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Michelle MacDonald and the anatomy of a political train wreck

How the Republican attorney’s bid to become a Minnesota Supreme Court justice became one of the most bizarre campaigns in state history. 

Greg Wersal, left, delivered Michelle MacDonald’s nominating speech at the GOP convention
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow

It had to happen. At the moment state Supreme Court justice candidate Michelle MacDonald was about to begin a news conference Wednesday, the lights went out in the State Office Building room where the event was to be held.

“The lights went out in there and I’m trying to shine a light on the system,’’ MacDonald said as reporters left the dark and powerless room.

After a few minutes of waiting to see if power would be restored — it wasn’t — the event was moved outside, where MacDonald announced that she has filed documents with the Office of Administrative Hearings against the state’s Republican Party, GOP Chairman Keith Downey, the party’s executive board, executive board member Pat Anderson and attorney Patrick Burns. She says this could be the start of a process that could lead to civil and criminal complaints against the party.

All things considered, the lights going out in the midst of filing of formal complaints against the very party who endorsed her seemed about right, at least when it comes to MacDonald’s efforts to be elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court — a race that’s quickly become one of the most bizarre campaigns in state history. 

A brief history of a troubled candidacy

If you have any doubts about just how strange MacDonald’s saga has become, let’s review: 

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April 5, 2013  — A Rosemount police officer arrests MacDonald, a 52-year-old family law attorney, on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest. Denying she’d been drinking, MacDonald refuses a field sobriety test unless she was in the presence of a judge.

May 28, 2014 — After paying the $200 fee, MacDonald files with the Secretary of State’s office to run for the state Supreme Court against incumbent David Lillehaug. “I’ve always wanted to be a judge,’’ she said of her decision to file.

May 31 — At the Republican Party of Minnesota’s convention in Rochester, MacDonald is recommended for endorsement by the GOP’s Judicial Elections Committee. Afterward, delegates to the party convention vote overwhelmingly to endorse her. She gives a Bible-waving speech and is received warmly by delegates.

Candidate Michelle MacDonald’s speech at the GOP convention, courtesy of the UpTake.

June 13 — The Star Tribune publishes a story about MacDonald’s DWI arrest, an article that includes other courtroom behavior problems MacDonald has dealt with over the years. Downey, the party chair, is quoted as saying he was “unaware’’ of MacDonald’s issues and that the convention delegates didn’t know about the issues, either.

Aug. 1 — MacDonald is ticketed in Wright County for violating the terms of driver’s license restrictions, limitations put on her pending her drunk driving trial.

Aug. 19 — GOP executive committee creates new policy, restricting access to the party’s State Fair booth of any candidates with pending criminal cases.

Aug. 21 — MacDonald is escorted from the Republican Party booth at the State Fair, but not before the scene was captured on video.

Aug. 22 — The candidate starts receiving a series of calls and texts from an attorney, Patrick Burns, attempting to get MacDonald to repudiate her party endorsement. Downey said he didn’t know about the calls. Burns later says he was making the calls after getting clearance from his friend, Anderson, a party executive committee member. 

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Aug. 22 — Downey sends an e-mail to party officials, executive committee members and those who had been delegates to the convention. It says that though MacDonald is the “endorse candidate’’ she is “undermining the conservative argument for electing judges.’’

Sept. 3 — Prior to the lights going out, MacDonald files her complaints with the Office of Administrative Hearings against the Minnesota GOP, Downey, Anderson and Burns. 

And there’s more to come.

Next week, MacDonald says she plans to ask the Dakota County courts to allow television cameras in the courtroom for her DWI case. Her motion, she said, will be based on the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right of defendants to a public trial. “I want people to see what’s happening in our courtrooms,’’ she says.

Then, on Sept. 15, her trial will be held in Dakota County before a six-person jury. “If there’s justice, I won’t be found guilty,’’ she says. 

Flawed candidate — or judicial ideal?

This bizarre theater has been the headache from political hell for the GOP hierarchy. 

