St. Paul DFL: 'I thought we were supposed to be better than this'

Councilman Dai Thao and banker Pat Harris colluded to "destroy the endorsement process," says one DFLer.

Councilman Dai Thao and banker Pat Harris colluded to "destroy the endorsement process," says one DFLer.

Sharon Slettehaugh walked into the Washington Tech Magnet School on Rice Street for the St. Paul DFL City Convention on June 17 with a vote for the taking.

Entering the building mid-morning, Slettehaugh was leaning toward Melvin Carter III, the front-runner to secure the party endorsement in the upcoming mayoral race.

The longtime Dem wasn't totally sold on the charismatic Carter, however. She was anxious to hear Pat Harris speak. He's a senior vice president at BMO Harris Bank, as well as a former 12-year veteran of the St. Paul City Council. 

The 70-year-old Slettehaugh has lived on both sides of the Mississippi River. In years past, she'd attended more Minneapolis DFL city conventions than she can remember. This summer's gathering in St. Paul would be her third such event. It could very well be her last.

About 550 attendees were at the event, at which the DFL was supposed to endorse candidates for mayor and school board. Slettehaugh got a bad taste early on. The convention commenced with nearly three hours of inconsequential rancor over rules and agenda semantics.  

The first vote for mayor wasn't taken until about 1 p.m.

Out of the five candidates bucking for the endorsement, Carter emerged as the leader coming out of the first round, with 47 percent of the vote, leaving him 13 points shy of the 60 percent required to earn the DFL's official nod.

In five more rounds of voting over the next six hours, Carter couldn't get more than 55 percent. Meanwhile, Harris and embattled Councilman Dai Thao slogged through the rounds with tepid support, never once marshaling the kind of might needed for the coveted endorsement. In fact, Harris garnered such low numbers that by round five, he was dropped from contention.

Slettehaugh took it all in with disgust and disbelief. She watched as lesser aspirants, with no chance to win, united in attempting to gridlock the endorsement, rather than directing their supporters to vote for one strong candidate.

"You had two candidates colluding with each other," Slettehaugh says. "They went in knowing they didn't have enough votes to get endorsed, so their purpose was to destroy the endorsement process, basically."  

The convention would end without an endorsement for mayor.

Slettehaugh gets it. Politics can be messy.

Still, she says, "The convention is supposed to be about neighbors coming together to decide on a person who best represents their values, their positions. But what these two candidates came in to do was to prevent people from being able to do that, to use the process to basically abort the process."   

The shit show, according to Slettehaugh, reached its crescendo toward the evening hours.

Thao's camp said things needed to get wrapped up because Hmong elders had to get home to "take their medications," Slettehaugh says.

Five minutes before the 7 p.m. convention cutoff deadline, a man stood up and called for an end to the proceedings because Muslim delegates, who were in the midst of Ramadan and had been fasting since sunrise, needed to leave to prepare the meal that breaks the daily fast.

According to Slettehaugh, she witnessed that same man being congratulated by Harris supporters well after the deadline had passed. She believes in both instances the camps of lesser candidates were playing the cultural cards to prevent another round of voting and the possibility of Carter inking the endorsement.

"What I saw," she says, "was the cynical use of DFLers to use other cultures to achieve a political end. They used unethical processes to protect their own political interests.

"We've got such a mess in our national politics. One would hope our local politics could be rational and positive rather than cynical and rancorous. I, along, with a lot of others at the convention, were really frustrated. I thought we were supposed to be better than this."