Democracy broke out so hard this week that someone had to call an ambulance.
The scene was the Sixth Ward caucus at Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. In fact, by the time I got there, two firetrucks and an emergency vehicle were already standing by. A woman either fell or was pushed in the crush to support one of the three candidates for a Minneapolis City Council seat, and others were feeling faint from the crowds and the heat.
Some days, the secret to political victory is just staying on your feet.
Inside, hundreds of potential voters jammed into the gym. The vast majority were immigrants from Somalia, there to support either incumbent Abdi Warsame or challenger Mohamud Noor. They chanted, they cheered, they traded hugs and kisses and they argued.
Just about the time organizers — and I use the term very loosely — were about to get things started more than an hour late, firefighters in full regalia burst in to warn that there were too many people in the gym and that they were violating fire codes. So, everyone spilled onto the adjacent soccer field, breaking up a basketball game along the way.
I was standing at the back of the room, unable to hear the speaker over the din. A Somali man standing next to me smiled and said, “Crazy, huh?”
Crazy, yes, but also emotionally uplifting and inspiring, maddeningly chaotic and terribly entertaining. Hundreds of people gave up a Tuesday night, months in advance of the election, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to show support for the person they will be able to blame for the city’s problems for the next four years.
Other caucuses were undoubtedly more subdued, but there was an undeniable sense of urgency. The number of people attending caucuses more than doubled from the last election. The Trump dystopia is clearly motivating people to do something, and at the local level that means running for office, even against your own party. I’m hearing a lot of “repeal and replace” in the rhetoric of opposition candidates, but not a lot of “for what?”
Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.
Talking to several incumbents over the past week, I heard a lot of the same reactions to the caucus aftermath: There is a race to the far left in Minneapolis. A lot of people are focusing on a single issue. The words “litmus test” and “purity test” come up a lot. Identity politics are rampant. There is a belief that a clever message may go further than solid policy positions.
Hashtags are in, nuance is out.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, said the Rubik’s Cube of a caucus system doesn’t always portend outcomes, but he got some hints.
“The whispering campaign about the hurdles facing the mayor’s re-election got the first bit of confirmation,” said Jacobs. “[It was] a disappointing showing for [Betsy] Hodges and an indication that her mayorship is at genuine risk.”
Jacobs cautioned, however, that “I would certainly not count her out. The Minneapolis DFL Convention often doesn’t endorse; a deadlocked convention was part of her strategy in 2013. Her strength is community organizing, which was only partly on display Tuesday night.”
Some candidates report an internecine animosity that didn’t exist in contested races four years ago, a mean-spiritedness that perhaps borrows from the tenor of the presidential election.
Jacobs, however, expects that to be tempered by the gravitational pull of ranked choice.
“The unexpected positive of ranked-choice voting is that you want to be polite to your opponent because you want her/his supporters to rank you second,” said Jacobs. “Ranked-choice may introduce civility in an uncivil era.”
Maybe so, but one mayoral candidate, Nekima Levy-Pounds, already decided to skip the DFL endorsement with a refrain that sounds familiar for some reason: The system is rigged.
“Nekima made a virtue of necessity — she had no chance of finishing among top candidates so she got a temporary news flash by dropping out,” said Jacobs. “The challenge she faces is a lack of enduring organization and financial support to contend with the mayor and Jacob Frey.”
Levy-Pounds is just one of the many running against the status quo in an attempt to become the status quo. The mad cacophony of the Sixth Ward caucus shows that this is already a three-alarm election cycle.