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Eighth District DFL convention ends with no endorsement

MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh
Leah Phifer had the advantage of a five-month head start over the four candidates who jumped into the race.

For over 10 hours, Democrats met in a basement ballroom of a downtown Duluth hotel working to endorse a candidate to carry the party banner in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, an open-seat race that both parties consider a must-win in November.

Ultimately, DFL delegates couldn’t reach a consensus: none of the five candidates in the running reached the required 60 percent threshold of support needed to clinch the party’s official endorsement.

Now, it’ll take an August primary to determine which of these Democrats earns the chance to compete in the general election — and that primary has the potential to showcase the party’s rifts on issues like mining and immigration, which were on full display at Saturday’s convention.

According to the convention rules, if no candidate reached 60 percent by the 10th ballot, delegates could vote to not endorse anyone. By 7:30, the majority of the 170 delegates in attendance had voted not to endorse after a lengthy stalemate between two candidates with the most support, Leah Phifer and Joe Radinovich.

Phifer, a college professor who previously worked at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, initially entered the race to challenge incumbent DFL Rep. Rick Nolan.

When Nolan announced his retirement in February, Phifer had the advantage of a five-month head start over the four candidates who jumped into the race afterward. It showed on Saturday: her blue-shirted supporters were a vocal presence in the convention hall, and she got the most votes of any candidate on each of the 10 ballots.

But Phifer’s background as an ICE employee revealed a deep rift on immigration: members of the Latino DFL Caucus protested her candidacy and urged delegates to reject her in a speech from the floor, one of the convention’s most dramatic moments.

The first ballot, sent out just before noon, saw Phifer take the plurality of delegates, with just over 44 percent. Radinovich was behind her with 26.5 percent, and state Rep. Jason Metsa, of Virginia, took 20 percent.

Two candidates — Kirsten Kennedy and Michelle Lee — failed to even break five percent on the first ballot, which dropped them from the next ballot. Kennedy, the mayor of North Branch, thanked her supporters in a brief address, while Lee, formerly a veteran TV news anchor in Duluth, said in a defiant speech that she would not abide by the party’s endorsement and would move to a primary, prompting boos and jeers from the crowd.

Later in the afternoon, Radinovich — a former state representative from Crow Wing County who left his job as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to run for this seat — got what his campaign hoped would be a boost: an official endorsement from Nolan, who was not in attendance but weighed in on the race from afar. (Radinovich managed Nolan’s successful 2016 re-election.)

Joe Radinovich
MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh
Later in the afternoon, Joe Radinovich — a former state representative from Crow Wing County who left his job as chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to run for this seat — got what his campaign hoped would be a boost: an official endorsement from Rep. Rick Nolan.

Frey, who traveled to Duluth to work the floor for Radinovich, got on top of a chair with a hand-written sign broadcasting Nolan’s endorsement to the delegates. But ultimately, Nolan’s support was not enough for Radinovich to eclipse Phifer.

The party’s failure to endorse allows Radinovich, who promised to abide by the endorsement, to move on to a primary. Phifer’s campaign was angling hard for the endorsement; she told MinnPost she would “take a beat” after the convention to assess her campaign, but she said she intends to move on to the primary. Metsa told MinnPost he will make a decision on a primary run soon, while Lee is expected to move onto a primary. Kennedy did not announce if she would move on to a primary.

Republicans cast shadow over convention

Looming large over the convention was a candidate who wasn’t even in the room: Republican Pete Stauber, who is a lock to earn the CD8 Republican Party endorsement. Democrats are concerned that a bitter and drawn-out primary will give Stauber time to raise money and consolidate support, boosting his campaign to win this seat in November.

National Republicans like Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner who formerly served with the Duluth Police Department, and they view CD8 as one of their best pick-up opportunities in the entire country. President Donald Trump won here by 15 points in 2016, and Republican candidates are making inroads in places like the Iron Range, which has been a DFL stronghold for the better part of the century. Nolan’s retirement, in the eyes of the GOP, only increased their chances of flipping CD8.

