Madia tops Bonoff

Does our state contest mirror Clinton and Obama nationally?

An accomplished sitting female senator, a mother, well established in political circles, seemed a shoo-in. The money and endorsements were lined up. Nothing was going to keep her from taking on Washington, D.C.

That was until a young, dark-skinned lawyer with an obscure, three-syllable name came along and captured the zeitgeist.

The charming man, an unknown among political circles, flaunts his ability to mobilize grassroots voters, and has an uncanny ability to convince people that he's the one to bring about change.

Ashwin Madia beat a more established candidate to win the DFL endorsement for the Third Congressional District
courtesy of Ashwin Madia
Ashwin Madia beat a more established candidate to win the DFL endorsement for the Third Congressional District
Beth Walton

Sound familiar?

Meet sitting state Sen. Terri Bonoff and Iraq war veteran Ashwin Madia, Minnesota's very own version of Hillary and Barack.

The race between Madia and Bonoff for the DFL endorsement for the Third District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives—vacated by retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad—rings so familiar that even the editors at D.C.-based Roll Call wrote up the race 11 days before the April 12 convention.

But do Madia and Bonoff really mirror Obama and Hillary? Or are they being crammed into a convenient storyline based on superficial similarities?

Ask Bonoff, the supposed Hillary in the race, what she thinks, and she's the first to say she's no Clinton.

"My experience mirrors Barack Obama's experience, not Hillary Clinton's," she says.

Bonoff was one of the first members of the state Legislature to publicly support Obama's candidacy, and both her son and her communications director have worked on his campaign.

Yet sometimes the petite, well-composed woman can't help but sound a little like Hillary. Bonoff is quick to point out the differences between herself and Madia, highlighting the glaring issue of experience.

"I know my experience makes a difference," Bonoff asserts. "Every day, I'm confronted with challenges as a legislator, and I've learned from that."

As the de facto frontrunner early in the race, Bonoff owned more endorsements from top political and civic leaders than Madia did. A super delegate herself, Bonoff had sewed up all but two of the district's 18 super delegate votes. (Unlike in national elections, state super delegates have no more leverage than ordinary delegates in the DFL race.)

But in this election cycle, grassroots support has proven to be more important than the backing of the state's political powerhouses, says David Schultz, local political analyst and professor at Hamline University and the University of Minnesota Law School.

Some 214,000 people showed up to cast their votes at the February precinct caucuses, the biggest turnout in recorded DFL history. Democrats came out in droves to speak out against George Bush and the Republican Party, Schulze says. With new caucus voters came new delegates, and the candidates found themselves pandering for votes from strangers.

Nearly 85 percent of voters at the Third District caucus were first-timers, and Bonoff admits she was unfamiliar with many of the delegates.

This worked to Madia's advantage. Virtually unknown when he started campaigning for the seat, Madia couldn't get the traditional delegates to call him back, so his campaign focused its energy on garnering the support of the new, grassroots delegates.

Just two weeks prior to the convention, Madia's campaign maintained a steady lead, and Bonoff was scrambling to catch up. She squeezed press interviews in between countless conversations with pledged Madia delegates and the few delegates who remained uncommitted. By the convention, she had increased her support by at least six votes.

But that wasn't enough to overcome Madia's momentum. After eight rounds of voting did little to erode the upstart's advantage, Bonoff separated herself from Hillary once and for all by graciously stepping aside.

Her communications manager cried onstage as Bonoff yielded to Madia, who never clinched the 60 percent needed for endorsement, but ended the night with a 57.8 percent majority.

The race sparked passion among the state's divided Democrats who see the seat as a crucial pickup for the party. The position has belonged to Republicans since the 1960s, but the district has moved leftward in the last few election cycles. The real question facing Democrats was which candidate had the best chance of beating conservative state Rep. Erik Paulsen, the GOP-endorsed candidate who ran unopposed in the primary.

Bonoff had proven her ability to attract moderate and independent voters when she was elected to the state Senate in 2005. She was the first Democrat in 20 years to win her seat, and she did so twice in a row.

Madia, on the other hand, didn't have much of a track record. What he did have was an inspirational message, and many saw him, as they see Obama, as a man who represents change.

Wearing jeans and a sweater two weeks prior to the convention, Madia laughed as he recounted how Bonoff supporters sent emails reminding voters that he worked for John McCain and once endorsed Bob Dole for president.

"At least they didn't send out pictures of what I looked like when I was 18," he jokes. "That would have been really embarrassing."

Madia makes no apologies and thinks his past will help him appeal to moderate and independent voters in the general election.

A Marine who served as a lawyer in Iraq, Madia returned to the U.S. obsessed with finding pragmatic solutions to the biggest problems he saw facing this country: global warming, an economic recession, compromised civil liberties, and the war in Iraq. He watched, disappointed, as Democrats campaigned for the Third District seat. "Nobody was saying anything about those issues. And so I said, well, maybe I ought to get in and say what I think."

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