory here, but it’s also not the end of the world. And the self-righteous who are breaking their damn arms patting themselves on the back over how great they are for opting out of the political process should probably do what they apparently do best: go away.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/10/2014 - 10:23 am.


      I don’t think anyone is being self-righteous in saying they are no longer attending DFL caucuses and conventions. The process is simply awful, and people who wanted to participate could not longer take it because it was so awful.

      And the idea that the endorsement process is democratic is just laughable. Unless you can spend a couple of hours on a Tuesday night and most of a day on a Saturday or Sunday (and another day for statewide races) you don’t get to vote. If you work nights or weekends, travel for work, are in the active military, have young children you can’t find childcare for, or if there is any other reason you might need to fill out an absentee ballot or not have more than a few minutes to vote, you are disenfranchised. The reason the comments here are talking about older voters and party regulars at these things is because that is who is able to go. The caucus system means that a small, unrepresentative group of people gets to choose candidates. And given the track record for the DFL – where a candidate barred from the convention got elected governor after many years of endorsed candidate failures – I would argue that these caucus-goers are out-of-touch with the electorate.

      “Sometimes all it takes is a couple of people not coming through for the whole thing to collapse…because it’s all VOLUNTEER”

      Well, if that is the case, we need to do away with it altogether.

  9. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 04/09/2014 - 10:43 pm.

    Two possibilities: MNSure employees at work or too much fluoride

    This is about the most outrageous story in incompetence I have heard when it comes to politics in Minnesota. I can think of only two possible explanations: 1) MNSure employees snuck in through the back door and, despite good intentions, could not help but stupidly muck the whole thing up, or 2) the folks, like Sund, in the DFL have been drinking too much fluoride which even Lancet, a leading medical journal from England, says causes some serious drops in IQ.

    All around, Sund is looking pretty bad as is the rest of those involved.

  10. Submitted by Blair Tremere on 04/11/2014 - 03:57 pm.

    The stumbling and fumbling ignorant

    The problem here is partisans who insist on wasting time on an endorsing convention when the office, by state law, is NON-PARTISAN. Let all citizens who believe they can competently serve file and may the winners of the non-partisan primary go on to campaign for the general election. The voters will be better off.

  11. Submitted by Grace Kelly on 04/14/2014 - 11:54 am.

    St Paul and Ramsey County Doing Better

    There are good DFL conventions happening all over. A very contentious 64B race in the Highland part of St Paul was well run. A Ramsey County contentious commissioner race was also well run. Ramsey County has fewer volunteers so we developed better practices with more work and less discussion. Perhaps the smallness is a factor.

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