The former Union Bar has all the elements of a bad frat party. A balding, mustachioed fellow sprawls on the tattered couch at the edge of what was once a dance floor. An ancient organ and spackled upright piano hold a couple of battered cardboard boxes. On the black wall at the far end of the room, someone has taped a series of large pieces of papers on which the week’s tasks have been described. There’s not a keg in sight, though, and the stage is plastered with lawn signs advertising the longshot campaign of Minneapolis City Council Member Paul Ostrow.
Eleven black desks ring the room, each equipped with a phone, but an hour before the polls close, only three staffers are attempting to roust the faithful from their living room chairs and push them out the door to vote.
Tara Trepanier, the assistant campaign manager, is running the show. She’s been with the campaign for six months, ever since she learned at a figure skating competition that U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo announced he was resigning after 28 years representing one of the country’s most liberal congressional districts and Ostrow announced he would run. It’s her first political campaign.
It’s also Ostrow’s first run for public office beyond his Northeast Minneapolis City Council ward, which he has represented for nine years. His hunt for DFL delegates at the district convention last May was a non-starter and his decision to compete in the primary against three better-known, better-financed candidates has been widely considered one of the most curious of the campaign season.
But on this primary election night, there’s no sense of foreboding among the mostly college-aged staffers here. Most are headed back to school after today’s vote. Trepanier, for her part, is on her way to Macedonia for a 27-month stint in the Peace Corps. “We’ll see how long I last,” she says.
Everyone but a woman named Julie at the desk near the front window has stopped calling. “I’ve only got one left,” she says, as her colleagues slowly gather their call sheets. One last voice mail and she’s done, too.
I comment on how Ostrow had earlier lamented how few people are actually home in the evenings to take his calls, and Julie shakes her head. “Everybody’s working,” she says.
The phone rings and Tepanier hurries to pick it up. “Ostrow for Congress!” she says with some well-worn perkiness. She listens for a moment before hanging up the phone. “They want to talk with us about a mortgage.”
Another staffer, Joelle, says she’s going out for beer and Tara’s following her around with a giant Ostrow sign. “I’m not running with that sign,” she says.
Ostrow’s mother, Hilvy, and his sister show up. “He’s so tired,” Hilvy reports. People begin milling on the dance floor. The beer and pizza come out.
Andy Luger, who’s running for Hennepin County attorney, shows up with David Lillehaug. “I’m making the rounds,” says Luger, who is not on the primary ballot because he and former Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman are the only two candidates in the race.
“There are no Republicans,” he says.
Five minutes later, he and Lillehaug are gone. “I’ve got to stay on schedule,” Luger says.
Two campaign staffers return with some micro-wavable food. “The polls have officially closed,” they announce to their grateful colleagues, who emit a weak celebratory grunt.
With my laptop battery running low, I’m searching for an electrical outlet that works. A mop-haired young man points out one in the corner and takes the opportunity to remind me what a dump this building was when they moved in back in June. “They still had squatters upstairs,” he said. “I would be working late some nights and guys would be banging on the front door, trying to get in to find a place to sleep.”
“Wow!” says one of the staffers as the first returns begin to come in. It’s only 3 percent of the precincts reporting, but Ostrow’s already mired in fourth place with 4.69 percent of the vote, trailing Mike Erlandson (50 percent), Ember Reichgott Junge (23 percent), and Keith Ellison (19 percent).
Perennial candidate Gregg Iverson registers 13 votes. “Yeah, he got his whole family to vote,” the staffer quips.
“Early, early, early,” the mustachioed man mutters.
Ostrow strides in, resplendent in a brown suit and understated red tie. He gets a round of applause. “We’re inching our way up,” he says, smiling and squinting at the numbers on the screen at the back of the stage. “We’re up to 6 percent!” he says.
He approaches a gaggle of supporters. “Hey. Look who’s here.” And to the youngster: “How about those Twins?”
“It’s 3-3,” he reports on the progress of the Twins-Oakland game. He’s in great good humor, working to buoy the crowd’s spirits, despite the numbers.
“We’re that horse at the back of the pack, ready to make that big charge,” he says.
“There’s nothing from Hennepin County yet,” a staffer notes, hopefully.
Erlandson: 49 percent
“It’s the journey,” Ostrow says to another staffer. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
And then: “We’re much closer to second place than Ember is to Mike. We’ve got to go to the spin room.”
Finally: “We’ve jumped two-and-a-half percent in the last 10 minutes. We’ll be to 30 percent in another half hour.
A couple of dozen supporters and staff gather in small clusters around the room, as Ostrow makes small talk with Jill Davis, a Northeast schools activist, who lost her own bid for elected office last spring at the DFL city convention. “You know, the endorsement I really wanted was from the teachers,” Ostrow tells her.
Ostrow pops open a beer.
The mustachioed guy in the Ostrow T-shirt gives Trepanier a big hug, and gets Ostrow and a visitor to pose for a photo. The candidate flashes his best smile. “We got it?” he asks.
“It says low battery,” Mustache Man reports, and while Trepanier fiddles with the camera, he inches his way toward the exit.
“I can read books now,” Ostrow says to Trepanier. “There is a top-10 list of things I can do.”
More numbers flash on the screen. “We went up two-one-hundredths of a percent,” he says. “Is my sense of humor intact, or what?”
Ostrow takes the stage for his concession speech. “We would have liked to have had a few more votes, but life is a journey,” he says.
He invites the staff up to much applause. “This is the future right here.”
He laments the demise of retail politics and how money has come to dominate congressional races, but he refuses to give in to cynicism. “I’ll tell you what. I’m tougher than I’ve ever been,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”