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Anatomy of campaign hit literature: How a vote engineered in June gets weaponized in October

A GOP campaign mailer says a DFL lawmaker in the Minnesota House “stood with the criminals,” and “voted to allow our cities to defund our police.” Is that a fair critique — or a massive stretch? 

The mailer sent to voters in District 38B, the suburban east metro district where DFLer Ami Wazlawik is trying to defend the seat she took from Republicans in 2018.
The mailer sent to voters in District 38B, the suburban east metro district where DFLer Ami Wazlawik is trying to defend the seat she took from Republicans in 2018.

It’s a familiar part of campaign season: negative mailings that accuse opponents of voting wrong or committing other nefarious acts.

Some emerge organically from the lives and votes of elected officials, many of whom take hundreds of votes, not all of them popular. But others are the result of planning, orchestrated efforts often set up long before an election, forcing a politician to take a “bad vote” that can be deployed come campaign season.

This is the story of one such vote — and one such negative campaign mailer. Call it Anatomy of Campaign Hit Lit.

The mailer was sent to voters in District 38B, the suburban east metro district where DFLer Ami Wazlawik is trying to defend the seat she took from Republicans in 2018. She faces GOP nominee Elliot Engen.

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“When violent rioters burned down businesses, Ami Wazlawik stood with the criminals,” the front of the mailer says. On the back: “Ami Wazlawik agreed with the rioters and voted to allow our cities to defund our police.” It was mailed by the Republican Party of Minnesota and the House Republican Campaign Committee.

Another common feature of these hit pieces are footnotes with citations that support the claim. Sometimes it is a news article. Other times it is a record of a vote taken. In this case, the citation is “HJ 242, SS1, 6/18/20.” It would take an insider’s insider to be able to decipher that notation, but what it references is the House Journal, page 242, from the first special session of the Minnesota Legislature held on June 18, 2020.

A detail of the mailer featuring the citation.
A detail of the mailer featuring the citation.
Did Wazlawik actually vote to defund the police that day? 

It depends on your political party, apparently, and how you interpret a series of actions on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives. On the agenda that day was the House DFL caucus’ response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and their stated desire to reform policing and criminal justice. The bill, Senate File 104, was a Senate title but had House DFL reform language. It would pass on a party line vote, but was not agreed to by the GOP-controlled Senate, and it did not become law.

During the hours that the bill was being considered and debated, the GOP minority offered many amendments. Early on, Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, tried to amend the bill to prohibit cities from defunding or disbanding police departments unless they had first contracted with another police agency to provide public safety services.

Franson cited politician statements and news coverage out of Minneapolis that supported defunding the police department and repurposing money to other non-police public safety concepts. While such changes have not passed, House and Senate DFL members as well as Gov. Tim Walz tried to distance themselves from those demands. During the debate, Rep. Carlos Mariani, the St. Paul DFLer and lead on the police accountability bill, said “nothing in this bill disbands the police.”

But Republicans in the House and Senate had been raising the issue, citing local officials’ calls for it or saying that they would never agree to such a thing whether it was proposed in the Legislature or not.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, made a motion to have the Franson amendment ruled out of order, as it wasn’t “germane” to the underlying bill since it amended a section of statute that wasn’t referenced in the bill; such amendments would violate House rules.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, ruled that the Franson amendment was out of order and the House then rebuffed a GOP move to overrule the speaker’s decision on a party line vote. 

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A note here about House procedure and the politics at play: One of the games played in Legislatures, obvious only to most insiders, is to offer amendments that everyone knows will fail. And while both parties do it, it is more common among members of whatever party is in the minority: While they have little control over which bills are presented, they can offer amendments. And though many amendments are offered to make bills better — or at least more palatable to the member offering it — others are meant to force opposition lawmakers to take recorded votes that might look bad, especially in campaign mailings. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
Minnesota House rules try to blunt that tactic. Amendments must be presented by noon the day before a bill will be debated on the House floor, and amendments to those amendments must be available to all members by 6 p.m. This prevents the minority from surprising the majority; it also gives the majority time to offer its own amendments to blunt the impact of the original amendments or turn the tables on the minority. A poison pill amendment to an amendment, for example, often leads to the original amendment being withdrawn.

But during the 2020 special session of the Minnesota Legislature, those rules were suspended in order to allow bills to be debated, amended and passed on the same day. That made the floor action a little less predictable and required both parties to respond on-the-fly to amendments. 

That’s what happened in this case.

Later in the debate over the policing bill, House Deputy Minority Leader Ann Neu, R-North Branch, offered another amendment to do what the Franson amendment had tried. 

“A home rule charter or statutory city or town may not disband, abolish or defund the entity’s police department unless the local unit of government has entered into an agreement with a home rule charter or statutory city, town or the sheriff to furnish police services,” read the Neu amendment.

Hortman’s response: “It looks really familiar.”

No point of order was raised and the amendment was allowed to proceed, as was the DFL’s response: an amendment to the amendment that moved to delete everything after the word “unless” in the Neu language and insert instead, “it has made alternate arrangements to provide for public safety in that home rule charter or statutory city or town.”

Asked by Rep. Peggy Scott, R- Andover, what alternative means, Becker-Finn said it could include using mental health professionals to respond to cases where a disturbed person triggered a call for help.

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It was that amendment that came to a vote, and it was that amendment that Wazlawik and other now-targeted DFL incumbents voted yes on, on a party-line vote. Afterward, Neu withdrew the now-amended amendment without having it voted upon.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
So what was the point of all that? House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, made it clear that the purpose was to get DFL members on the record on the issue of disbanding or defunding police, even though the connection to that issue was less than obvious.

“Because that issue is so hot in the media right now and there’s been so much conversation about it, we thought it was appropriate that we just all go on record and take a vote to say we don’t think it’s right,” Daudt said. “Or, in the case that you do think it’s right and you vote the other way, you go on record saying a city can abolish their police department and put in something that’s not law enforcement.”

The yes vote by DFL members was on an amendment that ultimately did not make it into the bill — a bill that did not ultimately pass into law. Later, during the July special session, a compromise bill on police reform was passed by the House and Senate.

So is the GOP mailing a fair hit — or a stretch? 

Compare for yourself: 

This is what was voted on: “A home rule charter or statutory city or town may not disband, abolish or defund the entity’s police department unless it has made alternate arrangements to provide for public safety in that home rule charter or statutory city or town.”

And this, again, is how the mailing interprets that vote: “When violent rioters burned down businesses, Ami Wazlawik stood with the criminals.” And, “Ami Wazlawik agreed with the rioters and voted to allow our cities to defund our police.”

And that’s how a calculated legislative procedure in June becomes a negative campaign mailer in September and October.