Party Animus

Sometime around 9 p.m., during the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's gubernatorial-endorsement marathon last Saturday in St. Cloud, the forces of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey were set to collide--literally.

This year's convention fashion trend involved pasting together eight campaign signs in two rows of four, attaching them to a big wooden post like a sail to a Columbus-era square-rigger, and running around trying to catch the wind and delegates' attention. With Freeman gutting it out a few points below the 60 percent needed for endorsement, the atmosphere was choked with fatigue and tension: Could Humphrey hold the line in the eleventh hour? Skip's square-riggers were set to leave port.

One came barreling down the steep steps of the National Hockey Center, only to find the blocky form of Freeman himself in the way, as he schmoozed a delegate. A Freeman handler armed with nothing but her walkie-talkie headset froze, petrified, but the young Humphrey navigator twisted away from danger at the last instant. As the two underlings passed in the night, Freeman's aide reached out, unable to resist a free shot at her opponent.

She tickled him. He laughed and continued to rollick toward the convention floor.

Politics is war, but even the warriors were having a tough time generating animosity at a convention in which only one candidate had pledged to drop out if someone else was endorsed, and that candidate had a double-digit lead from the first ballot.

Given that the field of a half-dozen--Freeman, Humphrey, former state Sen. Ted Mondale, state Sens. Doug Johnson and John Marty, former state auditor Mark Dayton--would likely remain intact after the convention, what exactly did Freeman win by securing the endorsement on the 10th ballot?

Although editorialists at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press regularly bash the precinct caucus/convention system as unrepresentative of the general electorate, primary elections aren't much different. In a state of 4.6 million people, 3.4 million of whom are of voting age, only 400,000 are likely to go to the polls on September 15 to select the Democratic nominee. Pollsters estimate that in such a crowded field 100,000 may be enough to win the primary, and Freeman strategists point out that if history holds true, a big chunk of that number will overwhelmingly respond to the symbolism of endorsement: Since 1970 only one DFL gubernatorial endorsee has ever failed to win the primary.

"What matters is the perception within Democratic primary voters that Mike Freeman represents the historical values of the party, and that Mike is carrying on the tradition of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and hasn't faltered from that," explains one Freeman strategist, "whereas Ted [Mondale] and Skip no longer represent those values."

Minnesota House Speaker Phil Carruthers avoids the harsh spin but acknowledges that Freeman can expect what might be called the DFL's Reflex Vote. "Even though he's one of 'My Three Sons,' Mike is the least well-known," Carruthers notes, alluding to the illustrious DFL parentage of Humphrey, Mondale, and Freeman, whose father was governor of Minnesota in the late 1950s. "The endorsement brings him incredible visibility, thousands of volunteers, and he's on the sample ballot that people like my mother rely on when she goes to the voting booth."

Conspicuously absent from the speaker's list of attributes is money, which Freeman has had a hard time raising. "The fact is that the candidates have to raise money themselves," says Carruthers. "It's not like people are standing in line to hand it to you once you get endorsed."

This year, especially. Most of the party support an endorsee receives comes from three power funders: organized labor and Democratic millionaires Vance Opperman and Mark Dayton. Dayton, however, is running a quixotic anti-insider gubernatorial candidacy of his own (he's gone through campaign managers like a flu sufferer demolishes a box of Kleenex), and Opperman is Humphrey's biggest backer--so much so that one Freeman partisan described the joy of his man's victory as "stuffing a billionaire."

Labor, many say, will also sit on its collective wallet. Humphrey campaign chair Opperman points out that both Freeman and Humphrey have long pro-labor records. "Labor won't spend dollars in a meaningless primary," Opperman predicts. "They'll save it to take on [Republican front-runner] Norm Coleman."

Still, there may well be pressure from labor's membership ranks to do the traditional thing and fund the endorsed candidate. Though many labor chiefs, including powerful AFL-CIO head Bernie Brommer, campaigned stealthily for Humphrey, a majority of union delegates went for Freeman anyway. "In their hearts, the leaders want Freeman," says one veteran union organizer who asked not to be named. "But in their minds, they want Skip, with the tobacco settlement and poll numbers."

