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At DFL convention, fear has a name — and that name is not Donald Trump

MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
DFL Chair Ken Martin and Donna Cassutt speaking to DFL Central Committee members prior to Saturday's vote.

There’s nothing like a lot of fear to bring a political party together. 

DFL activists — the nearly 500 members of the party’s Central Committee — gathered in Hinckley on Saturday. The main stated purpose of the meeting was to elect a party chair. Ultimately, Ken Martin was re-elected, easily defeating Donna Cassutt.

But it was the tone of the all-day meeting that was most important. Was this a party still brooding over the Trump revolution? Were the activists still saying “how could anyone vote for Trump?” Or were these party stalwarts willing to look in a mirror and say, “How could we have become so far removed from the voters?”

Of course, Trump did not carry Minnesota. But DFLers weren’t taking much solace in that. Not only did Trump run very well in this once blue state — losing by less than two percentage points — Republicans took control of both legislative chambers. And races in once safe DFL districts were far closer than expected.

Those results have created a particular brand of dread in the party: that if the DFL doesn’t do some serious re-connecting with Minnesotans, the GOP could, in the 2018 election cycle, have an even better year than it did in 2016.

In fact, over and over again, one name was heard in speeches and conversations among delegates. But that name wasn’t Donald Trump. It was Scott Walker, the personification of a fear that Minnesota is less than two years from an election cycle that could make the state’s politics look like, well, Wisconsin’s. 

A million little tents

At the convention, most DFLers seemed focused more on what they did wrong in the last election than they were on being horrified at the outcome. “If we want more people to turn out we need to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against,” said Martin in a speech to the delegates.

Of course. Simple. A positive message, a formula that is well understood by the activists.

The wrinkle, however, is deciding what that message is supposed to be. This is a party that has sliced and diced and chopped itself into a bunch of pieces. You’ve got your seniors caucus. Your LGBTQ caucus. Your women’s caucus. Your brown caucus. Your black caucus. Your green caucus. This isn’t a one-big-tent kind of party. It’s a million little tents. 

“We have so many caucuses, but what about the white Christian working guy caucus?” asked Nancy Larson, a delegate from Dassel, which lies in the Republican-rich 7th Congressional District. “That’s not said with malice. That part of our problem.”

Larson is a flaming progressive at heart. She ran as the lieutenant governor in John Marty’s campaign for governor in 1994. But she’s also a political pragmatist. “You can’t accomplish anything if you don’t win,” she said.

Candidates speak

Larson believes the next DFL gubernatorial candidate needs to come from the middle, someone such as U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Others believe the party has to articulate a more clearly progressive message if it wants to remain successful. 

To that end, there were three announced gubernatorial candidates on hand at the Saturday event. State auditor Rebecca Otto, Rep. Erin Murphy, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman all spoke to the delegates.

There also was a group promoting a “draft Rick Nolan” for governor. Nolan, the 8th District Congressman, is a good, old-fashioned orator. His speech was one of the few that had delegates paying attention.

But Nolan is also 73 years old now. By election day 2018, he’d be nearing 75, so his supporters had a single glossy printout to answer the “too old” question. On one side of the paper were black and white photos of Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown (78), former vice President Joe Biden (74) and Bernie Sanders (75). On the flip side was a color photo of Nolan. (Hillary Clinton was not a factor in the too-old discussions. In fact, Clinton’s was a name seldom mentioned at the convention. Among activists, it seems, she is yesterday’s news, except in a negative sense.)

Indeed, perhaps the main reason that Martin was challenged by Cassutt was the fact that he endorsed Clinton so early in the presidential process. He says now he endorsed because he wanted to be “honest” and “transparent” with party members. But the Sanders wing was furious with Martin. The party should be neutral in intra-party politics, and Martin promised he’ll never endorse again.

Nobody’s perfect

But the bigger concern was whether the DFL could unify around a few big, inclusive themes.

The more radical elements of the party say that the party is locked into a box befitting the 20th century, not this one. The “Farmer” and “Labor” elements of the party have gone away. Oh sure, tepid labor leaders still have clout among party pols. But blue collar workers went for Trump.

More moderate DFLers pushed a back-to-basics theme. “Trump captured the emotional aspects of our economic message,” said state Sen. Dan Schoen, a relatively new voice in the party. “He wasn’t honest, but this was an election of raw emotions. We have to get back to our message. We have to focus on jobs. The best thing we can do for social justice is to create good jobs.”

All those little sub-groups in the party must understand, Schoen said, that there never will be “a perfect candidate.”

“The only perfect candidate is yourself,” Schoen said. “We can have our debates and differences but at some point, we have to fall in line.” 

That’s an old-fashioned party discipline that many believe doesn’t exist anymore. Many, including Martin, said that the party must acknowledge that many younger voters are more interested in specific issues, not party politics. The party, he believes, must show its support of many of those issue-oriented groups.

The party’s problems are many. But all DFLers needed for motivation, it seemed, was a simple mantra: “Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Greg Gaut on 03/06/2017 - 12:53 pm.


