Party Politics

The aura of democracy, the smell of cheap booze

Election-night galas. The glamour, the excitement, the catered dinners provided for non-print journalists. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the free-flowing booze that dulls both sensations.

The Republican, Democratic-Farmer-Labor, Independence, and Green parties have all arranged official election-night shindigs, open to the public but heavily populated with campaign aides, PR flacks, and volunteers. Still, the only thing that betrays the Green Party gathering at Open Book as anything other than a friendly get-together is the presence of two cameramen from local TV stations. It's as if I've stumbled upon a south Minneapolis house party: Small cliques have formed around the room, with conversation centered on careers, family, the weather. A string ensemble provides ambient background music while grassroots-organizer types wearing nametags nosh on homemade bars. TV sets flash the latest electoral college maps, but hardly anyone's watching. Garnering far more attention is Minnesota Greens founding member Cam Gordon, who invites everyone to think of a good deed done during the campaign and to publicly thank the responsible party.

They came, they watched TV, they went home: Doing the election-night shuffle with U.S. Senate candidate James Gibson (top) and spouses/still-incumbents Bill and Darlene Luther (bottom)
Teddy Maki
They came, they watched TV, they went home: Doing the election-night shuffle with U.S. Senate candidate James Gibson (top) and spouses/still-incumbents Bill and Darlene Luther (bottom)

By contrast, the mood at DFL bash central--a.k.a. the Radisson on Minnesota Street in downtown St. Paul--is neither relaxed nor upbeat. Despite Mark Dayton's already certain defeat of Republican incumbent Rod Grams, most of the would-be revelers have their eyes on the big prize. And as a Gore-Lieberman victory becomes increasingly unlikely on this night, the proceedings approach the social equivalent of Seconal.

Even the most proactive of the DFLers, decorated from head to toe in Minge and McCollum buttons, plop down near a TV monitor, shoulders slumped, teeth clenched. The only swingin' Democrats in sight are four labor-union guys, evidently stoked on more than election-night excitement, who're putting the moves on a trio of campaign volunteer coeds. "What dorm you live in?" the boldest of the middle-aged union men inquires. "Territorial," the threesome chirps in unison. "Oh, yeah, Territorial, that's a great dorm," one of the union worker's cohorts pipes up before draining a Miller Lite in one swig.

Blocks away, at the other downtown St. Paul Radisson, Minnesota's Republicans are making some noise. As 10:30 approaches, what began as an intimate, decorous rally has reached beer-bust proportions. Frat boys clad in power suits pour plastic cups full of Mondavi chardonnay down the throats of party girls in prom dresses. Primal shrieks shake the hotel ballroom as state-by-state reports of Bush-Cheney triumphs filter in courtesy of Peter Jennings and Co. Arrayed across the back of the room, the press contingent diligently captures it all, the floor around them an ankle-deep mire of electrical cords and fast-food wrappers.

True to their family-values platform, the Republicans have made this event an all-ages affair. Children scamper through the lobby, dodging empty bottles and cigar butts as they scan the carpet for stray campaign stickers. Even Little Miss Eden Prairie, stunning in her tiny tiara and sash (autographed by Governor Ventura), puts in an appearance, waving and smiling as she and her mom weave through the crowd.

While not as crowded, the Independence Party fete at Gabe's by the Park matches the Republicans for kegger ambiance. As Channel 9's Chelsea Irving grooms herself beneath the portable klieg lights for a quick interview with Senate candidate James Gibson, ponytailed barmaids push through the crowd with platters of burgers and overflowing bus tubs. Two young boys race around the room clutching sheets of notebook paper in their sweaty fists. "Are you a reporter?" the elder demands of yours truly. "Can we have your autograph?"

"My kids, you know, they're in college, so they had to vote for Nader," a bearded gentleman complains to a buddy.

"I voted for Nader," the friend replies indignantly.

"So Gore took Pennsylvania--do you think it's all over?" says the bearded man as he turns to a monitor, foot in mouth.

There's a buzz circulating that the governor may drop in tonight. A campaign volunteer shouts above the racket that Gibson is currently running third, showing seven percent in the exit polls, eliciting a lukewarm response, which suggests that Gibson rates third place here too, just behind beer and Ventura.

