Left Behind

The DFL plods out of the gate in the governor's race

Although Roger Moe officially won the DFL endorsement for governor after the sixth ballot at the party's statewide convention this past Saturday, the outcome actually swung on how delegates responded to a crucial choice presented to them more than two hours earlier, between the third and fourth ballots.

Having seen her tally drop from 29 percent to 23 percent over the first three ballots, Sen. Becky Lourey went to the podium for the obligatory withdrawal speech. The candidate of the party's progressive wing then proceeded to throw the only political hand grenade in an otherwise polite endorsement process, urging her supporters to throw in their lot with a candidate who three years ago had been a Republican: "I believe it is time for a woman," Lourey said. "This is a fight we must win. I believe it is a fight we'll win with Judi Dutcher."

Rep. Karen Clark, a reliable lefty and Lourey backer whose district includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis, was flabbergasted. "I'm sure Judi is a nice person, but I can't vote for someone who is afraid to say how she feels about the issues that mean so much to my constituents," she said. "I love and respect Becky, but I can't go for this. I'm voting 'no endorsement.'"

More than a third of Lourey's supporters defied her admonition and voted for Moe on the fourth ballot. It was only a matter of time before he secured his party's endorsement.

Those who weren't at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Saturday might have read the results and figured that the DFL has shot itself in the foot again. After all, Dutcher is a woman and a political moderate who has twice won elections for auditor (as a Republican), and who garnered more votes than any other statewide candidate in 1998. But she ran a lackluster campaign that culminated in an amateurish performance on Saturday. In her speech and in her responses during a question-and-answer session in the presence of the delegates, she clung to canned lines with a chirpy, ersatz enthusiasm that mirrored her entire operation.

For the time being, the DFL candidate for governor is sitting pretty, with no renegade opponent to deal with in the primary. The problem, of course, is that the candidate is Moe, who exudes all the charisma of linoleum. It's not hard to imagine Moe rolling out of bed already clad in a stay-pressed gray suit and going to the shelf to put on his perfectly coiffed helmet of hair. On the stump, his mannerisms are so stiff he makes Al Gore look like Mr. Bojangles. Just 58 years old--incredibly, nine months younger than Lourey--Moe is "wise beyond his years" in ways that may be good for governing but are bad for stirring the electorate. Compounding the DFL's "forward to the past" appeal, Moe picked as his running mate for lieutenant governor Julie Sabo, daughter of longtime U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, and the party endorsed yet another Humphrey--Buck this time--for secretary of state. It shapes up as a dream ticket for 1975.

But with voters rattled by a deflating economy and the events of September 11, Moe's supporters believe it is a propitious time for his Marcus Welby-like paternalism. There are also a couple of reasons to think Moe will be a more charismatic candidate than people expect. First, judging by his performance at the convention, he's self-aware enough to know he's the antithesis of hip, and humble enough to convincingly mock himself. Second, it's clear that he has a visceral dislike for Jesse Ventura, whose outlandish behavior is tailor-made to offend the mores of a Norwegian farm boy who long has labored to be a courtly, process-oriented public servant.

This animus is the flip side of Ventura's disdain for "career politicians," and it has already given the Moe campaign a much-needed edginess. At the convention, Moe's pre-speech video showed clips of Ventura's buffoonery as a wrestler and XFL announcer, with the Three Stooges' theme song as the soundtrack. And at the post-endorsement press conference, when asked to explain why he doesn't think Ventura will run for reelection, Moe snapped, "Because he'd have to defend what he has done."

Regardless of whether Ventura joins the race, Moe figures to do well in the rural northern districts. The conventional wisdom is that he'll play poorly in the suburbs, but education will be the dominant issue there, which doesn't bode well for either the incumbent or moneybags like Brian Sullivan, the presumptive Republican favorite. Moe's ace in the hole is campaign co-chair Pat Forciea, the former political wunderkind of the 1980s who has restricted his electoral involvement in recent years to getting 14 school referendums passed (out of 15 attempts), most of them in the suburbs. And as Forciea points out, "Running with Wellstone and his great field operation this year will probably help us as much as it does him."

Ironically, the biggest threat to Moe's chances in November may come from the left. Becky Lourey was conspicuously absent from the lovefest onstage at the close of Saturday's convention, and there were plenty of progressives in the hall who said they plan to bolt to the Green Party, which would hurt Moe in traditional DFL strongholds in the Twin Cities and Duluth. Like Ventura four years ago, Green Party candidate Ken Pentel is a smart, intuitive campaigner from an upstart party that will benefit from statewide public funding this year.

Three days before Moe's endorsement, the Minnesota Black Political Action Committee held a forum for all gubernatorial candidates at the Urban League in north Minneapolis. One question from the audience was, "How do you plan to involve the hip-hop generation in your administration?" When it was learned that Moe would be the first to answer, the room erupted in laughter at the incongruity. Moe's response only served to further the impression, as he uttered the term "hip hop" as if it were a Martian expression. When the time came for Pentel to speak, he said, "I feel a song coming on" and broke out into a Bulworth-like rap that had the mostly black audience gleefully slapping high fives. Moe should have been Green with envy.

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