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Convention week: Can Democrats unify — and avoid drama?

While Democrats crowed over moments of rebellion and organizational mishaps at the RNC last week, they may have to deal with fault lines in their own party being exposed very publicly this week.

Minnesota is sending a delegation of 104 Democrats — federal and state lawmakers, party activists and officials — to Philadelphia to participate in the convention.
REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

This week, the Democratic Party will make history: It will be the first major U.S. party to nominate a woman for president.

Expect that history to be invoked early and often this week: Starting today, Democrats gather in Philadelphia for their national convention, featuring a star-studded lineup of speakers that includes Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and dozens of governors, lawmakers, and mayors.

Democrats will make their case to voters on the heels of a wild Republican convention last week, where GOP delegates chanted to throw Hillary Clinton in prison and the nomination runner-up, Sen. Ted Cruz, refused to endorse Donald Trump and was basically booed off the stage.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that after such a display, Clinton does not have a tough act to follow. But Democrats may see their own dirty laundry aired this week — on the eve of the convention, hacked emails were released that appear to show party staffers plotting against Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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That forced the party chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, to announce she would resign after the convention. Whether that placates Sanders supporters, angry and already deeply suspicious of the party, remains to be seen.

If you’re paying attention from home in Minnesota, here’s what to watch for as the North Star State’s dominant party convenes in Philadelphia.

The Minnesota delegation

Minnesota is sending a delegation of 104 Democrats — federal and state lawmakers, party activists and officials — to Philadelphia to participate in the convention. Thirteen of them are superdelegates — a designation reserved for party committee members and top elected officials — who are unbound to any candidate and may cast their vote for whomever they choose.

Minnesota’s highest-profile Democrats, all superdelegates, are making the trip to Philadelphia: Vice President Walter Mondale, Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Sen. Al Franken are attending, as are U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum. DFL chair Ken Martin and former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak are slated to go, too.

Three Minnesota superdelegates — Reps. Rick Nolan, Collin Peterson, and Tim Walz — are not attending the DNC, and cannot cast votes.

The group of 91 rank-and-file delegates and alternate delegates is a diverse one: Many are young — one is 17 years old — some are African-American (including several of Somali descent), Native American, and Asian-American.

DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein is a delegate, as is Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Bender and former Minnetonka DFL Rep. John Benson.

On caucus night, Minnesota went big for Sanders, so 46 of the state’s delegates are pledged to the Vermont senator, while 31 are bound to Clinton. The bulk of the superdelegates support Clinton, and it’s unclear whether the ones who supported Sanders — such as Ellison — will end up voting for the nominee when the time comes.

Five Minnesotans will take the DNC stage this week: Dayton, Franken, Klobuchar, Ellison, and 36-year-old DFL State Rep. Peggy Flanagan.

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What to expect

While Democrats crowed over the moments of rebellion and the organizational mishaps at the RNC last week, they may have to deal with fault lines in their own party being exposed very publicly this week.

Many Sanders supporters still don’t trust Clinton, and believe that her camp — aided by Democratic Party brass — rigged the nomination process in her favor, and looked to undercut Sanders’ insurgent campaign at every turn.

The weekend’s leak will likely add fuel to that fire: Released internal emails appeared to show Democratic Party staffers talking about ways to weaken Sanders, with one email thread mentioning using his religion against him, in particular.

On Sunday, Sanders called for Wasserman Schultz to resign from her post. The barely concealed disdain for Wasserman Schultz among Sanders and his supporters has simmered since the beginning of the election process, when they accused her of limiting scheduled debates to advantage Clinton.

By midafternoon, as the story picked up steam, Wasserman Schultz announced her intent to resign after the convention.

A question mark now, heading into the convention, is if any lingering frustration over the episode will spill onto the convention floor. That remains to be seen, but otherwise, conflict between Clinton and Sanders supporters is not anticipated on rules or platform issues.

Over the weekend, the convention rules committee agreed to establish a “Unity Commission,” staffed by Sanders and Clinton supporters, to examine two issues that were controversial during the primary process — the role of superdelegates and the effectiveness of caucuses.

They have a year and a half to make recommendations on how to make caucuses easier to participate in; they are also expected to change the role of superdelegates so that they would be bound to vote how their states voted in caucuses and primaries. (Governors and congressmen would be exempt.) The rules package still needs to be approved on the convention floor, so that remains at least a potential avenue for drama.

While the platform does not go as far on some issues, like TPP, as Sanders supporters might like, those reservations aren’t believed to be widespread enough to prompt any serious talk of platform rejection.

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Not everyone is ready to unify

In the Minnesota delegation, where the rank-and-file skews for Sanders and the superdelegates are mostly for Clinton, supporters of the likely nominee sounded optimistic tones that Sanders backers would come around to her.

According to Ellen Luger, a Clinton delegate from Minneapolis, “It’s going to be a great opportunity for the Democratic Party to unite around our nominee, Hillary Clinton.” She says she’s spoken with Sanders supporters who have come around to Clinton and want to work on helping to get her elected.

“I think the convention is going to be a great unifier for the party, and for people to feel excited about Hillary’s candidacy,” she said.

DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein is one of those former Sanders supporters who is now with Clinton. Ahead of the convention, he signed a letter with other supporters of the Vermont senator officially announcing their support for Clinton.

“I think we’ll have a great convention and folks will come together,” he said. “We have different phases in presidential campaigns, and now we’re at the phase where people will come together around Clinton in a positive and engaging way.”

Hornstein said he was pleased that the platform was so progressive, calling it “a testament to the energy and excitement of Bernie and the ideas he’s espoused.”

“I think, on that regard, things are moving in a good direction,” he said. “The vast majority of people, both Hillary and Bernie supporters, understand how high the stakes are and how important it is we get out energetically at the grassroots level and elect Democrats up and down the ballot.”

There are Sanders holdouts in the delegation, though, for whom supporting Clinton remains a bitter pill to swallow — maybe too bitter. Kaela Berg, a Sanders delegate from Burnsville, said that she and others are still struggling with switching to Clinton.

“I don’t expect us to be difficult or for there to be a lot of animosity. I think it’s going to be hard for us to get really excited about backing her,” she said, saying she will only vote for Clinton out of loyalty to the DFL — and will do so with “a heavy heart.”

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Berg explained her reservations on Clinton, arguing that she doesn’t understand workers and their struggles, and that she is not trustworthy enough to follow through on stances she’s taken, like her reversal from supporting TPP to opposing it.

She also harshly criticized Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, arguing that she is directly responsible for lives lost in a 2009 coup in Honduras, an event for which many in the Sanders left blame Clinton. “She has blood on her hands,” she said.

When asked if that kind of strident opposition may impede party unity, Berg said that she, of course, wants party unity, as much as anyone else.

“That’s the goal at any point in time, to have a unified party and a strong candidate you believe in,” she said. “I’m behind that. I’ll do my part. I can’t yet speak to whether I think our Minnesota Bernie delegates will be able to do that.”

“We were so all-in for Bernie that it’s going to take some time to accept that’s no longer an option,” Berg said, “and come to peace with what we have now.”