The Contender

Suburban world? Steve Kelley thinks reaching suburbanites could get him to the governor's mansion

Suburban world? Steve Kelley thinks reaching suburbanites could get him to the governor's mansion

by Britt Robson

State Sen. Steve Kelley, the DFLer from Hopkins, doesn't mind describing how his party's last two candidates for governor went down in flames.

"I watched the [Skip] Humphrey campaign and the [Roger] Moe campaign both come to the DFL caucus and say, 'We're going to win this by getting a super turnout in our bases of Minneapolis and St. Paul and up in the Eighth District"—on the Iron Range—"and then compete against the Republicans in the 'L' along the more rural western and southern sides of the state," says Kelley. "Both of them campaigned that way and both of them got about 38 percent of the vote. If they talked at all about campaigning in the suburbs, it was about trying to appeal to some blue-collar workers in Anoka County."

By Kelley's assessment, and it must be noted that he's laying out a political strategy here, that's a narrow view of the electorate. "And from what I've seen and heard," he notes, "I think Mike and Becky intend to pursue that same Humphrey-Moe strategy."

The "Mike and Becky" Kelley is referring to are Attorney General Mike Hatch and State Sen. Becky Lourey, his rivals in a tight three-way contest for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement that will be conferred at the party's state convention the weekend of June 9-11 in Rochester. As the only one of the trio who has agreed to drop out of the race if not endorsed, Kelley has the most at stake at the convention. And knowing that he does not stir the passion of DFL delegates—pro or con—as much as Hatch or Lourey, he aims his pitch at the head more than the heart, emphasizing concrete, sensible scenarios more than grand visions.

"As Democrats today you have to have the left, the liberals, and then you have to reach out and get the moderate Republicans and the independents. Not move toward the middle," Kelley adds carefully, "but embrace a broader group of folks. And that tells you you have to go to the suburbs. In 2004, John Kerry won the Third [Congressional] District. He won in Edina and Minnetonka and Excelsior."

Of course, incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty was and is more popular than Kerry's 2004 opponent, George Bush, and Kerry didn't have a pesky moderate like Independent Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson mucking up the race. But Kelley's best hope of wresting the endorsement away from two rivals who are more in tune with the liberal bent of the convention delegates is to preach electability—not only for himself, but for maintaining the DFL majority in the State Senate and grabbing it from the Republicans in the House.

To that end, he cites a host of moderate legislators and legislative contenders from Champlin and Brooklyn Park to St. Cloud, Bemidji, and Rochester, whose chances at victory are already enhanced by disenchantment with the Bush agenda in swing districts. Putting him against Pawlenty may be enough for a DFL legislative sweep, Kelley is saying to his party's delegates, and then they "can enact a progressive agenda."

Naturally, this blended message of party teamwork and moderate suburban outreach is tailored to the strengths on Kelley's résumé. A three-term legislator from the same western suburban area where he notes Kerry ran well, he is also the influential chair of the Senate Education Committee. The position gives him primacy on an issue of state government funding that's as dear to upper-middle-class folks as it to the poor, and Kelley shrewdly exploits it.

He derides the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind as both confusing and insufficient. And he carps on Pawlenty's proposal of a certain percentage of education money devoted to classroom instruction as being too simplistic. As for the achievement gap, he succinctly notes, "the best way to close the gap is to prevent it with investments in kids birth through age five."

Kelley isn't as well-versed, especially in comparison with Hatch and Lourey, on the issue that ranks right beside education among DFL delegates—health care. But his endorsement of the Minnesota Medical Association's plan for statewide universal health care provides him decent cover on the issue, and his frequent mention of the need for more investment in transit, wind power, and in other renewable energy sources is attractive across the party spectrum.

It is, in sum, a solid strategy for securing the DFL endorsement. But there is one rather large fly ball in the ointment, courtesy of Kelley's longtime advocacy for the construction of a new Twins stadium, which could very well derail his candidacy.

Actually, the bill Kelley authored in the Senate this session called for using a metro-wide sales tax to build stadiums for both the Twins and the Vikings and pour hundreds of millions of dollars into roads and transit besides. But even before it passed the Senate, it was clear that Pawlenty and the Republican-majority House were going to hold firm on the more modest House bill, which restricted sales-tax increases to Hennepin County and left the Vikings and transportation out of the mix.

Indeed, some have argued that Kelley's legislation amounted to a bait-and-switch, with the prospect of money for roads enabling a stadium funding bill to pass the Senate, only to have the actual stadium funding scheme revert to the House version when the bills were "reconciled" in conference committee. Kelley himself acknowledges that he had little chance of altering the bill when confronted with the united front of the House and the governor. Even so, he helped lobby for the bill's passage when it ran into trouble in the Senate on the final night of the session.

Kelley concedes that his support for stadiums "has hurt me more than helped me," with DFL delegates. "The saving grace is that I have continued to act on my principles. I think once you decide what your position is, you ought to have the courage to talk about what that position is." He adds, however: "Now in the short term, that is a problem."

In fact, many observers believe his stadium gambit might be fatal, a notion gleefully disseminated by Hatch and Lourey supporters. But Kelley maintains that, "Right now we are a close second to Mike Hatch in the delegate count." And he claims he can hang with and eventually overtake Hatch because delegates committed early and are now cooling to him.

If Kelley is able to win hearts at the convention and move on to September, he believes that Lourey doesn't have the resources to mount a viable primary fight without the endorsement. (Kelley says he has raised about $600,000 thus far; about twice what he estimates Lourey has collected. Hatch claims to have raised somewhere around a million dollars already.)

Even Kelley acknowledges his tough odds. "A lot of people have told me they think I'd be the best candidate in the general election," he claims. "But they knew I was going to abide by the endorsement, and so the first objective test of my candidacy is whether I can get the endorsement that most people believe will go to Hatch. If that happens, we'll be fine."