Small, passionate crowds turn out for caucus night in Minnesota

Party activists turn out on a cold night to shape party policies and make picks for the upcoming campaign.

From Bemidji to New Ulm, Minnesotans turned out on a frigid caucus night Tuesday to shape the political agenda for the 2014 elections and hash out their views on everything from the minimum wage to marijuana to gay marriage to ending the Federal Reserve.

“Caucuses are the only opportunity a citizen has to make a difference in what the political parties will fight for, and to give direction to the people we actually hire as our next legislators,” said Linda Hamilton, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

Sometimes, caucus night gets a little too exciting. At Minneapolis’ Bryan Coyle Center, a challenge to longtime DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn brought out the crowds — and the police. A rainbow of headscarves peppered the mostly Somali-American crowd of several hundred, many of whom had shown up to support activist Mohamud Noor. A Minneapolis school board member, Noor wants to replace Kahn, who is seeking a 22nd term. But noisy outbursts over who was to lead the meeting quickly turned to chaos. A fight broke out, people rushed the podium and within 45 minutes of the meeting’s start, police shut the ­caucus down, ordering the crowds out. Abdirashid Omar said he was there to show his support for Noor, “the only person talking … my language.”

Afterward, DFL executive director Corey Day appeared baffled by the rare turn of events. “I have no clue exactly why this transpired,” he said. “I’m just as shocked as you guys.

Elsewhere, DFLers and Republicans vied for one-on-one time with candidates for governor and U.S. Senate and proposed resolutions that they hoped might make it into their party’s platforms.

Wayne Peterson, 64, a Republican farmer who went to Farmington, is worried about a tax on farm equipment repair and about the growth in government. But he also frets about a Tea Party tilt that he said is leading his party down a misguided path of ­confrontation and distraction.

“I came to bring a little balance to the party,” Peterson said.

David Schnell showed up to his DFL caucus in St. Paul to push for an increase in the minimum wage.

“I’ve worked for minimum wage, and you can’t get by,” said Schnell, 43. “I lost the last job I had, but it didn’t matter much, because I was paid $7.25 an hour. For those who can’t work, it’s unbelievable how miserable their lives are.”

Schnell said he also was concerned about the possible legalization of medical marijuana. “I don’t think it’s right for Minnesota. I don’t think it’s a part of who we are,” he said.

In Farmington, about 200 Republicans showed up on the outskirts of town at a middle school, where the walls were filled with campaign signs and literature for GOP gubernatorial candidates Scott Honour and state Sen. Dave Thompson, of Lakeville.

Punctuated by cheers and applause, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, asked the gathering crowd, “Who here is ready to throw out Mark Dayton and install some adult supervision in the governor’s office and the House of Representatives?”

Beaming at the response, Garofalo said, “We are now closer to this end of this Democratic nightmare.”

Seifert, Ortman lead straw poll

With 124 of 127 caucuses reporting, unofficial results posted to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website early Wednesday showed former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert leading the field in the nonbinding GOP straw poll for governor with 3,788 votes. Thompson was in second place with 3,495 votes, followed by Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson's 2,341 votes. “Undecided” came in fourth. Honour and state Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove were neck-and-neck for fifth.

On the Senate side, according to state GOP results, Republican state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen was in first place, followed by businessman Mike McFadden. “Undecided” was third, followed closely by state Rep. Jim Abeler and Chris Dahlberg.

At Highland Park High School in St. Paul, newly anointed Dayton running mate Tina Smith worked the crowds in her first outing as a campaign surrogate for her boss. Dayton, who is scheduled for hip surgery next week stemming from an earlier fall, was to have showed up with her but canceled because of his hip problems.

“We have made great progress over the last three years but we have a lot of work to do and I want to ask for your support to send us back to get that work done,” said Smith, who until Tuesday had been Dayton’s chief of staff, but who now is his second-term pick for lieutenant governor.

Smith was untroubled by GOP criticisms of what they’ve dubbed “the better Minneapolis” ticket. “I don’t think there’s a public servant in the state that has more experience representing the whole state than Governor Mark Dayton,” she said. “He knows this state in his bones.”

A place to get a toehold

Caucuses can be a chance to get a toehold against an established incumbent for candidates like Republican David Gerson of South St. Paul, who’s running to the right against U.S. Rep. John Kline in the Second Congressional District. But Gerson’s campaign coordinator, Marianne Stebbins, knows that asking supporters to turn out for a caucus is a big ask.

“It’s not just taking five minutes to go vote. You’re taking an evening out of your life, getting a baby sitter, going and ­sitting with your neighbors for a couple of hours to hash these things out, so it’s a much bigger commitment,” said Stebbins, who coordinated 2012 GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul’s massive Minnesota caucus effort. But, she said, “Isn’t it worth taking a couple of hours on an evening to make a difference and to try to turn back the tide?”

Most GOP gubernatorial candidates made the precinct rounds, with the exception of Honour, who said in a statement earlier that the caucuses were not part of his “victory strategy,” that he had devoted few resources to it and expected to make only a ­modest showing in the poll.

Eden Prairie High School hosted nearly 60 precinct caucuses, split between DFLers and Republicans.

Seifert, who competed in the 2010 gubernatorial endorsing contest and lost, was determined to go the distance this time.

“I’m the only candidate, of the six of us, who has ever polled ahead of Mark Dayton,” Seifert said, referring to a 2010 poll. “I think some people are becoming more pragmatic about electing someone who can win. I’m conservative and electable, not just one or the other.”

McFadden, who has already said he will go to a primary, nevertheless expressed his appreciation for the caucus process. “I think the caucus is great,” he said. “It’s a truly Minnesota event where people come out in, what is it, 5 degrees out there? To exercise their rights as citizens and hear from the candidates.”

Cheryl Poling, chair of the DFL Third Congressional District, was ebullient after she successfully introduced a resolution to suspend recreational wolf hunting in Minnesota.

“We can make change,” Poling said. “This is where it happens. Make an effort. You can change the platform. This is how you change the world.”

 

Staff writers Jim Ragsdale, Abby Simons, Eric Roper and Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 651-925-5049



 

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