Tevlin: Are politicians playing the name game again?

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2013 - 10:04 PM

We like to believe that our democracy is powered by an educated electorate, smart voters who know the candidates and study the issues before heading into the voting booth.

Real life tells us that’s not always true. Voters can be swayed, or confused, by simple things. Names, for example.

Last week, four last-minute candidates filed to run for the Sixth Ward Minneapolis City Council seat. They all shared a common East African heritage. They also shared first or last names similar to the DFL’s endorsed candidate, Abdi Warsame.

Warsame suggested they might have been prompted to run by sitting Council Member Robert Lilligren to confuse voters with a slate of unfamiliar, yet similar names.

When called by Star Tribune reporter Maya Rao, one candidate, Abdulahi Mahamud Warsame, said he’d withdrawn his name immediately after filing. Rao tried to track down the new candidates, but found one had listed an address that didn’t exist. She used databases to follow other possible addresses, but ended up in an Burnsville yogurt shop.

Lilligren said he didn’t know any of the men, but didn’t help himself by saying he was approached by Somali supporters asking him if it would help him to have more Somalis running to split the vote. Here’s the killer quote:

“So they could have been doing something to recruit people into the race, but not to my knowledge. There’s no law against it.”

If Lilligren told the men who approached him anything other than, “No, don’t do that,” he is breaking one law: the law of decency.

For all I know, the candidates may have been acting independently.

It could be an internal community battle, or it could be that there is a limited number of name combinations in the East African community.

But if there was intention to skew the vote, it would be a new twist on the long tradition of politicians playing the name game to get votes.

In 2002, Eagan Mayor Pat Awada was running for state auditor. A few months before the election, however, she added her maiden name for the first time to her campaign and the ballot.

The name? Anderson, of course.

Good old Pat Awada suddenly became Pat Anderson Awada. That lasted until she won the election. On the state’s website following the win, she was good old Pat Awada again.

In 1993, a 21-year-old Socialist who didn’t even campaign finished third among nine Minneapolis school board candidates. How did that happen?

“It’s because I have a next-door-neighbor Swedish last name,” she told a reporter.

Then there was the case of Greg Wersal, who ran for the state Supreme Court in 2000. Wersal doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue of your typical Swede. Luckily, he was married to a woman with the maiden name of Carlson, so he tacked it on to his name for good measure. He lost.

But he joked to a reporter that “I believe it should be a God-given right in Minnesota to have a middle name like Anderson.”

Dane Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Growth and Justice, and a former political reporter for this newspaper, said that “having a Scandinavian name was always worth a few votes.”

He recalls a candidate who tried to add the words “family farmer” to his name, “back when that was important.” The modern day equivalent might be if a candidate tried to attach “green” or “first responder” to his ballot name, Smith said.

David Schultz, adjunct professor at Hamline, recalls other name games.

“The best is when Sharon Anderson ran for attorney general and won the GOP primary and then did well in the general election,” Schultz said. “She was a fringe candidate and when voters were asked why they voted for her, many said they thought it was the Sharon Anderson from the old KSTP ‘Good Company’ show.”

After all the chaos in the GOP in the last election cycle, it looked like this was going to be a boring summer.

But the DFL has manned up and provided a sinkhole’s worth of entertainment so far. The mayoral race, with a record 35 candidates, appears to be a preview of Canterbury’s recently canceled running of the bulls. Front-runners Mark Andrew and Betsy Hodges are brawling like off-duty Minneapolis police officers.

Now we just have to wait and see if any of the Abdis or Warsames will join the fray.

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