As a recovering Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party operative on an East Coast sabbatical, the recent news from Lake Wobegon has rudely interrupted my Minnesota politics detox.
In a 20-year career in the DFL, I held nearly every imaginable party role, from precinct captain to director of the colossal statewide coordinated field campaign. I served as a St. Cloud organizer and director on the state executive committee. I managed — and won — hard-fought campaigns, from Park Board to Hennepin County Attorney to U.S. Congress.
In 2014, I guided U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's come-from-behind victory, implementing a mandatory campaign-wide messaging rule to always refer to our opponent as "Stewart Mills the Third," reminding working-class Eighth District voters that Mills' fortune was inherited, not earned. We ran a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, framing the retail scion as a trustafarian with long playboy hair, unable to relate to Iron Range voters. We won by 1%. Before Mills' next failed campaign bid, he cut his hair.
As a Duluth native with ancestral Minnesota roots dating to well before the state's founding, I have immersed myself in the politics and culture of our great state. After all, I did earn second place in the 1986 Virginia, Minn., Land of the Loon loon-calling contest. From this perspective, what I feel is lost in the current narrative around the legislative session and recent Minneapolis ward convention debacle is the direct connection between the grassroots of the DFL, the radical roots of the party, organized labor and the extraordinary record of DFL legislative accomplishments this year.
Powerful interests, including the Star Tribune Editorial Board, the Downtown Council and Regional Chamber of Commerce want to muddy the waters, casting a pox on both houses, insinuating that the far left is an equal threat to our state as the MAGA-extremist right. In the case of Minneapolis' 10th Ward, this false equivalency blames the victim — Council Member Aisha Chughtai — and obfuscates the ugly incident.
It is equally dangerous — and frankly, lazy — to resort to rhetoric about "extremes on both sides" and "civility" as a blanket messaging frame. Because while the MAGA right marched through American streets with torches repeating antisemitic and white supremacist mantras, joined the now-indicted former president on the stage at a city-owned arena in a mustache and blue Minneapolis police uniform, and led an insurrection at the nation's Capitol to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power, the left (including the Democratic Socialists that Minneapolis Downtown Council President Steve Cramer is so paranoid about — "A leftward-lurching Minneapolis confronts another time for choosing," Opinion Exchange, June 1) audaciously dares to dream of a world with universal college access, public housing and health care for all. Those two poles are not analogous. One operates well within the bounds of democracy, while the other is intent on destroying it.
Since its founding, the DFL has always been a coalition between the more radical Farmer-Laborites and Democrats, uniting to win elections and deliver a progressive agenda for the people. The human rights platform which U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and her fellow Democratic Socialist-aligned elected officials (the majority of whom are women of color) are pushing for is a direct continuation of Hubert Humphrey's words at the 1948 Democratic Convention; the DFL is again marching us "forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." Humphrey called for an agenda for "human beings," not corporations, public/private partnerships, private equity or a Silicon Valley taxicab app.
That vision raised the minimum wage in Minneapolis, created safe sick-time — first in our Twin Cities and now statewide — and just passed parental leave, universal health care, universal school meals and free college for families earning less than $80,000 a year. And a per child tax credit that will reduce poverty by 25%.
From the national perspective, Minnesota is demonstrably different compared to its blue peer states nationwide. Demographically, we could easily have gone the way of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016. Minnesota has more white residents as a percentage than Michigan and Pennsylvania, comparable shares of voters with advanced degrees and a more significant portion of the population outside of major metropolitan areas.
Like Minnesota, Michigan also had a Democratic trifecta this year. Still, it failed to accumulate anywhere near the list of accomplishments that House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic accomplished.
So what has made Minnesota a bright blue beacon of Democratic success, transitioning from an actual purple swing state to one where no Republican has cracked 50% of the vote in nearly 30 years?
The answer, my friends, is unions and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The DFL is a grassroots machine, working hand in hand with organized labor to deliver for working people. Working people, in turn, vote for the DFL. It's not that complicated.
Eroding the power of the DFL anywhere would weaken the party apparatus and jeopardize the infrastructure that has made Minnesota a shining example of progressive accomplishment. While I have never associated myself with the DSA and have always aligned more with labor, well within the mainstream DFL, I was shocked to read a commentary piece on these pages by a DFL precinct chair, accusing volunteer party leaders of corrupting the process for their favored candidates and then suggesting ways to reduce the power of the party ("Party endorsement policies fuel convention chaos," May 19). The same DFL Party that is right now delivering a clear agenda to improve people's lives.
On the other hand, I was not surprised to see Minneapolis Chamber President Jonathan Weinhagen say he was mistaken — that the DFL is not pro-business ("Turns out Minnesota business did have something to fear," May 25). Corporations and the rich have plenty of power in our system today; Wells Fargo doesn't need DFL assistance to open fake bank accounts and foreclose on our Black neighbors. The DFL should not enable Target when the retailer caves to MAGA-extremists and throws our trans neighbors under the bus, just as Democrats shouldn't look the other way or help UnitedHealth in the insurer's schemes to backdate executive stock options and deny people lifesaving health care in the name of shareholder value.
DFL voters know exactly how powerful the DFL endorsement is. Because DFL voters trust that their elected officials will deliver for them the specific things they said they would. And they have, from same-sex marriage to all-day kindergarten to massive public works projects.
Weinhagen, Cramer and their corporate benefactors need to pick a side: Are you with the MAGA fascists or the Democrats? Remember, the "D" in DFL stands for "democratic," something the major opposition party no longer believes in. The Democratic Party is the only major American party fighting Russian President Vladimir Putin, while the others are changing their platform to appease him. Democrats are not amplifying hate speech to chase ratings and clicks and graft. As President Joe Biden again showed in the debt limit debate, Democrats are the adults in the room. To insinuate that the female Democrats of color who primarily make up the DSA are not part of that mature governing coalition is sexist and demeaning.
For too long, Democrats have been afraid to use power, with flippy floppy leaders lacking the conviction to draw a stark contrast between the Rockefellers and the little fellers, just as we did to Stewart Mills III nearly a decade ago. I hope folks have their eyes open to see the new generation of leadership leading us to a better future and doing just that.
And if the Chamber and Downtown Council are unhappy about it, we must be doing something right. What matters, in the end, is the people and their well-being. That is what the DFL is fighting for, often with our DSA friends, from the precincts to the president.
Kendal Killian now leads a Washington, D.C.-based pension coalition while pursuing a master's in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government.