FREE SPEECH ZONE | County Commissioner Stenglein faces challenge to his DFL endorsement


The gymnasium was sparsely populated at the Hennepin County DFL District 2 endorsing convention on March 16 at North Commons Park. Though a few hundred delegates had been elected six weeks earlier at precinct caucuses, fewer than 70 delegates and alternates were seated. When the convention got underway around 6:30, it was brisk and mostly routine. Some DFL office holders and candidates for office were invited to speak to delegates and the rules were adopted.

Then the Hennepin County Sheriff, Rich Stanek, who just days before had been endorsed by the Republican Party for a second term, addressed the delegates. Though it is highly unusual for a partisan convention to feature speakers from the other major party, there was surprisingly little objection.

Next came the main agenda item: Endorsement for District 2 County Commissioner. Mark Stenglein has held the post since January 1997, and though he had always clung to political independence, in 2008, he had joined the DFL and began attending caucuses and conventions. Now, in his bid for a fifth term, he was seeking the DFL endorsement. Stenglein was nominated and with no other candidates stepping forward, a motion was made to suspend the rules and endorse him by acclamation. Despite a few ‘nays’ on the motion and endorsement vote, Stenglein was granted endorsement. He proceeded to make a brief speech, take a couple of questions from delegates, and then it was over.

Or was it? Word slowly spread among DFL activists that Stenglein had been endorsed, proof of which had been posted on YouTube. Some of the activists remembered that they had been elected county delegates, yet missed the convention. How did that happen, they asked. Neighborhood activist Gayle Bonneville had an answer: They weren’t invited.

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One of the rules of a DFL Convention is that the party unit running the event, in this case the Hennepin County DFL, is supposed to send notice of the convention date and time, as well as information on party officers and pre-convention committees, to each delegate via U. S. Mail. This is known as the “official call.”

Bonneville began surveying DFLers she knew, and it didn’t take her long to find several county delegates who never received their official call. Neither had she. Strangely, though, she had also found a few county delegates who did get official calls. Worse yet, she came to believe that many of the delegates who got the calls were “in the bag” for Stenglein, while most of the delegates who were skeptical of Stenglein did not get calls.

“I don’t doubt that people did get postcards…one or two told me they did,” Bonneville reasons, “But a whole host of others say they didn’t–too many to beat the postal service’s odds.” This, combined with a controversial candidate–Stenglein had been a prominent backer of George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 and a proponent of the still-controversial Twins Stadium tax–“and you’ve got a suspicious process that led to a flawed endorsement of which the DFL should not be proud.”

Armed with this information, Bonneville filed a Challenge to the Convention with the State DFL. The State party scheduled a hearing for April 8. Then on April 7, the chair of the panel that was to hear the challenge complaint, Al Patton, announced that the hearing would be delayed three weeks to “allow some testifiers more time to prepare.” Bonneville was livid: she had to take off work to attend the hearing and now would lose pay to take off work for nothing. No one was able to determine which testifiers wanted more time to prepare, and Stenglein aide Kari Dziedzic reiterated that Stenglein was perfectly fine with the April 8 hearing.

Bonneville calls the rescheduling “blatantly unfair” and furthermore alleges that the party wants to sweep the challenge under the rug by delaying the hearing until after their State Convention, which concluded on April 25.

Hennepin County DFL Chair Nikki Carlson says that the party followed all applicable rules. Some Senate District officers report that she has emailed them to try and find delegates who can testify that they received a call. Carlson says Stanek was allowed to speak because it was a nonpartisan race and “politics don’t play a huge role in the office of county commissioner, county attorney or sheriff.” Plus, Carlson adds, Stanek has a working relationships with DFL officials, “so I think most people did not mind his addressing the convention, and I heard from many that they appreciated him reaching out to DFLers.” Furthermore, she asserts that Stanek has been allowed to speak at the conventions that endorsed Commissioners Gail Dorfman and Peter McLaughlin for the same reasons.

As of right now, it appears that the new hearing is going to proceed as scheduled: Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. at the State DFL Headquarters, 255 E. Plato Blvd. in St. Paul. Anyone with information pertinent to the challenged convention is invited to testify, and the meeting is open to the public. In particular, delegates to the convention in question are sought so that they may advise the State Party as to whether or not they were mailed an official call.

The challenge could be dealt with in a number of ways, including dismissal, which would allow Stenglein to keep the endorsement, they could order a “re-do” convention, they could simply strip Stenglein of the endorsement, or they could even agree to adopt some of the other proposals outlined in Bonneville’s challenge addendum, such as ousting the County Party Chair and explicitly prohibiting candidates endorsed by other parties from speaking at DFL Conventions.

Regardless of the outcome, the controversy surrounding the Hennepin County DFL will not end there. The following week, Thursday, May 6, 2010, at 6pm, the County DFL will hold a “Central Committee” meeting, at North Commons Park, 1801 James Ave N in Minneapolis, where the agenda includes planning for an as-yet-unscheduled County-wide convention to endorse candidates for County Sheriff, County Attorney, Three Rivers Park District Commissioners, and Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors. They’ll have to move fast–candidate filing runs May 18 through June 1, and candidates who fail to file an affidavit of candidacy with the County Clerk by June 1 will not be on the ballot.

SPECIAL NOTE: The author was a delegate to the District 2 Convention, will be testifying at the hearing, and is a member of the SD59 DFL executive committee.