Filling the glass: an organizer’s take on Nov. 2 in Minnesota

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I’ve read Eric Pusey’s and Tommy Johnson’s posts at the Minnesota Progressive Project, and Jeff Rosenberg over at MNPublius. I am just a little stunned about the choices some progressives are making about what we should be focusing on right now. The defeatism of these conversations feeds Republican triumphalism. In Minnesota, it is not based on local reality.

We did not get shellacked in Minnesota.

Let’s be very specific. Yes, we lost the legislature (more on that later) and yes, that is painful. But can we look for a second at what else happened on Tuesday?

We won the governorship for the first time in 24 years, people. Yes, we’re in a recount. But we are not starting 700 votes behind. We are starting 9,000 votes AHEAD. Republicans know they have an uphill climb.

Moreover, we retained the other constitutional offices. Our talented Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie, won resoundingly even as, in this Republican base turnout year, the GOP mantra of “he stole the election for Franken” could not motivate their base because most Minnesotans saw the recount as fair and accurate.

Like Mark Ritchie, Lori Swanson would not have won a second term as Attorney General so resoundingly without independents and Republicans voting for her. Rebecca Otto had the toughest fight against a woman who had the job before her and whose last name is Anderson. Tim Walz won and the coordinated campaign’s efforts with his campaign in the first district helped deliver the numbers we needed to win the governorship. Unlike other states, in Minnesota we did not get shellacked. At worst it was a draw.

Take a second to revel in the fact that we did not get creamed. Then can we analyze what we lost up against what we won and see if that gives us any insight into improving things?

So, what were the big losses? First, of course, is the legislature and, second, Congressman Oberstar’s seat. Let’s start with the legislature.

When people write things like “the DFL needs to learn from Mark Dayton,” my question is, who are you talking about? Who specifically needs to learn a lesson? Because a lot goes on down on Plato Boulevard, a lot of it having nothing or little to do with the party chair.

The Senate caucus and the House caucus each maintain independent political operations that have a seat at the coordinated campaign, but each caucus makes decisions for itself about candidate recruitment, targeting, etc. They select their own mail houses and develop their own independent expenditure ads and mail. Moreover, when materials go out with the DFL disclaimer on it about a House or Senate race, you can bet that is not something the party chair or his staff have developed on their own

However, although I think it’s simplistic to say “The DFL” lost the legislature, I also do not believe that the Senate or House caucus political operations are to blame for the campaigns they ran. When something this large happens, which I know took both caucuses by surprise, there is something deeper afoot

For what it’s worth, I don’t see how to read Tuesday’s losses as anything other than a massive repudiation of the legislature and legislators (including Tom Emmer, by the way). When masses of people went into the voting booth and filled three or four circles in the spaces for constitutional officers but then went further down the ballot in the other direction, we need to focus on that.

Some have suggested to me that where retail politics mattered, the Republicans won and where party branding mattered they lost. I’m not sure I agree. I have not heard reports that the caucuses didn’t work hard enough. They certainly had a cash advantage – four to one in the Senate and I believe two to one for the House.

This is tough to say, and some people may get angry to hear it, but I think we lost the legislature on Tuesday because after four years with solid DFL majorities, there weren’t a whole lot of accomplishments they could run on. Yes, they successfully fought against some of Pawlenty’s more draconian initiatives, but where did we actually move the ball forward in a way that spoke to our values?

We passed Pawlenty’s budgets year after year but never seemed to be able to figure out a way to out-maneuver him politically. For the last four to six years that Pawlenty approached the legislative session like a political campaign, while our well-meaning legislators approached it as policymakers. They crafted sometimes beautiful policy that they knew was going to be vetoed, but they neglected to create the kind of political pressure necessary to corner him into signing the bills. Yes, some truly gifted legislators crashed on Tuesday. The blunt truth, however, is that leaders must be able to articulate their wins to their constituents and, as a collective body, the two majorities did not have enough accomplishments to run on.

Finally, let’s be honest — last year’s session seemed more dominated by the politics of the gubernatorial endorsement process than it was the politics of out-gunning our absentee governor.

The 8th Congressional District loss was just as frustrating. The Congressman’s campaign let the Cravaack narrative, originally crafted out of an extremely dubious internal poll, spin out of control. In the end, excitement about Cravaack brought out every single Republican in the southern part of the district.

But if you look at the range numbers in, for example, Tommy Rukavina’s legislative district, Oberstar didn’t hold on to enough of his base. There was some dropoff from Tommy’s numbers to Dayton’s, but even more to Oberstar. Rukavina got 11,798 votes in his district while Oberstar only got 9,372. Over 2400 more votes! There were enough ticket-splittersin Oberstar’s base to put Cravaack over the top in the overall numbers.

I think allowing the Cravaack David vs. Goliath narrative get out of hand brought out more Republicans in the district than might have otherwise voted while keeping Dayton in recount territory.

From where I sit, I just don’t see how the current leadership of the DFL is singularly responsible for these losses. When everyone throws around the term “the DFL” in such a non-specific manner–while viewing the entire apparatus of the party–including legislative caucuses and the congressional campaigns–as a monolith, the analysis resembles more a flood of angry tears in beer, rather than a blueprint for electing state legislative majorities for the second two years of Governor Dayton’s term.

As for the next DFL chair? It’s been so long since we’ve had a governor that people seem to have forgotten a simple fact – the person whose opinion matters most about what we should have in a state party is the titular head of the party, Governor Dayton.

I must be charitable to many of the bloggers: they have never seen a sitting DFL governor in their lifetimes. Certainly not since they reached the age of reason. Their failure to grasp this fact is fully a failing of party activists to communicate this fact to a new and energetic generation.

I am always one for self-reflection, especially after a loss. But what I don’t get about the whole “clean up Plato” stuff going around is how misdirected some of the anger is but also how unproductive it is. Look how many comments have gone into the blogposts about “the DFL” and the next Chair.

Then think about how many bloggers are currently pushing the significant story that today we learned that there are only 3,000 rejected absentee ballots. I see Joe Bodell covered that story, but mostly people are tweeting and commenting on “cleaning Plato.” We still have a governor to swear in, people. Focus!

My rap with organizers is always the same. The job of the organizer is to be an optimist; if you are not an optimist this is not the job for you. If you cannot paint a brighter future, how can you expect anyone to follow your lead?

So here’s my brighter future: Everyone is up for reelection in two years, the entire House and the entire Senate. We can approach these legislative sessions the way they did and, if we play the politics intelligently, we can show Minnesota voters that the new legislature’s values are not their values.

And, now, finally, the other side is going to see what it’s like to have a governor with conviction–and a veto pen.

Javier Morillo-Alicea is president of SEIU Local 26 and a progressive political commentator. This commentary will be crossposted in a diary on Minnesota Progressive Project.