“If we let this division continue,” one delegate said on the floor before the decision to not endorse, “Pete Stauber is going to take this seat from us.”

Addressing delegates earlier in the afternoon, Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin urged delegates to unite behind a candidate. “If we come out of here divided, we’re not going to win,” he said.

Nevertheless, CD8 Democrats cast their inability to endorse as a symptom of the party’s strength, not weakness, and most remained confident the DFL can hold this seat even after a tough primary.

State Rep. Mike Sundin said a primary is “not a doom and gloom thing by any means… There’ll be a robust contest with a strong finisher, ready for the ultimate contest with Pete Stauber. This might be our opportunity to engage more people and keep them engaged through the whole process.”

Other delegates were uneasy at the prospect of a protracted DFL battle while Stauber glides toward the fall election. Jacob Littler, a DFL delegate from Virginia, said all five DFL candidates have a chance to compete in the primary. “A lot of it is going to come down to money,” he said.

“Unfortunately, that’s going to have to be a part of the decision for DFL primary voters. Who can raise three to four million dollars in the race against Pete Stauber? It sucks, but that’s the system we built.”

“The one thing,” he added, “is if we can keep it from becoming too negative.”

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 04/15/2018 - 05:00 am.

    Joe Radinovich should run in the primary

    I’m just not seeing how 169 people in a district of 700,000 is indicative of anything,especially seeing as the snowstorm probably kept many non-Duluth based people home. I also don’t see how Leah appeals to moderate voters as she has the OurRev anchor. And with her ICE history many liberal/progressive voters will go Radinovich. Also consider; he lost to Dale Lueck by 3 points in 2014. In a GOP wave year, in a senate district that is much more conservative than the congressional district as a whole. This guy’s the real deal, and he’s never defended ICE or called anyone a bad hombre, like another someone in this race (yes, Leah used that term in the op-ed she wrote)

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/15/2018 - 09:43 am.


      Radinovich is a great guy. And Pfifer is unfit to be the nominee. At least the DFL nominee.

      • Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 04/15/2018 - 04:56 pm.

        Metsa and Kennedy would also be good

        I think they know how to win moderate/conservative Democrats on the Range and in the Crow Wing/North Branch/Mille Lacs area without defending ICE. Just not Leah Phifer, because honestly, she won’t appeal to anyone outside of OurRev. Btw, i’m still pretty soured by their Leah endorsement. Apparently endorsing an ICE Agent is what’s “progressive” these days

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/16/2018 - 09:30 am.

          Our Revolution

          That group, which is really a lot of diverse small groups, has made lots of questionable endorsements all over the country (Dennis Kucinich?). I don’t think you can take them seriously.

  2. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 04/15/2018 - 10:53 am.

    Support for Radinovich

    I sat near Joe on the House floor and he is a super public servant. Smart and thoughtful. 8th district couldn’t do better.

  3. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 04/15/2018 - 08:04 pm.

    Unfair to Pfifer?

    In the MinnPost piece she said this: During my time there, I met some “bad hombres” – pedophiles, rapists and violent felons.” We can’t pretend all undocumented immigrants are saintly, and she did use quotation marks to set herself apart from Trump. And she went on to talk about the people she helped. She noted,” I’ve been both a proud bleeding heart and an ardent enforcer of the law…. I support the ACLU. I’ve drafted Warrants of Deportation and shed tears of joy at a naturalization ceremony, often in the same day.”

    I’m not sure whom I’ll contribute to in the primary race, but I’m troubled by painting Pfifer as unfit because she worked for ICE. Frankly, Obama’s record on deportations has always troubled me. I can’t reconcile the man I miss every single day with the man who presided over what I see as a harsh record on deportations.

    It’s true that we’ll lose the 8th District seat if we get embroiled in ugly accusations, so let’s just be for our candidate and not bitterly opposed to another Democrat.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/16/2018 - 09:25 am.

