It's primary season in Minnesota, and the perennial question arises: What good is party endorsement anyway?
This is an evergreen question, and it can be a useful one. Try it the next time you want to liven up conversation at a summertime gathering of Minnesotans of mixed political persuasions. People are sure to have things to say. You might even be witness to something rare: accord between Republicans and DFLers.
Political party endorsement has been on the ropes in this state since at least 1938, when the Boy Wonder Dakota County attorney, Harold Stassen, whupped party endorsee Martin Nelson of Albert Lea in the GOP primary for governor.
But there's been no knock-out punch to this process. Each election year, thousands of Minnesotans still troop to caucuses and conventions. They endure arcane procedures, hair-splitting debates and tedious delays in order to bestow the "party-endorsed" label on one candidate, in hopes of shooing other wannabes away.
Often they achieve that end. Sometimes they don't.
It seems there are more "sometimes" than usual this year. Witness lively congressional primaries in the GOP First and DFL Eighth, and in legislative districts dotting the state.
A particularly intense cluster has developed in GOP districts near Lake Minnetonka.
"That's what happens in a redistricting year," someone in your circle might observe. You should nod in partial agreement. When new district lines are drawn, old political networks get remixed in ways that can make them more than usually dysfunctional.
Then you can add: There's more to what ails the endorsement system. You might cite the words of Tarryl Clark, the former state senator and former associate chair of the state DFL Party who spurned endorsement this year to run for Congress:
"I made the decision early on that I was going to go the route Gov. [Mark] Dayton went in 2010, and bypass party endorsement," Clark said. She made that decision before former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's strong caucus showing made him the frontrunner for the party nod he eventually received. (Former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson made the same choice that Clark did.)
Clark's reasons add up to an indictment of selecting candidates via party rules. The process isn't sufficiently democratic, she argues, and it diverts candidates from the larger electorate.
Only about 3,000 DFLers turned out in the entire Eighth District on Feb. 7 to start the endorsement process, she said. In many precincts, fewer than five people attended.
Caucuses are supposed to be gatherings of neighbors who share concerns and strategize together with their representatives about solving problems, Clark said.
"There can be something wonderful about that. But when you have only three or four (or even eight or 10) people in a room, it isn't working," she said. One brief assembly on a winter's night excludes too many people -- night-shift workers; the elderly and disabled; those caring for young children; those intimidated by a process they don't understand.
"We're the party of enfranchisement. What are we doing? How do we get more voices involved?"
Sparse participation erodes the legitimacy of democratic institutions. They become tarred as tools of elitists, zealots and special interests.
What's more, said Clark, the endorsement process consumes too much precious campaign time.
"The Eighth District is no longer the DFL stronghold it once was," she said. Were it otherwise, the district would not be represented today by Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack. "We have to reach out to people beyond the party faithful to win. I came to the conclusion that I need to spend my time reaching out as broadly as possible. The endorsement process interrupts that.
"I decided I needed to put the possibility of being able to make a real difference for people before the party's processes. I saw it as people vs. process, and I chose people."
I'd say that's the choice Minnesotans want their elected officials to make. And that's a choice no political party worth its salt should require of its candidates. The question "whither the endorsement process?" may be perennial, but that doesn't mean it's unanswerable.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.