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Minnesota: Progressives mobilizing post-Wellstone

Date Published: 05/01/2009

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Minnesota: Progressives mobilizing post-Wellstone

Pioneer Press | May 11, 2003
By Bill Salisbury

Minnesota Democrats took their worst beating in a generation Nov. 5, losing the late Paul Wellstone's U.S. Senate seat, the governor's race, and a host of other statewide and legislative elections.

But while the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party may be down, liberal Minnesotans are picking themselves up off the mat. Mad as hell that the new GOP dominion is tearing down the progressive programs they built, they are organizing to battle back.

On a recent evening when both the Wild and the Timberwolves were in home playoff games, more than 100 teachers, soccer moms, public employees and community activists retreated to the Southern Theater in Minneapolis to organize opposition to the cuts Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to make in many of their favorite public services.

A group of high school students who worked on Paul Wellstone's campaign is gearing up to train 80 peers to mobilize young Democratic voters.

And all around Minnesota, ordinary Democrats are coming together in discussion groups to develop ideas and strategies to put liberal politics in play once again.

"Progressives are not flat on their backs," said Jeff Blodgett, who managed Wellstone's campaign until his death. "They're looking for a way to rebuild progressive politics, to pick up where Paul left off."

Democrats and other liberals were stunned by Wellstone's death in a plane crash Oct. 25 and by their election losses 11 days later. Since then, Republican efforts to whittle down Democrats' prized social programs have energized liberals, said Mary Rosenthal, president of the DFL Education Foundation, a Democratic policy organization not formally affiliated with the party.

"If you're leaning left in Minnesota, there's a struggle that needs to be fought," said Chuck Tomlinson of Minneapolis, who with his wife, Alex Ellison, has mobilized more than 2,000 Minnesotans to fight the no-new-taxes-at-any-cost mentality.

THE CHALLENGE

Conservative leaders welcome the budding liberal challenge. "If you are a serious person on the left and conservatives are ascendant, it seems to me one would be even more obliged to get into the fray," said Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment.

David Strom of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota said a more vigorous debate on the issues would be healthy for Minnesota.

But Pearlstein and Strom both cautioned that it's very difficult to launch successful ideological groups. They must raise large sums of money, get factions to agree on goals, and find messages that resonate with voters.

The nascent liberal movements still lag far behind their conservative counterparts.

They don't have a fraction of the money or the organizational discipline of the right, which is how a political movement delivers coordinated messages to voters.

And they don't have anything that compares to the 13-year-old American Experiment, a conservative think tank, or the 5-year-old Taxpayers League, an anti-tax advocacy group. Both play an important part in setting the state's political agenda by developing and marketing conservative policies.

The DFL is not the force it was in the early 1970s, when Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale led a party that controlled the governor's office and all the other constitutional offices, as well as holding lopsided majorities in both houses of the Legislature. That was the era when DFLers produced the "Minnesota miracle" in education financing, which gave Minnesota the reputation as the "state that works."

But the party is still competitive. A statewide poll of 600 adults April 15-21 by Decision Resources Ltd. of Minneapolis found 36 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 33 percent as Republicans and 22 percent as independents, with the rest undecided.

THE EFFORTS

Whether the DFL plays a bigger role in state policy may depend in large part on the success of the movements.

Here's what's going on:

Wellstone Action! At a small office in St. Paul's Midway district, Blodgett, the former Wellstone campaign manager, is organizing Camp Wellstone, a 2 -day training program to introduce participants to the late senator's distinctive style of progressive, populist politics. He plans two camps, each for 100 trainees, in Minnesota this summer, followed by expansion to other states in the future.

"Conservatives have an organizational and communications advantage," Blodgett said. "Our goal is to organize our side better and harder and persuade the middle to move in our direction."

Happy to Pay for a Better Minnesota. "After the governor announced his budget cuts, we were frustrated that there was no voice to challenge the terrible choices he presented," said founder Chuck Tomlinson. "Should we cut police officers and firefighters or services for the elderly? Should we cut early childhood programs or close libraries? We know government has to make some cuts, but this is a movement of people who think these cuts are the wrong cuts."

So Tomlinson and Ellison formed Better Minnesota, a nonpartisan advocacy campaign. The Minneapolis couple printed more than 2,000 bright orange lawn signs and hundreds more postcards and distributed them to like-minded Minnesotans who are willing to pay a little more in taxes to avoid cuts in public services.

