No political candidate wants to learn that an apparently well-funded independent political committee has decided to help your opponent … and hurt you.
But the Minneapolis city council candidates who are in the crosshairs of a business-oriented committee called Minneapolis Works! are making the best of it, using the still-mysterious committee to motivate donors and volunteers against what they’re portraying as right-wing attack funded by big money, out-of-town interests.
“Be nice to raise enough to respond to all this Republican PAC money mailing against us,” Ward 7 council candidate Janne Flisrand tweeted recently, later adding: “Hey, I forgot to mention we hit our goal. Response mailer has been funded. You guys rock!”
That response mailer will attempt to point out where the Minneapolis Works! literature came from — and who is paying for it, said Flisrand. “We know that Minneapolis wants its leaders chosen by its voters and not by a conservative GOP PAC and not by big business interests,” she said.
The reference to “a conservative GOP PAC” comes from an email sent by Steve Minn, a developer and former Minneapolis City Council member who is one of the organizers of Minneapolis Works! In a message to potential donors, Minn said that donations could be made directly to the committee — or through the state business PAC Minnesota Jobs Coalition, which is known for backing Republican legislative candidates.
For all that, though — and while Minneapolis Works! was founded by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and business interests to support current city council members being challenged from their political left — all the candidates being backed by the committee are, in fact, DFLers. (UPDATE: Here is the finance report filed Tuesday afternoon with Hennepin County.)
They include the council member Flisrand is challenging in Ward 7, Lisa Goodman, along with Kevin Reich, Barbara Johnson, Blong Yang and John Quincy. The committee is also backing Tim Bildsoe, one of four candidates for the open Ward 3 position, and Mohamed Farah, who is challenging Council Member Alondra Cano in Ward 9. Johnson, Reich, Goodman and Quincy were all endorsed by the DFL in both 2013 and 2009.
From nice to ‘nuts!’
The first round of mailings by Minneapolis Works! was used to promote the candidates the committee is backing. “Barbara Johnson is focused on Minneapolis’ basic priorities like keeping our streets and neighborhoods clean and safe,” read one mailing in Ward 4. Another noted that Ward 3 candidate Bildsoe is “a progressive who gets things done.”
But subsequent mailings weren’t so positive. Ward 3 candidate Ginger Jentzen, for example, was the target of a postcard featuring a squirrel surrounding by acorns and peanuts. The headline: “Ginger Jentzen’s plan for Minneapolis is nuts!”
Ward 4 candidate Phillipe Cunningham was the target of a mailing calling him “an inexperienced politician who wants to raise taxes.” And in Ward 11, one mailing did two things at once: promoted Quincy while criticizing his two opponents, Jeremy Schroeder and Erica Mauter, both of whom, it claimed, “won’t keep Minneapolis affordable.”
Mauter said there have been five rounds of mailings sent in the ward over a 10 day-period: three promoting Quincy alone and two praising him while criticizing Mauter and Schroeder.
Mauter said she has used the presence of Minneapolis Works! in the ward to make direct appeals for donations and volunteers, but is trying to stick to her plan: speaking to as many voters as possible in person and on the phone. Yet Mauter said it’s important to let voters know what is going on, and called the spending by independent committees like Minneapolis Works! — which operate autonomously — “a big problem.”
“It is absolutely tied into the national political environment, and I worry that if we let this tactic succeed here in Minneapolis it will become a blueprint; it will for sure replicate in other places,” she said. “For that reason, it is imperative to continue to call out that it is happening.”
The other challenger in Ward 11, Schroeder, is a former executive director of Common Cause, and has been using the Minneapolis Works! effort to call for campaign finance reforms.
In Ward 3, Steve Fletcher has also used the presence of Minneapolis Works! to emphasize the importance of person-to-person contact among the volunteers who help him knock on doors and make phone calls. “We can really show them what we’re up against,” he says. “It is really motivating in that way. I think there are people who might have stayed home on their couch and have decided to get up and do a door-knocking shift because they are seeing something they think distorts democracy.”
Fletcher said he has made appeals to donors using the same motivation. But as someone who is experienced in retail-level politics, Fletcher knows that a lot of mail can be effective — especially with voters who can’t be reached in person.
For Jentzen, who’s also running in Ward 3, the mailings play directly into her campaign message. A member of the Socialist Alternative movement, Jentzen has stressed resisting the influence of developers and corporations, and has called for new taxes on corporate executives and developers to help pay for affordable housing projects.