The party label, which leaders have tried so hard to rebuild in the last two years, is taking a beating. The credibility of some party leaders is raising eyebrows. And GOP-endorsed candidates are being forced to take sides. (Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson recently backed away from MacDonald, after initially saying he’d stand by her. U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden says he won’t vote for either MacDonald or Lillehaug, rather he’ll write in somebody else, while the party’s candidate for attorney general, Scott Newman, has endorsed Lillehaug.)

But all the drama obscures something far more important, a reality to this that party leaders don’t necessarily want to acknowledge: that there likely are a substantial number of Republican Party activists (and voters) who don’t see MacDonald as a flawed candidate. Rather, they see her as the judicial ideal.

When she says, “We’re supposed to be a government of the people, by the people for the people, not a system of the lawyers, by the lawyers for the lawyers,” they say, ‘‘Amen.’’

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By refusing to take a sobriety test when stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence last year, “She stood up to a cop; she stood up for her rights,’’ said former justice candidate Greg Wersal, who delivered MacDonald’s nominating speech at the GOP convention.

By defending a client in a 2013 child custody case that led to a bizarre incident in which MacDonald was ordered to be handcuffed and placed in a wheel chair during a hearing, her defenders said she showed how the “system’’ clamps down on her passion as an advocate.

Said Wersal in his nominating speech, “Some say Michelle has been controversial in the past because she stood up to judges. Well, you know what I say? That’s just the kind of person we need on the court.’’

Perhaps MacDonald wouldn’t have received the endorsement had convention delegates known of all the baggage she brought to the campaign. But there’s a different way of looking at that. The party’s 18-member Judicial Elections Committee did know about the problems — and still voted 14-3 to recommend her for endorsement by the convention.

There’s other evidence suggesting that the convention might have endorsed MacDonald even if it had known her entire story. The party has been endorsing judicial candidates since 2006 and, according Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy party chair who now runs politics.mn, none of those endorsees have won an election. That might be a hint that GOP convention delegates are not swimming in the same stream as most Minnesotans when it comes to judging the qualifications required of a judge.

But even if the delegates and party leaders didn’t know MacDonald’s full story, the episode still is a black eye for the party, reflecting a fundamental communications problem in the GOP. Key leaders weren’t talking to each other about important political matters.

Brodkorb, who has had party problems of his own, received a tape of the 30-minute interview the judicial committee held with MacDonald prior to recommending her for endorsement. In that session, Doug Seaton, chairman of the Judicial Election committee as well as a major party funder, clearly stated to the committee and MacDonald what the future could hold.

“We’re going to have a situation where the party’s endorsement process is going to be held up to ridicule and you’re (MacDonald) going to be held up to ridicule and attacked in a campaign as not having judicial (temperament) and being a bit of a wild woman,’’ Seaton said during the interview.

Seaton did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But it’s worth noting that Downey said he had not been informed by Seaton of MacDonald’s backstory.

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And the soap opera was off and running. 

‘Exposing the Republican Party … for what it is’

“There’s a schism in the party,’’ Brodkorb said. “When I was working for the party, the most calls we’d receive ahead of elections were about judicial elections. There’s a strong group within the party that believes that the courts need to be reined in. They (committee members) wanted to endorse, they wanted to overlook and there is a presumption of innocence.’’

Surprisingly, Downey, who was a business consultant and state legislator prior to taking the GOP post,  hasn’t yet figured out a way to deal with media questions about MacDonald. Rather than deal in any sort of straightforward way with the media, Downey typically refers to written statements he’s made about MacDonald and then ducks for cover.

Even in his strongest written statement, the one he e-mailed to the spectrum of party leaders and activists on Aug. 22, Downey seemed intent on trying to please everyone in his party.

Republican Party Chair Keith Downey

“Michelle MacDonald is our endorsed candidate. Period,” he wrote. “Since her endorsement however, new information about her legal and judicial philosophy and personal legal issues have been disclosed which the delegates did not know about when they voted for her endorsement. … In addition her campaign has raised $120 (not a typo) and has not signed up for data center access calling into question the seriousness of her campaign effort. … Unfortunately, this whole episode and her candidacy is undermining the conservative argument for electing judges and judicial restraint and is calling into question the merit of endorsing judicial candidates.’’

Wersal believes lack of enthusiasm among some in the party hierarchy about judicial endorsement is at the core of what’s happening with MacDonald. Wersal, with the support of the GOP, pushed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for a fundamental change in how judicial races can be run in Minnesota.

