The other shoe drops

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For weeks, local political observers have been anticipating one last, killing revelation that would finally and utterly sink Keith Ellison’s 5th District congressional campaign. Would it be some evidence of womanizing or a damning connection to a terrorist cell or some untidy financial affair? Nobody knew for sure, but rumors of another shoe about to drop have been flying.

How ironic it was, then, to find not Ellison, but his “values-based’ Republican opponent Alan Fine, scrambling to explain allegations of domestic abuse by his ex-wife. Coming as it did on the heels of Fine’s latest attack ad, the news must have struck the (appropriately silent) Ellison campaign as poetic justice.

Indeed, it was such a delicious “live by the sword, die by the sword” moment that I was tempted for a moment to call Fine–who does have a bit of the philosopher in him–and ask him whether at some level he understood the weird karma of it all. I restrained myself, however; there’s no sense in piling on at a time when a once-intriguing moderate Republican’s hopes for a respectable showing in this DFL-dominated district had completely disintegrated.

It’s remarkable how a month’s worth of bad decision-making can ruin a campaign. Prior to the September 11 primary, Fine had run a brilliant and creative race, distinguishing himself as a thoughtful, non-partisan moderate who wanted nothing more than to air the issues. His “Piano and Politics” event in August and “Building Bridges” symposium just prior to the primary were both elegant statements about the value of civic engagement. But, immediately following Ellison’s convincing primary victory, Fine went negative, citing Ellison’s poor character as a reason he was not qualified to represent the district in Congress.

Some political insiders point out that Fine had little choice but to go for the big smackdown, given the district’s overwhelming DFL numbers, but if Fine’s campaign mission prior to the primary was simply to educate the populace about the issues, why pull out the heavy artillery? Some have suggested that Ellison’s win attracted a boatload of national GOP dollars to Fine’s campaign and that all that money was telling him to go for the jugular, and that may be true (Fine was evasive on that point when I asked him last month). But Fine immediately lost the non-partisan cachet that had drawn so much attention to his campaign in the first place, and it opened him to the karmic backlash that inevitably afflicts such campaigns.

The big winner here is not Ellison, of course (though he will cruise to an easy win in November). Fine’s moderates are not going to flock to the DFL’s standard-bearer; they’re going to run to the IP’s Tammy Lee, who has run a solid, if unspectacular, race that will put her in a position make a serious statement on election day.

For city Republicans, who had placed so much of their hopes in the Fine candidacy, it is another in a series of electoral disasters that will make it that much more difficult to rebuild the party in the years ahead. Like the Greens, who have seen their fortunes slip in the wake of the Dean Zimmermann bribery conviction, Minneapolis Republicans are demoralized and disorganized. Without real electoral successes to mobilize their supporters, the party is left to celebrate moral victories. They might have had one had Fine stayed on the high road. Instead, they’re going to be left with little more than an angry candidate, a disenchanted constituency, and another long and dreary election night.

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