In an appeal for donations, Jentzen recently tweeted: “A corporate lobbying PAC is pouring money into the #Mpls2017 elections. We can’t let them buy our elections.”
Jentzen and Mauter have organized a noontime rally for Wednesday at Minneapolis Works! organizer Minn’s Northeast Minneapolis office, during which they’ll return copies of the mailings. They’re calling the event “Send It Back To The Corporate PAC.”
A devil-you-know theory of political giving
There is no shortage of irony to go along with all the outrage in this chapter of the campaign. One is that Minneapolis Works (sans the ‘!’ and often shortened to MplsWorks) was also the name of a coalition that pushed for what was called the Working Families Agenda in the city. That set of policy goals included a local minimum wage ordinance and a local paid leave ordinance, as well as several other proposals that ultimately weren’t adopted, including one on wage theft and the scheduling of workers.
The business community opposed those efforts. Yet Minneapolis Works! is now sponsoring mailings that praise incumbents like Quincy and Johnson for voting for the paid leave ordinance.
Irony No. 2 is that the only thing some of the people behind Minneapolis Works! seem to dislike as much as the idea of a council made up of the candidates it opposes is a council made up of those currently on the Minneapolis City Council, many of whose members the committee is now trying to re-elect.
In an e-mail invitation the committee sent in August directed at people working in real estate in Minneapolis, the group noted that members of the city’s business community “haven’t and won’t always agree with city leadership.” Ordinances on the minimum wage, sick leave and a requirement that landlords accept public housing vouchers for rent “are prime examples of disappointing policies,” it says.
Still, the invitation said, city hall has been open to business concerns, a dynamic that could change depending on the outcome of the election. That perhaps explains why Minneapolis Works! would be spending so much money trying to re-elect council members who voted for ordinances that disappointed them so.
Irony No. 3 — the one that riles up the candidates being opposed by Minneapolis Works! the most — is the independent committee’s used of the word “progressive” in advocating for their preferred candidates. Depending on who is doing the defining, the incumbents being supported may or may not qualify. But some of the donors to Minneapolis Works! — at least those who are known — don’t exactly fit the bill.
Do the Koch brothers really care about Minneapolis?
At a press conference last week, TakeAction Minnesota tried to make the case that national conservative heavyweights like the Koch Brothers were meddling in Minneapolis city elections via Minneapolis Works! “It is two weeks from Election Day in Minneapolis and even the Koch Brothers want to be progressive,” said TakeAction executive director Dan McGrath. “Or at least that’s what they would like you to believe.”
The Minneapolis-Works!-as-conduit-for-Koch-brothers theory is something of a bank shot, and it goes like this: Because the Kochs have previously given money to the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, and because one of the fundraising pleas by Minneapolis Works! suggested that donors could give to the jobs coalition instead of directly to Minneapolis Works!, that means the jobs coalition is giving money previously collected — including from the Kochs — to shore up the council candidates Minneapolis Works! supports.
But that might be a stretch — or at least unprovable. The e-mail from Minneapolis developer Steve Minn that referenced the Minnesota Jobs Coalition asked for new contributions to either committee. And though a financial report for Minneapolis Works! that’s due Tuesday will show how much was transferred to the committee from the Jobs Coalition, it won’t show whether any money passed along comes from new contributions in response to Minn’s request or from money already on hand. The Jobs Coalition itself doesn’t have to report any of its activities until the end of the year.
And while the targeted candidates refer to Minneapolis Works! as “right wing,” “conservative” and “Republican,” many of the people who were invited to various meetings and to donate are familiar names in the DFL. Its formation likely reflects a split in the city DFL as much as an attempt by outsiders to influence city elections.
Which gets back to the problem of disclosure — of knowing who, exactly, is funding the mailers. At the time the last financial report for Minneapolis Works! was due, in early August, the only thing we knew was what its founders had contributed: $10,000 from developers Steve and Lucille Brown Minn; $1,000 from the Minneapolis Downtown Council’s political action committee; $500 from Downtown Council President Steve Cramer and $500 from Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce President Jonathan Weinhagen.
The next report is due Tuesday. That should give a more complete listing of donors and expenditures, give more details about the involvement of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition and show whether the committee’s efforts can fairly be dubbed right wing, conservative or even out-of-town.
But even that report will not reveal all the committee’s funding sources. It only covers the time between the last report of August 1 and Oct. 26. Any donations made after Oct. 26 will not be made public until the committee’s annual report that is due January 31.