At the DFL-sponsored forum of St. Paul mayoral candidates at Concordia University last week, it was the big question, the one everybody was waiting for:
“Will you suspend your campaign if someone other than you is endorsed by the DFL?” MPR reporter Tim Nelson asked the four Democratic candidates.
How the candidates answered that question, after all, could influence how much support a candidate could get among those attending DFL caucuses and ward conventions that begin this Saturday, April 22.
“Undecided,” said former school board member Tom Goldstein.
“Yes,” responded Melvin Carter III, the former council member from Ward 1.
“Yes,” said Dai Thao, the current council members from Ward 1.
“No,” said former Ward 3 council member Pat Harris.
At an event sponsored by the DFL, the “correct” answer is always yes. But the query and the responses spoke to a much larger issue for the party — and the city: How much does it matter anymore?
An unlikely decision
The DFL dominates St. Paul politics. The current mayor and all seven council members are all members of the party, and an endorsement in the open mayor’s race would likely do much to boost a candidate in a crowded field of six candidates, especially since — based on last week’s debate before the party faithful — a voter might need dental floss to find any separation between the candidates on many of the issues.
So there is some risk to a candidate who doesn’t agree to abide by the endorsement process. It could cost them the support of DFLers who think the party should pick the nominee — that DFL candidates should abide by the local party’s wishes.
But in a city where the DFL dominates, a solo endorsement in a crowded field could also, in effect, turn over the choice of the next mayor to the relatively small number of DFL activists who attend the party’s caucuses and city convention. That’s what happened in 2015, when a group of St. Paul Board of Education incumbents — all of whom had agreed not to run in the general election without the party’s stamp of approval — were denied the DFL endorsement in favor of other candidates.
That’s unlikely to happen this year. Under St. Paul DFL rules, a candidate needs to get the votes of 60 percent of delegates at the city convention to secure the endorsement. But with four of the six announced mayoral candidates in St. Paul seeking the DFL endorsement, and all four of those running rigorous campaigns, it will be difficult for any one of them to reach the 60 percent threshold. And with no endorsement, all four candidates would be free to continue to the November election without repercussions from miffed DFL activists.
Even Carter and Thao, both of whom promised to get out of the race should someone else get the endorsement, would be off the hook. And there will be at least two other candidates on the November ballot regardless of the DFL actions. Elizabeth Dickinson is running as a Green Party member, and Tim Holden is running as an Independent.
St. Paul city elections are non-partisan, at least according to the city charter. And because St. Paul, like Minneapolis, uses ranked-choice voting, there is no primary election, so all candidates who file for mayor will appear on the ballot together — without party label.
Even when St. Paul still had a primary and general election, however, the primary was ostensibly non-partisan, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the general election in November.
That hasn’t stopped political parties from becoming an unofficial overlay on city elections. “Under the First Amendment, they are free to associate with whatever party they want to and they are free to seek the endorsement and the support of political parties,” said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections manager, which manages St. Paul city and school elections.
So the parties are free to support or oppose whichever candidate they want to — and to pressure non-endorsed candidates not to file with Mansky’s office once filing starts, on August 1.
At the candidate forum last week, while encouraging people to attend the party’s precinct and ward meetings, St. Paul DFL Chair Libby Kantner compared the DFL endorsement to an organic certification on produce at the grocery store: a label that some shoppers use to choose among products. “Our endorsed candidates will have the certified organic marking,” she said. “And you can choose who gets that certification.”
Kantner said the St. Paul DFL has tried to make the endorsement process easier and more accessible. All precinct and ward meetings will be held on weekends, starting Saturday. And the precinct caucuses are being held on the same day and at the same site as ward conventions.
She said that while St. Paul elections are nonpartisan, the party “believes every election is an opportunity to stand up for our values. The DFL endorsement process helps voters learn which candidate best represents the value of local Democrats.”
How RCV affects endorsements
Should someone win the DFL endorsement for St. Paul mayor, they would qualify for party support in the form of access to voter lists, help with volunteer recruitment and campaign materials. The last time there was a contested mayoral election, in 2005, the DFL-endorsed Chris Coleman defeated incumbent Randy Kelly by more than 35 points, in an election in which more than 59,000 votes were cast. (The last time there was an open seat in a St. Paul mayor’s race was 2001.)
But with both St. Paul and Minneapolis having switched to a ranked-choice voting, some argue the endorsement simply doesn’t matter as much anymore. When Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds announced last month that she would not take part in the Minneapolis DFL endorsement process, for example, she cited RCV as one reason for her decision. “In the advent of ranked-choice voting, there is simply no need for a DFL endorsement process anymore,” she said. “[RCV] is much more democratic, it’s open to the voices of the people and you get to choose from the best candidates, not just those who won the DFL beauty contest.”
Under RCV, voters rank the candidates who are their first, second and third choice. If nobody on the ballot gets a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate who receives the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and his or her second-choice votes are applied to the remaining candidates — a process that’s repeated until there’s a winner.
The St. Paul DFL has a mixed record on RCV. Kantner said the local party endorsed the concept in 2007 but did not endorse it in 2009, when it appeared on the ballot and was passed by St. Paul voters. (An endorsement of RCV has been part of the state DFL platform since 2012.)
Kantner said her board is split on RCV. “I assume there will be resolutions both for and against introduced at precinct caucuses,” she said.
She said those opposed to RCV feel that it weakens the role of the DFL, but the party is not behind an effort to place RCV on the ballot again for the purpose of repealing it.
Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, agrees, saying the repeal effort appears to be the work of DFL activist and St. Paul Charter Commissioner Chuck Repke. The move, which has been criticized by groups such as St. Paul Strong for lack of transparency, has caught the attention of the St. Paul City City Council, which will discuss the issue Wednesday.
Massey said RCV “has played into the narrative of the weakening endorsement, but is not propelling it.
“The stakes are too high to endorse with strong competing interests in the city for the top office,” Massey continued. “The divisions are within the DFL party label, not between DFL and GOP or other parties.”