Invisible Man

Jerry Janezich is staking his U.S. Senate campaign on a populist message and the DFL endorsement. But will any of that matter without TV ads?

It's August 22--three weeks to the day before voters in Minnesota's DFL primary are to decide who will face incumbent U.S. Senator Rod Grams in the November election--and a tired-looking Jerry Janezich has spent the day scurrying from one campaign event to the next: a two-hour interview with the Star Tribune editorial board; a radio Q&A at KFAI; a few hours of flesh-pressing at a Communications Workers of America union picnic. Now, just after 7:00 p.m., he's arrived an hour late at a south Minneapolis fundraiser.

A veritable who's who of DFL establishment types have turned out for the event, which is hosted by Hennepin County commissioner and long-time Janezich supporter Peter McLaughlin. Senator Paul Wellstone, the party standard-bearer, is here. So are Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, her predecessor Don Fraser, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar and dozens of other minor and major players, all lining up in a show of support for their party's endorsed candidate.

After a rousing introduction from Wellstone, the fatigue seems to drain away from Janezich's face. He steps to the center of the lawn and addresses the 50 or so assembled faithful. He speaks in a thick Northern Minnesota accent and with an unpolished simplicity. He offers thanks for the contributions (the fundraiser will net a relatively modest $4,000). And then he commences pounding away at a favorite theme--the need to take money out of politics. "Politics should be about people. The constitution says, 'We the people,' it doesn't say, 'We the money,'" he says, thrusting a fist in the air for emphasis. He doesn't mention any of his major DFL rivals by name--department-store heir Mark Dayton, trial-attorney Mike Ciresi and construction-company executive Rebecca Yanisch. But when Janezich says, "I'd hate like hell for Minnesota to send another millionaire to Washington," it's clear he's not talking about Rod Grams.

In the flesh: Jerry Janezich presses his case at the Minnesota State Fair
Daniel Corrigan
In the flesh: Jerry Janezich presses his case at the Minnesota State Fair

A two-term state senator from the Iron Range city of Chisholm and part owner of a bar there, Janezich is, by necessity, running an old-style campaign. He's got 6,000 lawn signs up around the state, has made innumerable appearances at parades and other public events, and has rounded up scads of labor endorsements. He recently embarked on a relatively modest "targeted" radio campaign--costing some $60,000--to emphasize his regular-Joe status.

But he remains the only major DFL candidate not to air television advertisements, having raised to date a total of some $400,000, far short of the earlier announced goal of $1 million. His better-heeled opponents, meanwhile, have taken to the airwaves with unprecedented zeal. "This kind of television presence in Minnesota is a new phenomenon," observes Jon Youngdahl, a labor organizer and long-time DFL activist. We've never seen a primary like this before." Though precise numbers are not available, both Dayton and Ciresi are expected to spend as much as a quarter- million dollars a week on television in the final weeks leading up to the election. The Yanisch campaign, meanwhile, which just unveiled its latest round of ads, is planning an aggressive push as well.

In a race where the candidates' ideological differences come in shades of gray, name recognition may rule the day--and that poses a problem for Janezich. Despite his popularity with party insiders (he led on all nine ballots at the party's endorsing convention in June), he is not well known by the larger electorate. The most recent poll results, released this past Friday, place Dayton in the lead in the DFL primary with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Ciresi with 18 percent, Janezich with 17 percent, and Yanisch with 13 percent.

"If Jerry wins, people are going to say money isn't as important as the pundits and the political professionals say it is," says Randy Schubring, Janezich's campaign manager. But, Schubring adds. "If Jerry doesn't win, what does that say for the regular person who doesn't have millions of dollars of their own money to put into a campaign?" Still, he contends that primary polls are notoriously unreliable, and often underestimate the turnout out on the Iron Range, where Janezich has his strongest support. In addition, he says, endorsed candidates generally receive a 10 percent to 20 percent election-day boost. (In the 1994 DFL gubernatorial primary, for instance, endorsed candidate John Marty polled in third place on the week of the primary, a full ten percent behind the leader, but pulled out a narrow victory.)

But others in the DFL note that the value of party endorsement isn't what it used to be. "There are those in the party who are throwing up their hands and saying, 'Why should we bother with endorsement,' that it's a dead idea," says Mary McEvoy, associate chair of the state DFL. Two years ago, Mike Freeman, the DFL's endorsed gubernatorial candidate, lost to Skip Humphrey in a hotly contested primary battle. In that primary, the DFL state apparatus offered little in the way of practical support for Freeman--a break with the long-standing tradition of getting the party machine behind its endorsed candidates. McEvoy, who worked in the Freeman campaign, says the party is backing Janezich more aggressively than it did Freeman, but the efforts still lag behind traditional levels.

Nationwide, the importance of party endorsement has declined in recent years, too, according to Norman Ornstein, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. "It's rare nowadays to see a primary where at least one of the candidates isn't a multimillionaire, and they don't need endorsements," he says. "They can afford to buy television time, which is the dominant way most people get their information about politics, so now, far more often than not, endorsement doesn't mean very much." The DFL primary, he adds, will provide "a good test case to see whether a candidate can actually win without television."

Regardless of who prevails in the primary, he adds, the failure of the party to coalesce behind a single candidate just seven weeks before the general election could have adverse consequences for the DFL. "Last winter, the perception was that Rod Grams started out as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the Senate," Ornstein says. "If you were to handicap it now, he would be in the top five, but he wouldn't be the most vulnerable. And for one reason: this fractured DFL process."

That has some DFLers calling for a return to first principles. "The party has to get back to some fundamentals to make endorsements matTabide by endorsement is to make it very difficult to beat an endorsed candidate," says Michael Krause, former chair of the Minneapolis DFL. "We are still an unusual state because our system allows someone like Paul Wellstone or Jerry Janezich to run and be a viable candidate, and Jerry is still a viable candidate only because he's endorsed and this is a four-way race. But there's a reason why 85 out of 100 people in the Senate are millionaires. Other states don't have the same kind of mechanisms. Whether ours is going to survive, I guess only time will tell."

For Janezich, the remaining time until the election will be spent, he says, meeting as many people as he can, practicing politics on the retail level. After the fundraiser at McLaughlin's house, he and his staffers head off to a second event held at the Van Dusen Mansion and Conference Center in Minneapolis. It's a meet and greet aimed primarily at the city DFL's gay and lesbian community, with a nicely catered spread of hors d'oeuvres, wine, and beer. As it turns out, only a handful of people show up. A snafu with the mailing lists, a campaign staffer latter theorizes. Still, Janezich hangs around for about an hour, manning the keg and talking about the state of his campaign. "Bet you've never had a beer poured by your next United States senator," he tells one guest.

A few months ago he says he was despairing and faced with a tough decision. Some of his advisors, worried about the daunting television campaigns launched by the Dayton and Ciresi campaigns, were encouraging him to lay off some people in the campaign in hopes of husbanding resources for a last-minute TV push. Janezich says he struggled with the issue. "I called my wife, and she told me to just do what I thought was right," he recalls. Afterwards, he was bleakly flipping through the TV stations, landed on C-Span, and caught a tape of a John Kennedy speech. It was from 1960.

Janezich had heard the speech as a boy--in fact, he says, it's what inspired him to enter politics in the first place. He took it as a sign. He called his wife back, and decided then and there that he would forego television ads in the primary. "I told her, That's just not me," he says. "That goes against everything I believe in."

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