The Content of His Character
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."
Foxworth maintains that Gray's stock is soaring. "Wellstone is doing the right thing," he notes, saying the senator has always received high marks from the NAACP. "He knows that if he gets the black vote, he wins the election, sure. But he's also behind Gray because it's the right thing to do."
Foxworth, who is also the chair of the DNC's African-American caucus, is quick to add that Gray is widely seen as a symbolic candidate by democrats nationwide. "It's not many times an African American or minority is in this situation," Foxworth says, noting that the committee is funneling soft money to two black candidates running for state office in South Carolina. "We want to open lots of doors for Greg Gray. These are not just candidates who are handpicked. Gray has paid his dues and is more than qualified to hold that office."
¬ Sitting in a booth at a Chinese restaurant, just across the street from his campaign office near the University of Minnesota's Stadium Village, Gray comes across as someone tailor-made for the auditor's office. The job is all about detail and reliability; the state auditor mostly analyzes the finances of cities, townships, and other government agencies to ensure accuracy, compliance, and efficiency. In essence, the auditor is gatekeeper of the state's budget.
Gray, 48, grew up in south Minneapolis, attended the now-defunct Central High School, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and earned a degree from Hamline Law School. He is affable and talkative, expressing most of his enthusiasm for his time served as an auditor for a host of Minnesota companies like Pillsbury, Dayton Hudson, Land O'Lakes, Honeywell, and Cenex.
Gray does not play up his race, but he doesn't shy away from talking about it. He recalls how he was in one of the first classes at River Falls made up of actively recruited black students; and he knows full well how difficult it can be to rent an apartment or move ahead in business in a predominantly white city like Minneapolis. All that said, Gray has made it his goal to move beyond the racism he has regularly encountered: "The defining moment of my life was the civil rights movement, and watching the sacrifice that these people before me made. I was the beneficiary of that, and hopefully it will get better with the generations after mine."
In 1996 Gray first sought the state senate seat for District 58; he eventually dropped out. Richard Jefferson, the retiring state rep in north Minneapolis's District 58B, urged Gray to run for his seat in 1998. Initially, Gray and his wife of 25 years, Renee, politely declined, thinking that another run for office would make him look egotistical. Gray eventually ran and won. In 2000, he was reelected.
"I've been successful in corporate America as an African American, and I knew because of that I could do something in return," Gray says. "Running for office is an outgrowth of that."
Gray recalls the time he won the DFL endorsement for state auditor as "one of the best days of [his] life," and has a refreshingly idealistic view of what he could do in the office. He sees himself as a moderate democrat, one determined to find middle ground on a host of issues. Because of his stint with Land O'Lakes, which gave him a glimpse into the difficulties of agribusiness, Gray says, he has empathy for the plight of the family farmer; because of his experience with local corporations, Gray is also decidedly pro-union: "Working men and women don't get a fair shake unless somebody's working on their behalf." He believes these convictions have been well-received in places like Duluth and the Iron Range, where he has campaigned hard and often.
Gray knows that the DNC is pushing for him to make the ballot, but he clearly doesn't want to get into specifics. "If it's soft money," he shrugs, "I'll take it." Still, he understands why he's a golden boy of sorts. "I'd be foolish to think that self-interest doesn't play a part, but I've spent time with Paul and Sheila, and they like me," Gray insists. "The Wellstone race likes the thought of having me on the ballot. I'm not crazy.
"They don't need me to sway black voters, because the DFL always gets 90 percent of the black vote. But the turnout could certainly be higher with a black on the ticket."
At the Wellstone rally in Loring Park, Gray demonstrates how neatly he can align his minority status with other special-interest groups, deftly transcending his race while remaining self-deprecating. "My name is Gregory Gray and I'm a candidate for state auditor," he says, before jokingly repeating the refrain two more times. Then he draws on some grassroots rhetoric: "Communities like ours and communities like yours, and communities in north Minneapolis and south Minneapolis, will make a difference in this race."
Gray then launches into his qualifications for state auditor, saying he will understand the job from his first day in office, before he cracks that he needs votes because "[he doesn't] want to be unemployed." Then he spells out his role in the bigger picture. "There's a huge amount at stake this year," Gray claims. "The whole U.S. Senate is up for grabs."
Then, taking a populist page from Sen. Paul Wellstone, Gray makes a call to arms. "The fight has to be all of us, and not just the people onstage, but all of us," he concludes, his voice rising convincingly. "And if we're in this together, as Paul Wellstone just said, we'll win."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.