    It seems strange that, at last as far as this article tells us, the central committee didn’t discuss the fact that 61% of the more that 200,000 DFLers at the precinct caucuses voted for Sanders (and 38% for Clinton). I think that Sanders won in all eight congressional districts. I wonder how the DFL leaders who endorsed Clinton so early come to terms with the fact that they were so out of touch with the bulk of their party?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/06/2017 - 03:57 pm.

      Not really

      Caucuses are so undemocratic that you really can’t take the results seriously. In fact, the caucus results this year were so bogus that the legislature did away with presidential caucuses.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/06/2017 - 02:11 pm.

    They still don’t get it

    In a nutshell democrats need to decide whether or not liberals. A liberal party would have no trouble finding a platform that all this disparate tents could fit under. It only becomes impossible when you try to organize under a moderate republican principles. Bernie Sanders proved that, you’ll remember he took the state and he did it by being an unapologetic liberal promoting liberal principles. That’s what Paul Wellstone did. Liberals unite around liberal agendas, they react against republican agendas. So no, the “middle” isn’t the answer and if democrats go that way they’ll lose the state completely.

    Martin is right, democrats need to give voters something to vote for not just against (but duh, we tried to tell you guys that for months). And liberal agenda’s will do that.

    The turnout issue is interesting because it depends what democrats are talking about. My impression during the election was that democrats seemed to think their mission was to get democrats to the polls. That’s a losing strategy because the largest bloc of voters now is independents. Even if democrats get all the democrats to the polls, they can still lose if they don’t get additional voters into the booths voting for democratic candidates. And again, to do that, you need popular candidates running on agendas people want to vote for.

    Getting back to the “unification” problem, democrats can be unified if they are unified. Why don’t they produce a standard narrative that simply explains their agenda and past success compared to republican failures? The only reason republicans were able to grab outstate voters is that that democrats left those issues and votes on the table. Republicans couldn’t pass budget or bonding bill, and they wanted to spend a fraction of the necessary budget on transportation and other outstate projects yet they managed to convince voters that they could more with republicans. Democrats had delivered more, and would have delivered more, but they didn’t bother to tell voters about it. There was no statewide campaign acting as an umbrella under which local candidates could draw support. Then you wonder why the parties so fractured?

    And again, democrats have to deal with stuff when they have a chance. The could have passed the gas tax, funding, transit and transportation, but they dialed it back under the theory that if hey “over-reached” they’d lose votes. They they lost anyways and republicans were able to claim that not enough was being done… because the truth the democrats didn’t do all that they should have done when they had the chance.

    So they have to decide whether or not they’re going to be liberals. If they decide to be liberals the narrative, policies, and agenda’s that give people something to vote for materializes. If not, they’re just a bunch of candidates trying to win elections on their own.

  3. Submitted by Howard Miller on 03/06/2017 - 03:00 pm.

    the need for a positive galvanizing message

    There are a few key issues that get broad agreement across centrist and left-leaning Americans:

    our love of freedom, including equality before the law
    our right to pursue happiness, provide for ourselves and our familty
    our right to have our voice heard by those governing, rather than being out-bid by really rich folks
    our right to peace and security in our persons, homes, belongings

    Republican actions have intruded on each of these in turn. It was not enough for Hillary Clinton to promise she was not Donald Trump …. the millions of Americans left out of the recovery from the Great Recession needed a message of hope for their economic lives …. and Hillary kept supporting “free” trade that has decimated American jobs, while offering weak tea about raising the minimum wage, and the earnings of Americans not in her tax bracket.

    Bernie Sanders energized a whole bunch of people who had/have given up on Democrats as representatives of middle class and poor Americans. The Democratic Party must embrace his message and enthusiastic take-it-to-the-people campaigning approach. Simply shaking down rich donors on the coasts did not work for Democrats in 2016.

    I urge the state party chairman to go on a listening tour around the state, including the politically blood-red areas ….. hear from actual citizens. Then put together a message that we can get strong agreement for …. a positive future for Americans going forward. Democrats need to give voters reason to vote FOR them, not just oppose Republicans. Al Franken understands that. Keith Ellison understands that. Time for others who are Democrats or lean that way to get it as well.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/06/2017 - 11:40 pm.

    I was there

    I did not see people fretting. I saw people who are passionate about keeping Minnesota in the top five states of the country, a status Wisconsin can only dream of.

    Dayton and other Democrats did what it took to take away Pawlenty’s government on the cheap, when bridges fell down, taxes were called fees, schools were forced to loan the state money and thousands had their health insurance.

    Pawlenty was our Walker, but far more charming. After he got beat by Michelle Bachmann in the Iowa primary, he moved on to be head of a Washington business lobby. Walker also lost early in Washington, and to many of is past his peak. Voter suppression in Milwaukee cost Democrats the presidential vote there. That will not happen again, and if lots of people lose their insurance and there is an economic downturn, Walker is toast.

    Within the DFL there are two major groups – the progressive wing that wants change to happen faster through confrontation and moderates who accept a slower pace with compromise. Both want the same objectives – their differences in how to best get things done.