 

Free food and cash bars are not enough to drag your average Minnesotan out on a snowy Tuesday, but while they ain't no Paul Magers, the candidates rate celebrity status in Twin Cities terms. Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad, the popular Third District incumbent, delivers his polite but heartfelt acceptance speech early in the evening. Not all of Ramstad's peers are quite so tasteful. Second District challenger Mark Kennedy, locked in a dead heat with Democratic incumbent David Minge, has surrounded himself with a chanting, poster-waving entourage--presumably in case some citizens still don't recognize his goofus visage from his ubiquitous smear ads. Defeated candidates Rod Grams and Linda Runbeck make reluctant concession speeches to the still-adoring crowd, then vanish before reporters are able to interrogate them.

Meanwhile, at the other Radisson, a hurried shuffling of those wearing earpieces tells us somebody might finally bring some much-needed action to the DFL's so-called celebration. Bright lights and pushy newscaster elbows flank still-Congressman (by a whisker) Bill Luther and his wife, newly re-elected Minnesota Rep. Darlene Luther, along with their son Alex, as the trio is ushered past the riffraff to the podium. Golf-course applause and quiet chants greet the victorious Luther as he announces rival John Kline's concession in the most expensive Congressional race in state history: "We stopped them from buying a Congressional seat, lock, stock, and barrel! We won this for the good people of Minnesota, let's remember that!" But on a night like this, such an interlude is anticlimactic, and in the Luther family's wake, everyone adjourns for another round before plopping back down on the floor in front of the TVs.

James Gibson appears mildly flustered by the halo of interviewers and well-wishers that surround him at Gabe's, more like a nervous boy at his bar mitzvah than a politician at his campaign party. He smoothly recites stock answers to the questions posed by the press contingent, with no trace of the disarming stutter that was present during the watershed Fitzgerald Forum debate. "It's been a phenomenal experience, and I'm really pleased with the turnout," Gibson tells me. "I've been at this 20 months, it's come to a crescendo, and it's a relief to have it be over."

Minnesota Senate candidate Jim Pitham (whose mildly suggestive signs reading "Who's Your Senator?" decorated the Anoka County landscape this fall) is feeling the pressure a bit more than his comrade. "'Bout ready to start drinkin'," he whispers to Independence Party secretary Dick Dietz. "Hey, I give you permission," bellows Dietz, looking exceptionally casual in his plaid flannel. "Polls're closed."

The Green Party is not about names, celebrity politicians, or talking heads. The Green Party is about issues (and homemade bars). Which is why only warm, sincere applause greets Minnesota House candidate Holle Brian as she takes the mic. Brian has no real obligation to give a concession speech, given that she never expected to win. Her modest showing in the polls gives the Greens some credence, as well as some financial support. But the Greens' commitment to issues doesn't explain the slumber-party atmosphere when it's announced that the event is on a list of Green Party parties nationwide that will receive a phone call from Ralph Nader himself. To pass the time, several attendees attempt to call Winona LaDuke's house on the speaker phone, continuously redialing after busy signals, only to be disappointed when the hoped-for rings finally go unanswered.

In the absence of PR-groomed candidates to interrogate, I go looking for party head honchos. My search yields only people willing to talk if I agree not to refer to them as party head honchos. Green Party associate Tom Taylor doesn't waste a second when I ask exactly what it is they're celebrating tonight. "The database of the Greens has swelled so much because of this campaign. Now we're gonna be able to offer up a couple of viable candidates for city council. And that's where these guys come in," Taylor barks, attempting in vain to flag down several passersby.

The only party still breathing at 1:00 a.m. is the Grand Old Party. The second floor of the Radisson looks like the home of a high school kid whose parents have failed to materialize after a trip out of town. Potted palms have turned into receptacles for everything from empty bottles to cigarette butts to discarded Rod Grams T-shirts. A young woman wearing enough diamonds to rival the gross national product of several countries holds an ice-filled rag to her head. Another woman herds five sluggish preteens into the coatroom. "Wasn't this fun?" she asks them. "This was neat. It was fun, wasn't it?"

Ties loosened, jackets cast aside, those who've vowed to stay till the bitter end muster cheers each time the electoral-college vote deadlock is flashed on the giant monitor. "Some of the women in my office were going to vote Democrat," one man sniffs disdainfully. "I mean, what's wrong with them? Don't they like their money?" An elderly fellow wearing patriotic suspenders drops his chin to his chest, snoring upright in his folding chair. A father and his young son also surrender to the need for sleep, taking turns watching for new results.

A mass exodus seems to coincide with the end of the bartending shift. We trudge out into the season's first snow. The air is heavy with the aura of democracy and the smell of cheap booze, a lingering reminder that while favored candidates may not emerge victorious, there's no excuse not to party as if they did.

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