Ensuring labor's neutrality was so important, the organizer adds, that it helped explain Humphrey's choice for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Roger Moe. Given the convention's populist leanings, picking the quintessential coiffed legislative insider--Moe has logged 17 years as Senate majority leader--seemed odd. But Moe was meant less as a valentine to delegates than a warning shot to party power blocs.  

"Moe freezes the unions out of the primary," the union organizer explains. "If you're a union, you don't want to give money to oppose a guy who, if the Republicans win, could still be Senate majority leader--and the most powerful Democrat in the state--when the next legislature opens."

Indeed, it may have been more than symbolic that when the candidates begged for additional labor support during a closed caucus after the second ballot, Freeman went in without his running mate, first-term state Rep. Ruth Johnson, but Moe quickly followed Humphrey.

Scanning the convention floor, it was almost possible to visualize a political Doppler shift--many campaign strategists who wore Marty blue when the senator beat Freeman in 1994 now wore the Hennepin County attorney's maroon. Freeman's brain trust--citizens-group activist Jon Youngdahl, union organizer Erik Peterson, Minneapolis City Council member Jim Niland, Minneapolis attorney Judy Schermer, and number-cruncher Ed Gross--are all veterans of the Paul Wellstone wing of the party, which staunchly supports caucuses as a way to ensure that basic one-on-one political organizing--as opposed to a fat bank account--produces winners. But while many of them helped propel Wellstone to the Senate in 1990, they've never put anyone's fanny in the governor's chair.

Freeman may need a whole lot of people power if a DFL group that believes he has promised too much to labor--and also that Norm Coleman would be too formidable an opponent for Freeman in the general election--manages to raise between $500,000 and $1.5 million to turn out more moderate suburban Democrats for the primary. One beneficiary would be Mondale, who's running as a "New Democrat" tax cutter and labor skeptic. With candidates limited to $2.2 million through the November election and unlikely to spend more than $1 million on the primary, this independent expenditure (i.e., one that's unaffected by those campaign-spending restrictions) would be significant.

While Freeman's pro-endorsement pledge provided a firm foundation for his win, historically speaking his stand was set in mud. The Humphrey campaign sent a letter alerting delegates (including my wife, who arrived at the convention undecided and ultimately voted for Humphrey) to a December 1996 Washington Post story in which Freeman said he was not going to abide by the endorsement. "I fell on my sword for the party once," he was quoted as saying in reference to his willingness to step aside at the 1994 DFL convention after being bested by John Marty, "and I'm not going to do it again."

Delegates apparently ignored long-term fidelity for any fidelity at all. Says Freeman strategist Erik Peterson: "Mike truly got educated. He was very disappointed after 1994, particularly after what happened in the general election [in which Marty was walloped by Gov. Arne Carlson]. But ultimately you don't turn your back on friends--you don't snub them if they don't give something to you."

Of course, it didn't hurt that Freeman jumped back on the endorsement bandwagon only after it became clear that he was the only candidate who would be doing so. Nor were the Freeman forces above purchasing endorsements. When the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender caucus decided to throw open its endorsement voting to new members in return for a "suggested donation," Freemanites swamped the ranks.

As the convention dragged on, Freeman frequently waved the bloody shirt for another cause to which he's a latecomer: absolute opposition to public funding for sports stadiums. As recently as this past winter, some DFLers recall, Freeman was hedging, offering qualified support for a liquor or lodging tax. But since then he has taken to using "no public money" as a wedge issue to distinguish himself from his main opponents. (Coleman was bruised by his quest to gain state money for St. Paul's hockey arena this past legislative session. Humphrey, whose running mate has been vocally pro-public funding, failed to categorically rule out subsidies, pledging during a convention speech that his spending priorities would be "education first, stadiums last.")

At a post-victory rally in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Freeman recounted an image that his campaign staffer Ed Gross had implanted at the start of the long day--that of Jack Morris pitching the Twins to victory in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series. "I told him he had to go as long and hard as possible, and imagine Skip's people as the Atlanta Braves," Gross recalls. "You've got to be ready to pitch another inning, even if it goes extra innings. And sure enough it took 10 ballots, just like it took Morris 10 innings."  

The difference, of course, is that Morris was done for the season when that iron-man stint was over. Mike Freeman still has to show his best stuff.

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