A sunny Saturday is slipping into late afternoon, and Paul Wellstone is hosting a rally for his gay supporters in Loring Park. About 200 people and more than a few dogs have gathered around a stage in the heart of the park, listening to a batch of wobbly cover tunes from the Roxxy Hall Band. By 4:00 p.m. Ann DeGroot, director of OutFront Minnesota, an organization that supports gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender causes, gives Minnesota's senior senator a hearty welcome.
"How many of you want this president to pick your next senator?" DeGroot asks rhetorically, both introducing Wellstone and slighting his Republican opponent, Norm Coleman. After a brief chorus of boos, the crowd lights up with applause as Wellstone takes the stage with his trademark enthusiasm. Dressed casually in khakis and one of his campaign's green golf shirts, Wellstone recounts his work in the U.S. Senate on behalf of gay rights, then begins to assemble a cast of supporters onstage, including his wife Sheila; Karen Clark and Scott Dibble, both DFLers and openly gay state representatives from south Minneapolis; and Gregory Gray, a DFL state rep from the city's north side, who is running as the DFL-endorsed candidate for state auditor.
"We've got to elect Greg Gray in the primary," Wellstone says. "It's a big race, and I want Greg up here as well."
Gray strides to the stage, his thick frame draped in a wool sport coat, an open challenge to the August heat. When he takes his place behind the senator, it becomes clear that Wellstone's words aren't just logrolling as usual. Gray isn't just another little-known candidate for a low-profile office. He's black.
When Gray easily won the endorsement at his party's convention in May, it marked only the second time the DFL has endorsed a black candidate for statewide office. While Gray is an attractive contender for the job for many reasons, his candidacy is a boon to Wellstone, who stands to benefit if more minority voters go to the polls in a senate race that has been a dead heat from day one.
The battle between two-term incumbent Wellstone and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, who was handpicked by the Bush administration to challenge him, is in the national spotlight because it could determine the majority party in the U.S. Senate. Gray, in turn, has attracted the attention of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which is funneling soft money into Minnesota specifically to enhance his profile.
"A lot of trees will be shaken," says Ken Foxworth, a Minnesota representative for the DNC, confirming that more than $20,000 from the national fund has been earmarked for Gray's campaign. "We know that if we get turnout from the African-American community it will do great things for the DFL. It will help Wellstone. He needs the African-American vote."
Mary McEvoy, the associate chair of Minnesota's DFL party, says the DNC's involvement in an obscure local race is unusual, especially since Gray has yet to make it through the state's September 10 primary, when he will face current state treasurer and DFLer Carol Johnson. "It's been my experience that the DNC comes if it's for an incumbent federal candidate or a strong candidate who has made it through the primary," McEvoy says. "There is national interest in this race. [The DNC] looks at it as important to have a person of color on the ballot."
The DNC's strategy goes to the heart of why campaign-finance reform has become such a hot political issue. Theoretically, soft money is raised by the national parties to help party organizing and political causes; but once the cash is transferred to a state party, it often goes to prop up specific candidates. Donations are largely unregulated and, because many states have caps on donations and spending, soft money has been exploited more and more over the past ten years as campaigns grow more expensive. After the general election on November 6, soft-money contributions will be banned--thanks to a federal law passed earlier this year. By that time, however, Gray's race for state auditor will have been decided.
Accounting for soft money is difficult, in large part because the DNC is not allowed to put money directly into Gray's coffers. The state party can use the cash for any number of campaign strategies, however, such as pamphlets, direct mail, or television and radio spots--provided it's clear the propaganda was prepared and paid for by the party. And while no one will say exactly how much soft money will be spent on the Gray campaign, the DFL has funded at least one mailing, to the tune of $12,400, and will likely do more.
When asked about the DNC's involvement in her opponent's campaign, Carol Johnson expresses nothing short of shock. "I don't think they normally get involved in primary races," Johnson says, noting that she has had no contact with the national committee. "I give great credit to the voters of Minnesota that they will vote on qualifications, and not just on endorsement.
"I don't know that Gray would be that valuable to Wellstone. He's never been a statewide candidate."