On the night they led an organizational meeting and pep rally at the Southern Theater, smaller groups that shared their views met in more than a dozen cities across the state. Their goal was to persuade thousands of citizens to write or phone their legislators to try to stop the most damaging budget cuts.

Tomlinson and Ellison said they know they are fighting an uphill battle and are in it for the long haul to preserve the public services essential to Minnesota's quality of life.

Campaign 101. At state DFL headquarters on St. Paul's West Side, about 20 teenagers who worked on Wellstone's campaign are trying to recruit 75 to 80 students for this political training camp for high schoolers, to be held June 20-22 at Hamline University in St. Paul. They will learn how to organize campaigns and mobilize young Democrats. "It's a way for us to get involved, to get other people involved and to make a change," said founder Brendan Ballou, 16, a St. Paul Central High School sophomore.

Ona Keller, a 16-year-old junior at Minneapolis Southwest High School, said there's a lot of political apathy at her school, "and that makes me sad. Politics influences a lot in our daily lives." So she is recruiting students for Campaign 101 to show them that "even if you can't vote, you can still change things."

Growth & Justice. Former Star Tribune publisher Joel Kramer founded this "multipartisan" progressive think tank after last year's election to promote "economic growth and economic justice."

Kramer said it is focusing on ideas to assure that all people earn incomes large enough to meet their basic needs without government subsidies, and on providing economic opportunities for young people to move up the economic ladder. So far, it has raised $123,000 from 140 donors.

Kramer sees it is an ideological alternative to the Center of the American Experiment.

DFL Education Foundation. At lunchtime one day last week, 20 Democrats young and old, city and suburban, newcomers and veteran operatives gathered in a conference room at the state AFL-CIO office in St. Paul to hear a brutally frank assessment of the "emotional barriers" between the DFL and suburban voters.

Suburban voters perceive the DFL as the party of welfare, taxes, codependence and irresponsibility, among other identifiers, said Shawn Otto, the husband and campaign manager of newly elected state Rep. Rebecca Otto of Marine on St. Croix. She was a surprise winner in a Republican-leaning suburban district.

The "urban/suburban connection" discussion group is one of 10 such issue groups organized this year by the nonprofit foundation. That's up from just two discussion groups last year. Their meetings now typically attract 80 to 125 activists, compared with 30 to 50 last year, said Rosenthal, the foundation president.

The foundation has been around since 1985, but Rosenthal said it has been revitalized this year as Democrats search for new ideas to rebuild their party.

Campaign for Minnesota's Future. An ad hoc group of DFL leaders is launching a fund-raising drive to finance an advocacy group that could be the liberal answer to the Taxpayers League. It would attempt to communicate progressive ideas through forums, advertising, the news media and electronic messages.

"The DFL's job is to win elections. Ours is to showcase ideas that give Democrats fresh ways to solve problems and appeal to voters," said co-founder Martha Ballou of St. Paul. The group has "prospective commitments" of at least $10,000 each from several big-time Democratic contributors and organizations, she said.

Progressive Minnesota. Last fall, Pakou Hang, a community organizer for this grass-roots group, led a drive that turned out more than 6,000 first-time Hmong voters. After the election, she said, one of the new voters said to her: "We lost the election. What are we going to do now?"

"The answer is 'Organize, organize, organize,' " Pakou Hang said. She is now training many of those new voters to take the next step and become active in community affairs, lobbying and political activities.

That is just one of the community organizing efforts that this small, 10-year-old operation is waging for liberal causes. It now has its largest staff, with six full-time community organizers and one part-time community organizer, said executive director Dan McGrath.

21st Century Democrats. Chaired by former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel, the largest Democratic field organization in the country helps elect progressive Democrats by providing trained campaign workers to help local, state and national candidates.

This year they're going to do something new: Set up a state operation not geared to a candidate. They will send a state director to Minnesota this summer to recruit and train field workers for the 2004 elections, said executive director Kelly Young.

"Frankly, we picked Minnesota because it has become a presidential battleground state," Young said. "It's trending, unfortunately, in the wrong direction if we want to keep it in the Democratic fold." Minnesota has voted Democratic in 11 of the past 12 presidential elections.

Bill Salisbury can be reached at bsalisbury@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5538.


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