HINCKLEY, MINN. – Ken Martin was re-elected as DFL Party chair Saturday, soundly defeating challenger Donna Cassutt after a contentious race that revealed fissures in the party going into the 2018 election.
"We need to stop agonizing and start organizing," Martin said during his speech to the more than 400 delegates, who were joined by party activists and elected officials gathered at a Hinckley casino to choose leaders going into the 2018 election.
DFLers are feeling angst about the coming election, in which Republicans are poised to win control of all levels of state government if they protect a big House majority and win the governor's race.
Martin acknowledged the party's recent struggle to deliver a message that resonates with voters. He praised Cassutt for the conversation she sparked.
"We need to be open to new voices, open to new ways of organizing and open to people who are desperate to have their voices heard," he said in remarks after the vote was tallied.
Martin had the support of most of the state's DFL elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who sent a video message to the convention for Martin.
But Cassutt posed a strong challenge by framing the election as one pitting the establishment, status quo candidate against her own upstart bid for change that would emphasize grass roots organizing over fundraising, polls and ads.
Despite the commanding victory that DFL officials said was more than three-to-one, Martin remains at the helm of a party whose activists are still seething from the 2016 election results and demanding answers to questions about what went wrong.
"Was it really beyond our control?" Cassutt said during her speech before the vote, referring to the 2016 results.
But Martin's deep roots among party activists and organized labor overcame DFLers' disappointment with the 2016 results and desire for change.
Martin tried to unify the delegates and promised to expand the DFL footprint to reach all corners of the state after devastating losses in greater Minnesota that cost the party control of the Senate. "If you're going to turn districts from red to purple to blue, we have to start paying attention" to all voters, he said.
The convention also served as an early testing ground for DFLers who have declared their candidacy for governor or are considering it.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman touted his leadership on progressive issues while governing the city. Rep. Erin Murphy spoke about her working-class roots. State Auditor Rebecca Otto said she is holding well-attended "listening sessions" with voters. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan gave a rousing defense of progressive policies such as a single-payer health care system.
Events like Saturday's convention offer an opportunity for candidates to impress the party's most stalwart activists and win them over before next year's endorsing convention.