Congressional Idol

The seat's not even cold yet: 28-year D.C. vet Sabo
Courtesy of Martin Olav Sabo

Minnesota's 5th Congressional District is one of the most Democratic in the country. In the last presidential election, John Kerry garnered over 70 percent of the vote, the largest margin of victory in any of the state's eight congressional districts. Rep. Martin Sabo, the area's 28-year DFL incumbent, hasn't faced a serious electoral fight in years, receiving at least 67 percent of the vote in his last four campaigns.

"For a liberal Democrat it's one of the most desirable spots to be in the country," Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, says of the district, which includes all of Minneapolis, along with swatches of the northern and western suburbs. "It's kind of like a little Sweden there."

That explains why, when Sabo announced earlier this month that he would not seek re-election, it set off a political frenzy. In the week following his announcement, seemingly every resident of the district who'd ever watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or been elected treasurer of the high school glee club jumped into the fray. As of Monday there were at least eleven DFLers running, with two Republicans and a Green Party candidate joining the contest. Several other notable pols--including Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Goodman, another Democrat--were thought to be mulling runs. Prior to Sabo's announcement, the only DFLer mule-headed enough to take on the congressman was Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor at the University of St. Thomas.

There are less than six weeks left until the DFL's endorsing convention. At that time delegates will attempt to winnow the field down to just one preferred candidate. But even if that happens, a primary battle involving at least two Democrats seems inevitable. Whoever ultimately emerges from the scrum will likely hold the congressional post for years, possibly decades. In short, it's a plum pick for an aspiring career politician.

Most political observers agree that Mike Erlandson is the early odds-on favorite. As Sabo's chief of staff in Washington, and as a former chair of the party, his connections run long and deep. "Erlandson's a contender because he has the ability to shake down enough money to play in a primary," says veteran DFL political consultant Ed Gross. "Erlandson is probably going to come in as the guy to beat."

Some pundits even view the late timing of Sabo's retirement announcement, coming less than two months before the party's endorsing convention, as a means to pave the way for his chief of staff's ascendancy. This perception of Sabo passing the torch to his hand-picked successor was bolstered last week when his daughter, former state Sen. Julie Sabo (herself frequently mentioned as a possible candidate), endorsed Erlandson.

"This is your classic inside-baseball sort of thing," says Jacobs. "What the congressman has done by waiting is he's given an implicit leg up to folks who are better known. The one who's most clearly advantaged by this is Erlandson. Everybody in the party knows who he is and what he's about."

Erlandson's extensive résumé can run both ways, however. His tenure as DFL chair was marked by unprecedented financial success, with the party boasting of a $500,000 surplus when he stepped down in May. But his six years in the post were also notable for the DFL's spotty record in elections. The once-dominant party failed to retake the governor's office and lost the senate seat held by Paul Wellstone. "The party didn't do well under Erlandson," says Jacobs. "They lost a whole lot of elections."

Political patronage aside, Jorge Saavedra, the former legal director of Centro Legal and one of the candidates for the congressional post, argues that the truncated process has actually opened up the field. "This would not be a race that I could probably get into," he says, noting that normally the campaign would have lasted more than a year and cost upwards of a million dollars. "There's something very organically democratic about this."

With so many candidates in the running, some DFLers fear that the cluttered contest will hurt the party's overall electoral prospects in November. Up until last week, the Democrats had been squarely focused on two goals: knocking Gov. Tim Pawlenty out of office and retaining the U.S. Senate seat held by lame-duck incumbent Mark Dayton.

The 5th District race has the potential to divert both time and money from those high-profile contests. Minneapolis City Council member Gary Schiff, another candidate for the post, argues that this means the party must not emerge from the May convention without an endorsed candidate. "That would be an absolute disaster for Democrats at a time when we need to focus on winning a senate seat and winning back the governor's office," he says, adding that he, like Saavedra and others, intends to abide by the endorsement.

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, also vying for the DFL's backing, echoes those sentiments. "I think it's important to come out with an endorsement," she says, "mainly because we have a lot of other important races going on." But in perhaps a telling sign, Dorfman's not ready to promise that she will drop out of the race if someone else gets the party's blessing.

Despite the smorgasbord of candidates, political consultant Gross remains unimpressed with the field, calling it a "very unimaginative group." He speculates that there could still be a dark-horse candidate to emerge, someone with the means to raise impressive amounts of cash or self-fund a campaign. "The prize is big," he says. "I believe there could be somebody that we're not even thinking of."

Last weekend the party began selecting delegates for the May convention. Ultimately, 200-plus party activists will be chosen to decide who (if anyone) will carry the party's banner into the fall. "The social calendar of these delegates is going to be as crowded as any other group of 211 people in the state of Minnesota," notes Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier. "They signed up thinking they were going to nap their way through the convention. Now they've got to go to work."

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