Only worrywarts find anything but comic relief in Minneapolis DFL politics, I am advised. Most folks only snicker at a political operation that requires 12 hours to cast one inconclusive ballot for mayoral endorsement — and whose candidates for City Hall are pressed on matters ranging from climate change to urban goat husbandry.
Maybe so. But in my line of work, worrying about the state of Minnesota democracy is a professional obligation.
Political parties matter to this state’s ability to govern itself. And it’s a sign of institutional weakness — isn’t it? — when in the very epicenter of DFL power, the party faithful are unable to coalesce sufficiently to bestow an official blessing in the year’s marquee contest.
Not once, but twice, I’ll add. St. Paul’s DFL convention three weeks earlier also came a cropper on an endorsement for mayor, in a contest for an open seat. Just as the governorship will be in the 2018 election.
“No endorsements for mayor in either stronghold city could be setting a pattern for the state party in 2018,” I observed on Twitter as weary Minneapolis DFL conventioneers trooped home a week ago Saturday night.
Or not! promptly replied DFL state Chair Ken Martin. His professional duties evidently include tamping down the worries of pesky editorialists.
“When is the last time the @MinnesotaDFL has not endorsed at a State Convention? Never. We will endorse,” Martin assured via tweet.
He’s right about the history. The only time in my failing memory when a major Minnesota party did not endorse for governor or U.S. senator was 1996 — and that was the GOP.
What’s more, the state party’s zeal for endorsement has survived no-endorsement outcomes in Minneapolis mayoral races before — in 2001, 2005 and 2013, Martin noted a few days later. Agreeing to disagree may be a Minneapolis DFL habit that has migrated across the Mississippi to St. Paul. But it has not infected the state party, he maintained.
I stifled an impulse to mutter “yet” in reply. But I allowed that 2018 looks like a tough year for party unity and tradition in both of Minnesota’s big parties. Trump tensions are bound to unsettle the Republican Party. In the DFL, the rift between the party establishment (Hillary Clinton) and young leftists (Bernie Sanders) persists, and may have widened since Clinton’s presidential defeat.
What’s more, the millennial generation has arrived in force, and its members tend not to be respecters of tradition.
Martin had gloss for that observation.
“One of the great benefits of the 2016 election is that it brought us a lot of new energy and new people. A lot of progressive people were inspired to get involved. What you are seeing are the growing pains that go with new voices in the party,” he said.
Some of the Minneapolis delegates that night were tweeting about other kinds of pain — the kinds associated with being stuck on a beautiful summer day and evening in a convention hall with limited food and drink.
“It can be a headache-inducing process,” Martin conceded.
But he had good news for anyone who has ever yawned through a long political convention. Electronic voting is coming. Later this year, the DFL Central Committee will do a test drive on an electronic balloting system to bring delegate vote tabulation into the 21st century.
Campaigns will surely object. They like long delays between ballots to maximize arm-twisting time on convention floors. But their interests must be weighed against the reality that political parties are voluntary associations. They exist only if people are willing to participate. Culturally speaking, patience with antiquated systems and elaborate procedures is in short supply.
Speeding up conventions would be a plus. But there’s more in latter-day American culture working against the durability of party endorsements. Resistance to compromise isn’t just a partisan strategy. It’s a societal trait. Not much in most people’s lives teaches the virtue and habit of compromise. That explains why even after five ballots on which one candidate — former Council Member Melvin Carter — was consistently in the lead, St. Paul DFLers did not endorse.
There’s more: Mistrust of government extends to political parties. They stand regularly accused of exclusivity, elitism or extremism — not entirely unfairly. Letting primary elections (or, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, ranked-choice-voting general elections) rather than conventions select a party’s candidates has small-d democratic appeal to many.
That argument misses something, Martin said.
“In a primary system, the candidate with the most money and most name ID would always be the winner. We would have never had Sen. Paul Wellstone or Rep. Keith Ellison. I wouldn’t trade what we have for a direct primary in a million years,” the state party chair said.
But would next year’s DFL delegates?
Conjure this with me: It’s 11 p.m. after an all-day state DFL convention. Ten electronically aided ballots have failed to produce an endorsement for governor. Outside the hall stands a strong candidate who opted not to seek endorsement. She has lots of friends inside the hall who’ve spent much of the day making the case for a free-for-all primary. With delegate ranks thinning by the minute, her allies move to adjourn.
The ayes could have it. No endorsement could be sold as expeditious and even helpful to the eventual primary winner, given that the last two DFL governors were elected without party endorsement.
But where would that leave institutions once deemed essential to choosing candidates, crafting an agenda and holding elected officials accountable for enacting a promised program — in short, for governing? And what’s to become of Minnesota if political parties don’t play those roles?
Chuckle at the Minneapolis DFL if you will. I’ll keep worrying.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.