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For mayoral candidates, St. Paul DFL convention is full of sound and fury, signifying … what, exactly?

The city’s DFL convention resulted in no endorsement for mayor, though it took a long time — and a lot of maneuvering — to get there.  

Even before he fell short of the 60 percent threshold on the fifth ballot, Melvin Carter III, left, knew the campaign would go on through the summer and fall.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Ten hours is a lot of time to spend doing nothing.

Yet after spending 10 hours in a St. Paul high school lunchroom, the city’s DFL Party organization failed to endorse one of the four men seeking a sole endorsement for mayor. That leaves Melvin Carter III, Pat Harris, Dai Thao and Tom Goldstein to file and run in November’s election without official DFL support — but also without incurring the ire of the party for ignoring an endorsement decision. 

While the city’s DFL convention resulted in no endorsement, it took a lot of activity among the 540 credentialed Democrats to do it. Carter’s campaign, which came in with the lead among the four, spent the day working to get him to the 60 percent majority needed for that endorsement. The other three campaigns worked just as hard to prevent him from getting there.

The latter group succeeded, despite losing a rules fight that gave Carter two extra hours to persuade supporters of the other three candidates to switch and support him.

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Carter’s vote percentages through four ballots were 47.26 percent, 50.57 percent, 51.7 percent, 52.2 percent. And as a 7 p.m. deadline for adjournment was just minutes away, Carter’s delegates chanted: “Endorse, endorse, endorse.” 

But after convention organizers managed to hustle through to a fifth and final ballot that was conducted before the deadline (though not counted until after) — and after Harris was forced off the ballot — Carter gained just seven votes, bringing his final percentage of the vote to 54.72. 

“To have worked all day long and to have this type of support here makes us very happy,” Carter said as the final ballot was being taken. “We just continue what has gotten us to here and we feel good.”

So about that promise to abide by the endorsement …

While the endorsement is an imprimatur that many voters look for in a strong DFL city like St. Paul, it would not have accomplished what party activists hope for. That is, the sort of seal of approval that all but elects the next mayor. 

That’s because several of the candidates made it clear they were going to stay in the race no matter what happened Saturday. When the candidates were asked if they would suspend their campaigns if someone else was endorsed, Harris repeated the answer he’s given since the start of the campaign: “No,” which drew a smattering of boos. Thao, who had been answering, “yes” up until Saturday, began a lengthy answer about how he had intended to say, “yes” but that recent events had changed his mind.

When the chair of the convention admonished him for not giving a yes or no answer, he said: “We’re in it to win it.”

Tom Goldstein will join five other candidates on the ballot this fall.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Tom Goldstein will join five other candidates on the ballot this fall.

Goldstein, who has said he is undecided, said he would react based on what the other candidates did. By then, however, he’d already heard two rivals say they wouldn’t abide by the endorsement.

Only Carter answered with one word: “Yes.”

So even before he fell short of the 60 percent threshold on the fifth ballot, Carter knew the campaign would go on through the summer and fall. After the last ballot, he knew he would do so as the front-runner, though not as the endorsed candidate.

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So all four men will be on the ballot for the nonpartisan office, along with Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson and independent candidate Tim Holden.

‘I’ve done nothing wrong’

During his remarks, Thao was cut off before explaining his change of mind on his pledge to honor the endorsement. But his convention speech earlier in the event suggested that he did so because of allegations recently made against him and his campaign. The incumbent St. Paul City Council member is currently being investigated by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for appearing to solicit a campaign contribution in return for reconsidering his position on an issue before the council. The allegation was made by a lobbyist who said Thao made the request both verbally to her and her clients, and via an email from his campaign manager.

Thao fired the campaign aide when confronted with the allegations in late April by FOX 9 reporter Tom Lyden. But he now claims the allegations are false, the work of unnamed political enemies. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” he told delegates while blaming the allegation on dirty tricks brought about because he is a threat to powerful interests in the state.

“No one should be surprised,” he said. “I’m not. When you’re fighting for the regular people, when you’re fighting for racial justice. Well, these are the things you should expect.” 