Before Wersal’s case, judicial candidates in Minnesota were prevented from talking about their views when it came to political and legal issues during their campaigns. Wersal argued that Minnesota’s law made a folly of the notion of judicial elections, and in 2002, the Supremes, on a 5-4 vote, agreed. That decision set the stage for judicial endorsements — at least within the state’s GOP. The DFL has rejected the idea of judicial endorsements.

But Wersal, who ran and lost as an endorsed candidate for the Supreme Court in 2010, said that many party elites never wanted judicial endorsements, and MacDonald is being set up as excuse for the GOP to avoid judicial endorsements in the future. “There always has been a wink-wink to the endorsement process,’’ he said. “Two groups in the party fought me every step of the way. Attorneys and pro-abortion people in the party never wanted endorsement. … All of this is exposing the Republican Party for what it is.’’

Wersal said that the “issues being used against MacDonald are meaningless. She’s not been found guilty of anything. Nobody in the party is telling Emmer that he can’t come in the State Fair booth.’’  (Emmer, the GOP’s candidate for governor four years ago and current candidate for Congress in the 6th District, pleaded guilty in 1991 for careless driving. At the time, two charges for DWI were dropped.)

‘There’s somebody behind the curtain, but who is it?’

The State Fair affair represented a classic political train wreck. Up until the day before the Fair opened, MacDonald says, she believed she would be welcome to spend time at the GOP booth. But on the evening before the Fair, she said she received a call from Downey telling her that she wouldn’t be allowed in the booth. 

Until that call from Downey, she said, “I had no idea I wouldn’t be allowed. All along, I’d been telling my supporters to meet me at the Fair. They (the party) knew I planned to be there.’’  She showed up. She was escorted out. The incident was news across the state. 

Immediately after that, Burns made his repeated texts and calls to MacDonald attempting to get her to drop the GOP endorsement, yet another series of incidents that would go on to backfire against the party. Burns said he was under the impression that the conversations with MacDonald were confidential. But she recorded the calls, and soon handed over the recordings to Brodkorb. In the tapes, Burns can be heard saying  such things as “they (the party’s executive committee) will squash you like a bug’’ unless she repudiated the endorsement.

It should be noted there is context to Burns’ role in all of this. He is a long-time friend of Anderson, the former state auditor who is on the GOP’s executive committee. Burns was the campaign manager for Anderson in 2002 when she was elected auditor. He says he called Anderson to see if he could be of assistance to the party in dealing with MacDonald. She gave him the go-ahead, he said.

Though no longer active in party affairs, Burns was “alarmed’’ by the damage he believed MacDonald was doing to the party. Burns thought he could be helpful, he said, because he’s known MacDonald for more than 10 years. In fact, he said, following her endorsement, MacDonald asked Burns to be her campaign manager.

Even at that point, Burns said, he was blunt about her limitations as a candidate: “I told her I wouldn’t be her campaign manager and that I couldn’t support her candidacy.’’ He also said he told her she didn’t have “the background to run a state wide race and that her criminal and legal matters would overshadow any issues she wanted to bring to the campaign.’’ 

He said he now regrets using such expressions as “squashed like a bug,’’ but he added that he was trying to be as candid as possible about what her candidacy was doing. 

“I said as clearly as I could that my advice is that you’re going to lose, you’re causing irreparable harm to yourself, to the party and to the office you would hold. … I was just trying to extricate everyone from an embarrassing situation. No good deed goes unpunished.’’ 

MacDonald said she has a hard time believing that Downey wasn’t aware of Burns’ calls and texts. “The party is like the Wizard of Oz,’’ she said in a recent interview. “There’s somebody behind the curtain, but who is it? The chairman?  At some point, the chairman has to be responsible. I know that in my office, if somebody goes off, I’m ultimately responsible.’’

And rather than cause her to re-evaluate her candidacy — and the potential damage its done to the party — each incident, each ticket, each GOP effort to thwart her, each media report that questions her temperament, seem to make MacDonald more convinced of her own rightness.  

“I’m bringing light to the invisible corruption of our system,’’ she said.