St. Paul elections: DFL is trying to put a thumb on the scales

This article was first published in the Star Tribune on February 2, 2019. The published version of this article and reader comments are available on the Star Tribune’s website. View on

Opinion editor’s note: This article was submitted by David Durenberger, Shirley Erstad, John Mannillo and the other members of the steering committee of Saint Paul STRONG, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan, community-led organization dedicated to improving open and representative government.”­ Durenberger is a former U.S. senator from Minnesota. Erstad is a former candidate for the St. Paul City Council. Mannillo is a commercial developer and broker. For more about the organization, see

Gov. Tim Walz, a DFLer, is a former teacher, coach and highest-ranking enlisted service member to serve in the U.S. Congress. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is the second Native American woman to be elected to statewide executive office in U.S. history. They won by pledging to unite predominantly “blue” metro Minnesota with predominantly “red” greater Minnesota.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota’s capital city, an essentially one-party town, St. Paul DFL leaders are manipulating the endorsement process to pick favorites before the people have a chance to participate. This is unhealthy for democracy and will continue to divide the city and, by implication, the party and state, at a time when St. Paul is desperate for its DFL legislators to persuade their colleagues, our state executives and Minnesota taxpayers to substantially increase tax investments in St. Paul.

Election Day is Nov. 5. All seven St. Paul City Council seats are on the ballot, along with four school board seats. It’s vital for all to participate for a real democracy to work. The DFL has chosen March 10 as the endorsement date for the Second, Third and Fourth wards. These are the highest-voter turnout portions of the city and include areas such as West Seventh Street, with streetcar proposals; the Ford site, with potentially huge taxpayer investments; and the soccer stadium, with that neighborhood’s revitalization. These are controversial topics with long-lasting budgetary consequences that deserve robust voter conversations but will be denied such a process if the conventions are held March 10.

In a one-party town, the endorsement almost always guarantees winning the election, giving the endorsed candidate DFL voter lists, money, volunteers, events, publicity, mailings and more. A City Council candidate needs to raise $100,000 to be competitive today. Access to DFL resources is a major advantage in the race. It’s a tightly controlled process maneuvered by political insiders. The city DFL chair is a longtime political fundraiser and campaign manager; the vice chair is currently the campaign manager for a City Council incumbent; and the treasurer is the political director for a union. Being politically active and engaged is one thing, but having a hidden hand in city politics is another. This is how political machines are built and operate outside the public eye.

The early convention dates heavily tip the scales in favor of incumbents. New candidates may have not yet emerged, and they almost certainly don’t have the resources to put together full-fledged campaigns in mere weeks. The school board seats are citywide. With the Second, Third and Fourth wards at the exact same time, with each precinct caucus happening in separate rooms, that means a person needs to be in 48 different places at once. How is that humanly possible?

A potential candidate asked the DFL to wait until that person returned from active military duty but was told it couldn’t be done. Yet two other ward conventions are indeed scheduled after that candidate would have been able to participate. The DFL explains that the dates were chosen based on the number of candidates in the ward. That logic doesn’t make sense. It’s a Catch-22. The dates are early because there are few, if any, challengers, which means it almost guarantees there won’t be any challengers because the dates are early.

In a recent election, several DFL-endorsed elected officials were strongly advised to pull their endorsement from a non-DFL-endorsed candidate or there would be consequences the next time they sought endorsement. Such hardfisted tactics do raise the question regarding the DFL endorsement: “What’s behind it?”

Contact the DFL city chair, Beth Commers, at Tell her the DFL Party should wait until September to endorse.

With ranked-choice voting, there is no primary. Why the rush? Let the people have a voice in our future as one of Minnesota’s most distinctive communities. A city of people with economic disadvantages and societal challenges for which every Minnesotan ought to be better informed, more concerned and committed to helping us resolve. We have always been willing to carry more than our fair share as the capital of this great North Star State. We can’t let one party rob us of the opportunity presented by the voters of all of Minnesota. Let’s lead the way in reminding folks what democracy stands for and what it looks like. The words “inclusion” and “diversity” should mean something, and the DFL Party should walk its talk.