    They share an intense dislike and distrust of Trump, they are very clear about what Republicans will do to the state, and ultimately will get together, aided by what Trump does to the country.

    Of course a small percentage will not like the final direction, looking for other options, but very few will become Trump style conservatives. If the author thinks we won’t pull it together, he underestimates us.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/07/2017 - 11:31 am.


      Dayton won, and Dayton wasn’t the MNDFL endorsed candidate, he defeated your endorsed candidate in the primary. The MNDFL hasn’t tried a progressive approach for decades, they split with Dayton, and their “moderate” approach has been losing that way for decades.

      It’s not a question of whether or not the party can pull together, it’s a question of whether or not the party will change course and produce liberal agendas, policies, and candidates that Minnesotan’s want to vote for. If the MNDFL “pulls” together only to offer the same uninspired mediocrity that has become their trademark they’ll lose. This isn’t crystal ball conjecture… we just saw it happen.

  5. Submitted by Bonnie Lokenvitz on 03/07/2017 - 08:56 am.

    Missing Muslim Caucus

    Is the newish Muslim caucus too scary for the DFL pols to discuss. It was created after they denied the formation of a Palestinian caucus.

  6. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/07/2017 - 09:47 am.

    My Take

    While there was definitely a Trump tide that swept MN, it also hurt that the DFL legislative campaigns because there was no state wide message they ran on. They did not say, for example, here’s what we will do on rural broad band and rural highway and bridge construction.

    So now, the guy that was the head of the party during a disastrous campaign without a message gets re-elected by telling us we didn’t have a message last time. This is like a corporation that rewards incompetence in the executive suite.

    But since Nancy Pelosi was rewarded keeping Democrats in the minority in Congress, I guess this is a common tactic for Democrats.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/07/2017 - 11:39 am.


      Phelan is spot on. There were two huge flaws with the MNDFL campaign in the last election cycle. First, they were stuck Clinton at the top of the ticket and that sent inescapable tremors down stream. Second, they have no agenda beyond winning individual elections, and they completely failed to produce a common agenda or message.

      I’ll say it again, I think political agendas, programs, and agendas flow out of basic ideological positions so without basic ideological positions, you get no damn agendas, programs, or policies. It’s almost like democrats actually try to be apolitical. We already have conservative republicans, why don’t DFLer’s try being liberal democrats for a change?

  7. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 03/07/2017 - 12:37 pm.

    It’s in the presentation

    Mr. Phelan hits a great point in that the democratic leadership stays for running the status quo. Trump won because he is different and says he is going to hit problems up head on. Like him or not, he’s doing something. He’s far from style points but he is doing what most Americans want, putting the US first and doing things to get jobs back. All the democrats did was vilify and had zero message in return. Obama did a great job in separating people than bringing together and ran the play book of criticizing throngs of the electorate. So those in the middle were only hearing how bad of people they are. That combination elected Trump.
    No wonder the democrats can’t come up with a message because they want to placate everyone. You can’t do that. They want jobs, but they want to placate unions, the environmentalists, and the corporate donors. They want more giveaway programs yet how many times do you raise taxes and say it’s not enough and keep the cycle going year after year of record tax revenues.
    So what will happen is that the democrats will run a fear campaign (again) and lecture and ridicule the electorate. This is not just in Minnesota but all over. Over 1000 local and state seats lost to Republicans in recent times.
    The democrats used to be strong in making a great environment for companies to create jobs, having opportunities for all, and that the government was a safety net. It has become a group that promises to pay for everything in perpetuity, constantly blames others and never leads in accountability, and has put the US citizen as second rate because of the constant pandering.
    So the only play book we’ll see in the future is placing fear to the electorate while constantly lecturing them on how they need to run their lives. People are running away from that and the democrats still don’t see it.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/07/2017 - 12:53 pm.

    What shall it be?

    So what would that positive message Democrats want to bring to us be?

  9. Submitted by John Ferman on 03/12/2017 - 11:22 am.

    What I Didn’t Hear

    All rhrough the 2016 campaign I looked in vain for any Democrat tell what he/she saw as the main problems for the State and Country. What needed to be done and how what would work. We had a large class of people who felt they had been left out of recession recovery and the Democrats had no message, but we know who said he did. As to Democratic policies, they have been the result of consensus among many groups – that is the least common denominator. They should try using the principles of Informed Consent.

    Another of my gripes is the DFL is no longer inclusive. Just witness where precinct caucuses are no hekd as opposed to 10 years ago. Used to be wirhin walking distence, now you have to drive where there is little parking. That’s exclusive. My opinion on what convention delegates should stand for no longer matters. Independents where are you.

  10. Submitted by joseph olson on 03/12/2017 - 01:23 pm.

    Seven votes.

    Unmentioned is the FACT that Hillary Clinton only won in Minnesota by LESS than seven (7) votes per precinct. The tax, spend, and regulate message is wrong for 2018 no matter how right it may have neen in 1934. Times change, Party’s that don’t change, lose.

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