DFL delegates weigh electability in Senate raceby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
On Feb. 5 politically active Minnesotans will gather for precinct caucuses. The DFLers hoping to win the party's Senate endorsement have been working for months to turn out supporters at the caucuses. Minnesota Public Radio News brought together a group of likely DFL delegates to get their take on the candidates and the issues.
St. Paul, Minn. — Ring Mountain Creamery-Cafe in Eagan is a small locally-owned business surrounded by the typical suburban assortment of big chain stores like Target and Cub Foods. They serve coffee and sandwiches, but their specialty is homemade ice cream. It's at a round table on one end of the shop where seven DFL activists sit down to talk about the Senate race.
Most of them have been to DFL state conventions in the past. All hope to be elected delegates to this spring's convention. They want to help decide who the party should endorse to run against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
At the table are a few retirees, a former building contractor, a free-lance writer, an insurance industry worker, an occupational therapist and a college student.
Almost all of them quickly agree that the upcoming endorsement decision should be based on which candidate has the best chance of winning in November, not on who is best on the issues.
Vicki Wright, the writer, says Al Franken, Mike Ciresi, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and Jim Cohen are so close on the issues that any one of them would represent the party well.
"It's not really a matter of discrete differences between their points on the war or the economy or campaign finance," Wright says. "That's why I think the argument does fall into the electability issue."
Retired teacher and union leader Larry Koenck agrees.
"You couldn't find much difference in their positions, whether it is in education or health care and I guess that's why we aren't into that," Koenck says. "We're into electability."
Only the relative youngster at the table, Amanda Sames, expresses concern about electability overriding all else in the endorsement decision.
"As the 22-year-old anthropology major, I'm willing to say I'm still extremely idealistic and all of the pragmatic talk about electability is a little disappointing," Sames says.
But even Sames admits that the need to win in November could be more important than who she thinks is best on the issues. Sames really likes long-time DFL activist Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, but she's not sure that he can win.
"That's a dangerous position to take to say I'm not going to support someone because I don't think they'll succeed," Sames says sounding frustrated. "I don't want to just jump on a bandwagon, but at the same time, I don't know." Amanda's mother Karen, the occupational therapist, says while Nelson-Pallmeyer's positions on the issues align closely with hers, she is leaning toward supporting Al Franken.
Four of the seven at the table say they're behind Franken 100 percent. None say they are backing Jim Cohen's campaign. Larry Koenck is the only one supporting Mike Ciresi.
"Last summer when I was out in Philadelphia, that's where our national teacher's convention was, I talked with one of the lobbyists from our national education association and she said, 'If Al Franken were the candidate, I'd sure like to be out there campaigning against him," says Koenck.
But Vicki Wright says she's confused about what the negatives really are.
"I mean, I think they try to make it seem like he's a crazy liberal because he attacked Rush Limbaugh who's a pretty big, fat target," Wright says laughing.
Terry Davis, the guy who works for an insurance company, says while some may view Franken as a less than serious outsider, those who have come to know him have a different impression.
"What he has done locally in the state and in building the party I think that's the kind of thing that I look for to the future. To continue to help to build our party and he's done a great deal of that and accomplished that," Davis says.
Larry Koenck, the retired teacher who is backing Ciresi, says he's committed to supporting whoever wins the endorsement. But he thinks Ciresi would have a best chance in November.
"I think there are going to be a lot of Republicans looking for somebody other than Norm Coleman, and I think Ciresi will be more attractive to those people than Franken," Koenck says. "They're going to think of Franken as the comedian, so I think that's where Ciresi will have a better chance will be in the rural areas."
But Terry Davis says at a time when voters say they want change, Ciresi, who ran for Senate six years ago, represents the past.
"He's really not an incumbent, but he's run before so there's a perception among many people that they just want somebody new, a new name and they want a break from what they perceive to be, right or wrong, a connection with the old school," Davis says.
All of the talk about electability seems to overshadow heartfelt, passionate discussion of issues. When pressed on the issues in the Senate and presidential races, the activists seem to agree that economic concerns, not Iraq, will dominate the campaign.
It's not that Iraq has somehow fallen off the radar, they say. Instead, they believe big changes are inevitable.
"Why is it not number one?" Terry Davis asks. "I think people are tired of it being number one for one thing."
"I think it's a no-brainer." says Tami Jensen the former building contractor. "I think it's a gimme that's why it's not talked about now." "And Iraq's a big reason why our economy is tanking right now, and that's going to become an issue," says Larry Koenck.
"I think it's an assumption that we're going to do something about Iraq no matter who gets elected," says Karen Sames. While Al Franken is the undisputed favorite of this particular group of likely delegates, most agree Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer will arrive at this spring's endorsing convention with sizeable support.
Vicki Wright and the others expect Nelson-Pallmeyer's outspoken, immediate withdrawal-position on Iraq will resonate with many delegates.
"I really do believe that there's going to be a large percentage, at least on the first ballot, for Jack, and it will take a couple of more ballots probably for that all to sift down so I think a lot of people are going to hold tight to Jack." says Wright.
To make it to the state convention, delegates who come out of the February 5th precinct caucuses will have to win election again at Senate district and county conventions around Minnesota.
Still the campaigns can't wait to get their hands on even the early delegate lists so they can work potential decision maker's one-on-one, issue-by-issue in hopes of garnering more support.
- Morning Edition, 01/21/2008, 6:50 a.m.