      Beyond unfit

      A lot of people were deported under Obama, but the policies and behavior of ICE under Trump are completely different. And it was in the context of Trump that she wrote the awful piece.

      Its not the accusations that are ugly – its Pfifer as a candidate that is ugly. We’ll lose the 8th unless we are bitterly opposed to someone as awful as Pfifer. And if she’s nominated, we are probably better off losing the seat for a term rather than having someone so morally bankrupt elected as a DFLer.

      • Submitted by Marc Post on 04/16/2018 - 10:38 am.

        Channeling the Current Occupant

        “Unfit”, “Awful”, “Ugly”. The Dems really do eat their young. This is why they do, and will, lose.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/16/2018 - 11:34 am.


          You understand that the backlash against Pfifer comes from her own words, right? She made it very clear that she is unfit for office. Some candidates are so bad they need to be eaten. Failure to do so is why the Dems lose

          • Submitted by Marc Post on 04/16/2018 - 02:21 pm.

            I understand you don’t like her words. That’s your opinion and your are entitled to it. I take the opinion of anyone who used words like “Awful”, “Unfit”, and “Ugly”, as you have, as unworthy of consideration. That’s the bullying behavior that is the trademark of the Currant Occupant.

            I look forward to the primary. I will support the candidate that wins. I won’t help the Republicans by name calling and acting like a bully towards DFL candidates. I think most Dems are better than that.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/16/2018 - 03:22 pm.

              No you don’t

              Its not that I don’t just like her policies – the Democratic party is necessarily diverse ideologically. But there are some candidates that stretch the bounds of basic human decency.

              Its not the words describing Pfifer that are Trump-like / its Pfifer’s work for ICE and her defence of Trump’s ICE actions. That is actual bullying – not name calling – racism and tearing familes apart. I’m just just calling out Pfifer’s bullying.

              Name calling doesn’t help Republicans. Supporting a miserable candidate like Pfifer does. If she’s the nominee, DFLers need to think long and hard about the damage she would do to the party and just sit this one out. We are better off losing the seat for 2 years than electing her.

              • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 04/17/2018 - 01:26 pm.

                Underestimating the power of incumbency

                This is a purple district. Lose it now and it might be lost for 20 years.

      • Submitted by John Eidel on 04/18/2018 - 08:34 am.

        As I understand it…

        Pfifer was a translator at ICE, and was employed there during the Obama Administration. Is acting as a translator for detainees and helping them navigate the process the same thing as kicking in doors and staking out restaurants to round up illegals? I would say no. I have read her MinnPost piece, and the part about her buddies slipping cash into pockets of detainees after an immigration raid definitely provoked some eye rolling. However, that piece was written right after the Trump inauguration; one could argue that the context of her piece was rooted more in Obama era policy than that of Trump. Obama was fairly deportation happy as well, but it wasn’t done with the apparent glee and enthusiasm of the Trump Era ICE. I would be curious as to whether she still feels the same way about ICE and its tactics after a year of observation. All in all, I would say that Eighth District voters deserve an explanation of her views but that a few years working as a translator for ICE is not an automatic disqualification.

  4. Submitted by B. Dalager on 04/15/2018 - 08:29 pm.


    If JoeRad had gotten in as early as Leah, he would have walked away with the endorsement.

  5. Submitted by Cathy Erickson on 04/15/2018 - 10:35 pm.


    Based on the past several elections, the 8th District has been about half DFL, half Repub…and in an off Presidential year, about 270,000 voters (of around 660,000) went to the polls. (Found info on Ballotpedia)

    So if we are looking at around 140,000 potential DFL voters, what/who do they want to vote for?

    In seeing the numbers, it is interesting that the endorsement process relied on less than 170 people that could have shaped the decision for 140K others. Or will this election generate more turnout?

    Is polling data out there based on the issues (and demographics) that would let the DFL know what a candidate needs to represent in order to win this District? Or what a candidate shouldn’t represent?

    Looking forward to learning more.

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