Hundreds of St. Paul residents recently packed into a warm middle school auditorium and spent 10 tedious hours trying to agree on which DFL mayoral candidate to rally around.
The outcome was predictable: They picked no one.
As Minneapolis DFLers prepare for their convention Saturday, many anticipate the same result — and are contemplating whether the process needs to change.
Mayoral hopefuls in the DFL-dominated cities still want that stamp of approval. Many Minneapolis candidates plan to step down if someone else gets the endorsement, which typically results in the endorsee getting more money, volunteers and votes. But candidates and campaign staff said conventions should be more inclusive and efficient. Some residents are even asking: With ranked-choice voting, should caucuses and conventions continue?
“We need to have a conversation about whether it makes sense to continue to have an endorsing process in Minneapolis. I think there’s an intense criticism of it, and I think it’s a fair question to ask,” Minneapolis DFL Party Chair Dan McConnell said.
Nonetheless, the convention remains an important first test for campaigns, he said. It shows whether candidates can organize support and whose message resonates with voters.
On Saturday, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges will be vying for the DFL endorsement against seven other candidates, including state Rep. Ray Dehn, Council Member Jacob Frey and former Hennepin Theatre Trust leader Tom Hoch. The election is Nov. 7.
Minneapolis candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds is the lone DFLer not seeking the endorsement. She opted out before caucuses, calling it “confusing and unwelcoming” and a waste of time and money.
Why no endorsement?
Frustrations over wasted time crescendoed in the St. Paul auditorium last month as that city’s 7 p.m. convention deadline neared. Supporters of mayoral candidate Melvin Carter, who had the most delegates, chanted “Endorse!”
Carter ended the night with the support of 55 percent of delegates, just shy of the 60 percent threshold needed. His supporters left shaking their heads at opponents who blocked the endorsement.
Blocking an endorsement is a common occurrence and not against the rules. The Minneapolis DFL has failed to endorse a mayoral candidate in a seriously contested race for 38 years, partly due to political alliances and maneuvering by campaigns.
Minneapolis delegates came together to endorse R.T. Rybak and Sharon Sayles Belton, but only in races where they faced minimal opposition.
At the last city convention in 2013, former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew was in the lead when Hodges’ supporters left the auditorium to eat pizza. There was no longer a quorum of delegates, so the convention ended without an endorsement.
Deadlocked conventions will continue because candidates, not the party, compel people to turn out at events, McConnell said.
“Everybody has their own candidate,” he said. “I don’t think people just come altruistically to a convention and spend their day because they love the DFL.”
Even if St. Paul endorsed Carter, it wouldn’t have changed the DFL’s Election Day lineup. Unlike Minneapolis, where many candidates said they would abide by the party’s decision, all the DFLers except Carter planned to continue in the race no matter who won the endorsement.
Ranked choice impact
The DFL endorsement isn’t as important as it once was as more candidates opt to stay in the race, said Dan McGrath, executive director of the progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota.
Minneapolis and St. Paul started using ranked-choice voting in 2009 and 2011, respectively, in part to eliminate the expensive and low-turnout primary. Without a primary, more candidates end up on the final ballot, McGrath said, and voters can pick more than one candidate.
“Ten years ago, 20 years ago, who the party endorsed largely determined the outcome of an election,” he said. “It doesn’t wield that kind of influence anymore.”
Ranked-choice voting also has made conventions more complicated, because candidates not only want to know the delegates’ first choice but their second and third — which can help factor into a win, said Joelle Stangler, Dehn’s campaign manager.
But Frey said the convention still sets the tone for the rest of the election.
“Minneapolis is a vast majority DFL city and having support of the party is more than a little bit helpful,” he said.
The party’s backing comes with useful resources, said Hodges’ communications director, Alida Tieberg, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle for candidates.
Stangler described the endorsement process as a “double-edged sword.” It is inaccessible to many people, she said, but it gives campaigns that don’t have a lot of money an opportunity to get out their message and show their strengths.
“I imagine there will be conversations in next five or 10 years, if not sooner, about whether or not this is a process we can continue to uphold as a party,” she said.
Insider or inclusive
In St. Paul, DFL Chair Libby Kantner said she hasn’t heard discussions about doing away with the endorsement, but there is lots of talk about how to make it better represent the whole community.
“People see how difficult it is to participate,” Kantner said. “We’ve done the easy fixes.”
St. Paul DFL shifted caucuses from weeknights to weekends, when more people are able to attend, and added interpreters and closed captioning. People are now suggesting a controversial change to how delegates are allotted, Kantner said.
City wards get a certain number of delegates based on past voter turnout. Some residents want every ward to get the same number of delegates. It’s an important conversation, Kantner said, because affluent St. Paul neighborhoods that have higher turnout get the most say under the current system.
Levy-Pounds, whose aim is to fight the status quo in Minneapolis, said the endorsement process is exclusive and she would rather spend time getting out her message to a broad voter base.
“I see it as an antiquated process,” she said. “That process needs to either be reformed or completely done away with. And I think that we should just do away with it altogether.”