State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge has always built on her ambitions carefully, one small step at a time. Her prudent ascent into the state's rarefied political altitudes has garnered the 16-year legislative vet a coveted spot among Majority Leader Roger Moe's most trusted lieutenants, and it also served her well as she worked to capture the DFL endorsement for attorney general in the race to succeed Skip Humphrey, who is stepping down to run for governor.
When Junge beat out rivals Mike Hatch and David Lillehaug and snared the endorsement on the first ballot at the party's state convention in St. Cloud last month, political handicappers assumed the September 15 DFL primary election was hers to lose. But a mere six weeks later, a chorus of whispers has arisen among many of those same pundits that Junge's painstaking political climb may be followed by a painful plummet.
A whoosh of air went out of Junge's campaign balloon on July 8, when U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone--the DFL's highest-ranking officeholder and most influential politician--declared himself neutral in the race, opting, for the first time in his political career, not to honor the party's endorsement out of deference to his friend Lillehaug. Two days later brought more deflating news: A statewide poll commissioned by the Republican candidate, Charlie Weaver, revealed that Junge is known to only 14 percent of those who identify themselves as DFL supporters--as opposed to 54 percent name recognition for Hatch, former Minnesota commissioner of commerce, and 42 percent for Lillehaug, who recently resigned his post as U.S. attorney to enter the race.
There's also a widespread feeling among insiders that Junge has been running a lackluster campaign. "You see Lillehaug on the news hammering against the Koch refinery, and Hatch is getting plenty of ink taking on the HMOs. Meanwhile it's like Where's Waldo?--everybody's wondering, 'Where's Ember?'" says one DFL party stalwart who once worked for Junge and is now supporting Lillehaug.
"There are a lot of whispers and definitely some concern in all circles [of the party] whether Ember has done enough to solidify her support to the point she has what it will take to win," adds Blois Olson, who worked on Junge's campaign earlier in the year and still supports her candidacy. "I think the race is still salvageable for Ember. She just has to get out and get her message to the voters."
Junge took a step in that direction last Thursday when she announced her intention to create a five-member community crime-fighting tactical team within her first 100 days as attorney general. Under questioning from reporters, however, the candidate conceded that she would rely on the communities themselves to help finance the initiative through grants. She also acknowledged that the attorney general doesn't have the authority to compel judges to take their trials out of the courthouses and into libraries and other community areas, a key element of her proposal.
Junge bristles at the suggestions that her candidacy has stalled. "I have a network of over 150 elected officials speaking to their constituents on my behalf, plus endorsements from most of the labor groups, including the AFL-CIO," she says, adding that the name-recognition poll "was taken by my Republican opponent, who wants to weaken the most formidable DFL candidate, and that's me. I am very well-positioned for the primary."
In traditional political terms, that is certainly true. Junge is a female candidate who's been endorsed by her party and who is running against two white males in a race in which approximately 58 percent of likely voters are women, according to historical precedent and current projections. There is also the sample ballot bearing the names of all the party's endorsed candidates which is handed out by volunteers outside the polling places on primary day.
But the sample ballot is about the only boost Junge can rely on from her party. DFL endorsement used to guarantee a candidate a crucial edge, by supplying money and volunteers to staff phone banks and blanket precincts on election day. But not so this year. Junge and her fellow endorsees will be without the largesse of the state's three most prolific DFL contributors. Media mogul Vance Opperman told Junge to take his name off all of her literature; Opperman, a key figure in Humphrey's gubernatorial run, is remaining neutral in the attorney general race. Attorney Sam Kaplan, another top party rainmaker, has thrown his monetary might behind Lillehaug. And Mark Dayton is withholding his party contributions as he pursues his own unendorsed bid for governor.
And when it comes to volunteers, both Hatch and Lillehaug enjoy support from key constituencies within the DFL rank and file. A highly popular and successful party chairman in the early 1980s, Hatch retained the loyalty of many DFL precinct and district officials, especially around his native Duluth and in rural Minnesota. As one Lillehaug supporter puts it, "There are senior citizens and old-time party guys out there who will vote for Hatch until the day they die."
Lillehaug, meanwhile, figures to snare many of the Wellstone loyalists who re-invigorated the party's cadre of grassroots organizers during the Senate races of 1990 and 1996--Lillehaug was one of them in 1990. In addition to having fundraiser Kaplan in his corner, Lillehaug also has the support of high-profile Wellstone allies Jim McCorkell (a former deputy fundraiser for Wellstone who now serves as Lillehaug's campaign manager) and former Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett. In fact, so confident is Lillehaug that he's already hinting that Wellstonians employed by the party will be less than enthusiastic on behalf of Junge. "I don't want to get anybody in any trouble--people are obviously going to do their jobs," the candidate says coyly. "But let's just say that I'm comfortable that I will have some support among those within the structure of the party."