Here We Go A-Caucusing

A few days at the races with St. Paul mayoral candidate Jay Benanav

The official endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has lost its luster, especially in St. Paul mayoral politics. Losers now routinely ignore the verdict of the party faithful, which comes down at the DFL convention in June, and proceed directly to September's primary election. The process is regularly pooh-poohed by academics as little more than a ritualistic ceremony, the intricacies of which are known only to a small cadre of DFL comrades. And it doesn't help that the last two DFL-endorsed candidates for mayor have been roundhoused by lame-duck Mayor Norm Coleman. "What this really turns out to be is a small handful of people who probably aren't representative of the broader city being marshaled off to some caucuses to essentially do a beauty contest," posits David Schultz, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration at Hamline University.

It should come as no surprise, then, that of the six DFLers vying for mayor this year, only two--city council member Jay Benanav and former council member Bob Long--have promised to abide by the wishes of the party loyalists. Council member Jerry Blakey, state Sen. Randy Kelly, County Commissioner Janice Rettman, and former city council member Bobbi Megard have refused to rule out running in the primary election if they don't get the endorsement. But while it has become fashionable to pick on the DFL endorsement process, the party's backing still carries some punch--especially since the Republican Party is still struggling to scrounge up a candidate. "The endorsement could be very important this time because it's a big field and there's no obvious front-runner," argues Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College. What's more, with no presidency, governorship, or city council seats at stake this November, voter turnout is likely to be low, increasing the importance of wooing party loyalists.

The three-prong endorsement process can be a bewildering exercise. Party members first assemble at precinct caucuses and appoint delegates. Those folks then move on to the larger ward conventions, where participants cast their lot with a specific candidate or set of issues. Finally, the delegates chosen at those proceedings go to a citywide convention, where they will decide who, if anyone, gets the backing of the party.

Mayoral hopeful Jay Benanav makes his pitch to hardcore DFLers at Harding High
Craig Lassig
Mayoral hopeful Jay Benanav makes his pitch to hardcore DFLers at Harding High

Benanav and Long had the most to lose or gain during last week's precinct caucuses and ward conventions. Long has been here before, falling on his sword and refusing to run in the primary after narrowly missing the endorsement. Benanav, by contrast, is a newcomer to the mayoral sweepstakes, having served on the St. Paul City Council since 1998. City Pages decided to tag along as the neophyte politician took it to the people of his party.


Tuesday, April 17: The Benanav campaign is heading toward enemy territory. Two of the ward conventions are on the East Side, Senator Kelly's home turf, while the third covers the Como Park neighborhood, Janice Rettman's stomping grounds. Benanav is focusing his attention on the East Side's Seventh Ward, in large part because he has the backing of council member Kathy Lantry, who represents the area, as well as his legislative aid, Jane Prince, a longtime denizen of the neighborhood. "Five and Six are basically gonna be a hit-and-run," says Ben Goldfarb, Benanav's campaign manager, as he guides the candidate's minivan to Harding Senior High School, where the Seventh Ward convention is taking place.

The Kelly supporters are most conspicuous at Harding High, with bright green shirts that read "Kiss Me! I'm with Kelly," and campaign buttons adorned with three-leaf clovers. Benanav begins to meet and greet at the door. He is joined by Lantry--a formidable presence. The daughter of a former state senator from St. Paul, Lantry knows every person by name and greets most of them with a hug.

At 7:00 p.m. Benanav begins hopping from classroom to classroom, pleading his case to the various precinct caucuses. His theme is making St. Paul "the most livable city in the world." He focuses on the bread and butter of neighborhood politics: libraries, schools, plowed streets. But Benanav also spends considerable time pandering to East Side biases. "Kathy Lantry's my favorite council member; I'm only my second favorite," he quips time and again.

In the room for voters from Precinct 11, only one DFLer has shown up to be counted: Jim Meyer, a member of the Communication Workers of America Local 7250. Meyer says he is wavering between Benanav and Kelly, but is weary of the former. "He seems to be a puppet of Norm Coleman," Meyer says.

"How are you? You're not gonna start with this privatization bullshit, are you?" he asks the candidate. Benanav points out he used to be a labor lawyer. "I got labor blood in me," he asserts.

Kelly, Long, and Blakey are also working the building. In Precinct 18, Kelly plays the geography card. "You have the first opportunity in the last 50 years to elect an East Sider for mayor of this city," he says. "No one will have to tell me where Phalen is, where Highwood Hills is, where Kickoff bar is."

At 8:00 p.m. the delegates assemble for the convention and Benanav has a chance for one last pitch. He focuses on affordable housing, his business credentials, and the absurdity of giving public dollars to corporations that don't pay a living wage. The biggest applause comes after his nod to party loyalty. "I will honor your endorsement," he declares. The attention to Ward Seven pays off: Kelly wins the ward with 24 committed delegates, but Benanav is a strong second with 19.

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