Yanez verdict weighs on convention

Friday’s acquittal of St. Anthony Park police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the death of Philando Castile was a constant topic of discussion for all the candidates at the convention, regardless of what office they were running for.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, whose decision to run for governor rather than for a fourth term is what created the open seat to lead the city, asked for a moment of silence at the convention’s start for Castile and his family. 

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who’s also running for governor, said social justice should be the No. 1 issue of that campaign. “Because if we don’t make social justice front and center in the governor’s race, it won’t matter who wins because we will all lose,” he said.

Rep. Erin Murphy, another candidate for governor, also addressed the Yanez verdict: “I also wonder whether I would look back on the day, yesterday, and remember where I was because it was a moment that transformed us and propelled us to deal with the biases and the systemic racism that is underneath the decision that we saw yesterday.”

One of the questions during the Q&A session asked candidates what specific actions they would take to prevent another death like Castile’s.

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Dai Thao
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
During his remarks, Dai Thao was cut off before explaining his change of mind on his pledge to honor the endorsement.

Thao cited the racial discrimination and biases facing blacks in St. Paul and elsewhere. “To solve that, we have to assure that people of color have access to good jobs, good housing, good opportunities, just like everybody else.” Goldstein spoke of changing police standards so that “not only police officers go home safe but that everyone goes home safe.”

“We can’t have officers on the force who panic because they see a black man who says he has a gun,” Goldstein said.

Carter — whose father, Mel Carter Jr., is a retired St. Paul police officer — called trust between cops and community “our most-sacred public safety asset.” But he said he doesn’t think it is possible to “train someone not to fill up a car, a family vehicle, with bullets. I think that goes to how we hold officers accountable and it goes to who we hire.”

Harris said the police department needs “to be fully reflective of this incredibly fabulous, diverse community that we have. We need to change those hiring practices and make sure that that happens.” And he too spoke of “being specific” about lifting people out of poverty. 

Rules fight signals a long day

The first clue that delegates were in for a long day was clear from the first dispute of the convention, which was pretty fundamental: Why were they there? Is the purpose of the convention to try to endorse a single candidate for mayor or not?

The answer might seem obvious for a gathering organized to give the DFL clout in city elections, since the best exercise of that clout is to put it behind a single candidate. But for delegates supporting a candidate who might not have enough backing to get the endorsement, the purpose of the convention becomes something else: trying to deny anyone the endorsement.

As such, there was a lengthy fight over the convention rules — specifically, what process would be required to endorse. Initially, the proposed rules said that if no candidate secured 60 percent of the delegates by 5 p.m., the convention would be declared deadlocked and everyone could go home. And since the rules made it likely that the three strongest candidates would remain in the running through all balloting, the results were likely to remain inconclusive.

That led to a move by Carter backers to amend those rules. The new guidelines would eliminate third- and fourth-place finishers more quickly and get to a two-person runoff, which would potentially allow one candidate to get to the 60 percent threshold needed for the endorsement. To make stalling a less-productive strategy, the rules also changed the potential time for adjournment to 7 p.m. if a majority was in support. 

The Carter rules passed 228 to 224. A second amendment said that a simple majority could adjourn the meeting at any time but that the convention must adjourn by 7 p.m. 

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MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Pat Harris, right, was forced off the nominating ballot after the fifth round.

That meant the endorsement battle could become a war of attrition. The candidate who could keep his delegates in the building had an advantage. But that didn’t work for Muslim delegates, who are in the midst of Ramadan and been fasting since sunrise, and would need to leave to prepare the iftar meal that breaks the daily fast.

It was a reminder of why not all Democratic activists are enamored of the endorsement conventions. One, Kyle Luebke, offered a resolution calling for the party to dump the process and go to a primary, where all Democrats could take part. He calls the current process exclusionary, citing the treatment of Muslims as just one example.

After succeeding in preventing an endorsement of Carter, Harris said he thinks the result is what voters prefer. “I just think that people wanted a community conversation all summer long and this fall,” Harris said. “That’s what people were looking at. The will of the people here was let’s just have everybody hit the streets and talk to people.”

UPDATE: This story was rewritten slightly to clarify the changes made to the rules.