Party Animus

With the outcome all but determined on the first ballot, last weekend's DFL convention in St. Cloud was about as civilized as a war could get

Sometime around 9 p.m., during the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's gubernatorial-endorsement marathon last Saturday in St. Cloud, the forces of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey were set to collide--literally.

This year's convention fashion trend involved pasting together eight campaign signs in two rows of four, attaching them to a big wooden post like a sail to a Columbus-era square-rigger, and running around trying to catch the wind and delegates' attention. With Freeman gutting it out a few points below the 60 percent needed for endorsement, the atmosphere was choked with fatigue and tension: Could Humphrey hold the line in the eleventh hour? Skip's square-riggers were set to leave port.

One came barreling down the steep steps of the National Hockey Center, only to find the blocky form of Freeman himself in the way, as he schmoozed a delegate. A Freeman handler armed with nothing but her walkie-talkie headset froze, petrified, but the young Humphrey navigator twisted away from danger at the last instant. As the two underlings passed in the night, Freeman's aide reached out, unable to resist a free shot at her opponent.

She tickled him. He laughed and continued to rollick toward the convention floor.

Politics is war, but even the warriors were having a tough time generating animosity at a convention in which only one candidate had pledged to drop out if someone else was endorsed, and that candidate had a double-digit lead from the first ballot.

Given that the field of a half-dozen--Freeman, Humphrey, former state Sen. Ted Mondale, state Sens. Doug Johnson and John Marty, former state auditor Mark Dayton--would likely remain intact after the convention, what exactly did Freeman win by securing the endorsement on the 10th ballot?

Although editorialists at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press regularly bash the precinct caucus/convention system as unrepresentative of the general electorate, primary elections aren't much different. In a state of 4.6 million people, 3.4 million of whom are of voting age, only 400,000 are likely to go to the polls on September 15 to select the Democratic nominee. Pollsters estimate that in such a crowded field 100,000 may be enough to win the primary, and Freeman strategists point out that if history holds true, a big chunk of that number will overwhelmingly respond to the symbolism of endorsement: Since 1970 only one DFL gubernatorial endorsee has ever failed to win the primary.

"What matters is the perception within Democratic primary voters that Mike Freeman represents the historical values of the party, and that Mike is carrying on the tradition of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and hasn't faltered from that," explains one Freeman strategist, "whereas Ted [Mondale] and Skip no longer represent those values."

Minnesota House Speaker Phil Carruthers avoids the harsh spin but acknowledges that Freeman can expect what might be called the DFL's Reflex Vote. "Even though he's one of 'My Three Sons,' Mike is the least well-known," Carruthers notes, alluding to the illustrious DFL parentage of Humphrey, Mondale, and Freeman, whose father was governor of Minnesota in the late 1950s. "The endorsement brings him incredible visibility, thousands of volunteers, and he's on the sample ballot that people like my mother rely on when she goes to the voting booth."

Conspicuously absent from the speaker's list of attributes is money, which Freeman has had a hard time raising. "The fact is that the candidates have to raise money themselves," says Carruthers. "It's not like people are standing in line to hand it to you once you get endorsed."

This year, especially. Most of the party support an endorsee receives comes from three power funders: organized labor and Democratic millionaires Vance Opperman and Mark Dayton. Dayton, however, is running a quixotic anti-insider gubernatorial candidacy of his own (he's gone through campaign managers like a flu sufferer demolishes a box of Kleenex), and Opperman is Humphrey's biggest backer--so much so that one Freeman partisan described the joy of his man's victory as "stuffing a billionaire."

Labor, many say, will also sit on its collective wallet. Humphrey campaign chair Opperman points out that both Freeman and Humphrey have long pro-labor records. "Labor won't spend dollars in a meaningless primary," Opperman predicts. "They'll save it to take on [Republican front-runner] Norm Coleman."

Still, there may well be pressure from labor's membership ranks to do the traditional thing and fund the endorsed candidate. Though many labor chiefs, including powerful AFL-CIO head Bernie Brommer, campaigned stealthily for Humphrey, a majority of union delegates went for Freeman anyway. "In their hearts, the leaders want Freeman," says one veteran union organizer who asked not to be named. "But in their minds, they want Skip, with the tobacco settlement and poll numbers."

Ensuring labor's neutrality was so important, the organizer adds, that it helped explain Humphrey's choice for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Roger Moe. Given the convention's populist leanings, picking the quintessential coiffed legislative insider--Moe has logged 17 years as Senate majority leader--seemed odd. But Moe was meant less as a valentine to delegates than a warning shot to party power blocs.

"Moe freezes the unions out of the primary," the union organizer explains. "If you're a union, you don't want to give money to oppose a guy who, if the Republicans win, could still be Senate majority leader--and the most powerful Democrat in the state--when the next legislature opens."

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