Tall and lean at 57, with a shock of snowy hair and a manner both passionate and professorial, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer calls himself the insurgent in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race.
While DFL front-runner Al Franken does another turn on CNN or heads out to California for a fundraiser, Nelson-Pallmeyer has quietly slid into the No. 2 spot, trouncing renowned trial attorney Mike Ciresi in several recent endorsing conventions. Trailing in the delegate count, Ciresi pulled out of the race last week.
Now, from an unlikely perch at the University of St. Thomas, where he teaches justice and peace studies, Nelson-Pallmeyer said he intends to push past Franken as well, with an overtly liberal message whose time, he says, has come.
Nelson-Pallmeyer wants the United States out of Iraq in six months. He favors universal, single-payer health care and what he calls a "domestic Marshall Plan" that would rebuild the nation's infrastructure with an eye toward energy independence. He would repeal NAFTA and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
"I'm the only candidate who's calling for reductions in military spending as part of this country's reassessment of its role in the world," Nelson-Pallmeyer said. "People are tired of using the National Guard for foreign intervention in wars we don't need."
Once this former divinity student preaches his progressive message, he says, "I can win them over."
On Saturday, the auditorium of Coon Rapids High School was filled with a surge of ardent newcomers and some veteran party hands, deeply engaged in the local endorsing process that makes DFL gatherings both mysterious and addictive. By the time he reached his former hometown, Nelson-Pallmeyer had already hit similar conventions in St. Louis Park, Robbinsdale, Bloomington and Burnsville. Next would be Buffalo, Becker and north Minneapolis, all for the chance to deliver a precisely timed two-minute pitch, shake a few hands and hope he'd made a good impression.
The pace -- he spent less than 10 minutes at most venues -- was reminiscent of the "Fast-Paced Paul" ads that first brought the late Sen. Paul Wellstone widespread attention as he scurried from place to place, explaining that "I don't have much money, so I have to talk fast."
Nelson-Pallmeyer doesn't have much cash either, at least not compared with Franken and incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, two fundraising behemoths who can call on out-of-state money as easily as any national figure.
Beyond money and name recognition, Franken presents an additional challenge to the upstart Nelson-Pallmeyer. For two years Franken has toiled in the DFL's fields, doing the hard work of party- and organization-building. The result has been a formidable grass-roots machine, laden with cash and fortified with eager, enthusiastic, on-the-ground troops. Lately Franken has taken to talking about a "new progressive movement" and appears to be positioning himself to reap the benefit of newcomers swept in by the intoxicating presidential contest.
Won't play it safe
In Coon Rapids, Ham Lake truck driver Curtis Block hoists a "Labor" sign above his head and bellows like a fishmonger trying to unload carp: "Labor! Uncommitted! Working families." His high-decibel sing-song is designed to lure others to his "uncommitted" subcaucus, although he acknowledges that ultimately his group plans to merge with the swelling ranks of Franken supporters lining the auditorium's right side.
On the left, Jim Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack's look-alike brother, strategizes with veteran organizer Eric Mitchell on how to outflank the Franken forces. "Jim, get with the Kiss Bachmann Goodbye folks," Mitchell yelled from across the room, referring to a subcaucus looking to oust Republican Sixth Congressional District Rep. Michele Bachmann. "I think I'm going to pass out," Mitchell, a volunteer, said as an aside to another operative, as the deadline for another head count approached.
Mitchell knows that Nelson-Pallmeyer's road will be steep, "but playing it safe hasn't done it for us in the past," he said. "If there was ever a year for a true progressive to get elected, this is it. I'm no dreamer. If I didn't think Jack could do it, I wouldn't be here."
Jerry Newton, an Anoka-Hennepin school board member who is running for a state House seat himself, said he has been impressed by Nelson-Pallmeyer's message and delivery. "He's very, very good," said Newton, a longtime party activist. "But Al Franken's been to every bean feed, every event for two years," he said. When downballot candidates throw a fundraiser and need a name that will draw, "Franken's been there," Newton said. "People don't forget that."
On the other hand, he said, looking out at a crowd filled with new faces, "to the extent that there are brand-new, committed Democrats, Jack has tremendous appeal. He does have a chance."
As the afternoon wore on, Jimmy Delaney, a Tennessee transplant, found himself in a Nelson-Pallmeyer subcaucus, weighing his options. "I'm a committed progressive," Delaney said in his soft drawl. "I like Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, but it's so important to me to win this election. I just don't think he has the name recognition." For now, he said, his support is with Franken.
The pure product
While Nelson-Pallmeyer acknowledges the steep hill he must climb to overtake Franken, he's banking on stoking the kind of enthusiasm associated with Wellstone, a liberal DFLer who rose from obscurity to unseat incumbent GOP Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.
Nelson-Pallmeyer has already surprised some observers with his staying power and the sheer fervor of his supporters.
"Party activists are strongly ideological, and they're really ramped up," said Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier. "For the ideologically liberal Democratic activist, he [Nelson-Pallmeyer] is the pure product." Frequent candidates Dick Franson and Darryl Staunton are also in the race.
Buzz Snyder, a retired postmaster from Sauk Rapids who heads DFL Senate District 14, said that while Franken is the front-runner, he sees emerging support for Nelson-Pallmeyer, particularly among college students at nearby St. John's and St. Benedict's.
Snyder said that Franken is well-organized and well-liked by activists in the district, but that "there's no question that Mr. Nelson-Pallmeyer could coalesce the strong anti-war element in the party."
Ember Reichgott Junge, a former DFL state senator and an ardent Ciresi supporter, said on Tuesday that the party would unite around its nominee, but that Coleman looms as a formidable candidate.
"If the debate is focused on issues of the Bush administration and Coleman's support for Bush, we win," she said. "To the extent that Coleman can make the race about Franken or Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, we lose."