Primary tests reNEW MN’s strategy


Progressive coalition reNEW Minnesota was an influential presence at the DFL State Convention in April, helping to grant Margaret Anderson Kelliher the DFL endorsement. But Tuesday’s primary election will be the next testing ground for reNEW’s long-term effort, as the group seeks to flex its muscles in a statewide campaign by winning the day for Kelliher. 

reNEW’s long-term plan to hold candidates accountable

Since the convention theatrics ended, reNEW members have been toiling behind the scenes to back candidates who support their values. But election isn’t the last step for the group, which envisions what TakeAction Minnesota Executive Director Dan McGrath calls an “integrated approach to electoral politics” that sets up the structures to engage candidates even after they’ve taken office.

“A flaw of progressive politics is we elect tremendous leaders and set them adrift once they go to governing,” McGrath told the Minnesota Independent. “We’re not going to make that mistake. We’re already thinking about what are the sorts of issues, campaigns and policies that we want to work with candidates on [after they take office].”

To get their chosen candidates elected, the group uses TakeAction Minnesota’s community organizing muscle. By Tuesday’s primary election, reNEW volunteers will have called the phones or knocked on the doors of 40,000 people. It’s a strategy similar to that used by DFL powerhouses like unions, who exert influence on the DFL Party by providing masses of campaign volunteers.

“In a primary, where to win it you might need 180,000 votes, that’s not a lot of people,” McGrath said. “A well-organized, disciplined grassroots field campaign can make the difference.”

The effort, which is a project of TakeAction Minnesota, has built its efforts around beliefs, rather than candidates. Each of the DFL gubernatorial candidates for governor met with reNEW members early in the campaign to hash out their stances, and reNEW leadership teams are active in 63 of the state’s 67 senate districts.

“We’ve done our largest organizing events, had more people turn out, when we’ve been talking to them about what’s really in their guts, not just about cynical partisan attacks or dry partisan positions,” McGrath said. “We know taking the long view in terms of politics is not only good for building the power to govern, it’s also a shrewd electoral strategy, it gets more people turning out to volunteer and knock on doors.”

Vang Lor, a candidate for St. Paul’s Senate District 67 and TakeAction endorsee.

Vang Lor, a candidate for St. Paul’s crowded Senate District 67, has been a part of the reNEW effort since it started in early 2009. Just a few weeks back, Lor earned the endorsement of TakeAction, which he said is helping his campaign with volunteers and strategy.

“One of the things I really like about TakeAction Minnesota is how much they invest in leaders, giving them the proper tools and skills to work on issues. That’s something I want to pass on to my volunteers,” Lor said. “I don’t want them to come in and just be a volunteer, I want them to come in and be transformed with me through this process.”

That vision of political empowerment is fundamental to reNEW’s mission, McGrath said. The organizing machinery and leadership that’s created during the current electoral campaigns will shift to issue organizing as candidates take office and move into the 2011 legislative session. Hypothetically, that mutual support between the candidate and group will allow candidates to stick to their campaign promises after they take office instead of “governing scared.”

“That’s the guts of reNEW Minnesota,” McGrath said. “It’s individual people claiming a stake in this campaign and making it their own and recognizing that we need good candidates to get elected to office so we can advance good change, but that just electing a candidate isn’t the end-all, be-all.”

Test will come for reNEW Tuesday

Hamline University Prof. David Schultz said reNEW’s effort to connect “electoral strategy” to “public policy strategy” makes political sense at a time when progressives who worked to elect Pres. Barack Obama are frustrated by his administration’s lack of progress on their core issues.

“Oftentimes, for both the right and left, they’ve often been disappointed that they’ve put in all this effort only to see candidates not deliver on their promises,” Schultz said. “If you’re going to spend millions and thousands of hours on an effort, you want to make sure the effort pays off.”

These sorts of groups tend to transform from social movements that protest, to political movements that organize, to a more potent force that can become an influential wing of a political party, Schultz said – a good example would be the farmer and labor forces that make up two-thirds of the DFL Party’s namesakes.

But the real test about whether reNEW can achieve this sort of party institutionalization will come Tuesday, as Kelliher, the group’s endorsed candidate, faces off against the better-financed Mark Dayton for the DFL nomination. “If they can actually pull it off,” Schultz said, “that might speak to a lot in terms of actually forging a more lasting progressive coalition.”

Even after the primary election passes, McGrath said the reNEW’s efforts will be dedicated to building relationships with candidates like Lor, who intimately understand the group’s long-term vision and approach.

“After this election, we’re going to continue to put candidates in front of our members. Our members are going to continue to ask for candidates to step up, for elected officials to step up and take strong stances,” McGrath said. “Our goal is to seek bolder change, to seek bolder leadership and to be the grassroots force to stand behind those bold leaders.”