Family Feud

by Loren Martell

Someone pointed out to me, in regard to my last article, that Art Johnston is a member of the DFL. I’m glad when readers point out things like this, because it lets me know when I need to clarify a point. 
Not DFL enough. 

Of the eight school board candidates, only At-large contender, Harry Welty, was ever a registered Republican, and even he attempted to secure the DFL’s endorsement in this year’s campaign. In his response to the DFL’s screening committee questionnaire, Mr. Welty wrote: “I was endorsed by the Republicans for the state legislature in 1976, 1978 and ran against the endorsed Republican for the legislature in 2002. I parted company with the GOP, when I began my blog in 2006.” 

When he was seeking the DFL’s endorsement, 1st district candidate, Kurt Kuehn, wrote: “I think it would be an advantage to have the support of an organization that shares my values.”
4th district candidate Art Johnston wrote: “I have always been a DFLer. I was on the SD7 Executive Board for four years. I’m a delegate from precinct 32.”
At-Large candidate Dana Krivogorsky is a registered democrat, and wrote that she wanted DFL-endorsement “because I am a DFLer.” 
These four candidates lost out during the DFL endorsement convention to Sally Trnka, Jill Lofald, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Josh Gorham. 
According to Ms. Krivogorsky, when she questioned a DFL official about the reasoning behind endorsing in a nonpartisan race, she was told the party “needs people in these places, people who would have the same values.” When she replied that, as an elected representative, she would be inclined to adjust her own opinion “issue by issue,” she was told: “Well then, maybe you’re not DFL enough.” 

That’s a bit like a church pastor saying to some members of the congregation: “We’ll let you occupy a few pews during service, but unless you promise to say your prayers exactly the same way every time, you won’t be allowed to serve on any church committees--because, in the opinion of the truly faithful, you might not be Lutheran enough.” 

What is the litmus test?

One thing I know is NOT required for DFL-endorsement: any clue about the budget or about a massive capital investment. No knowledge whatsoever about district numbers is required. 
Two years ago, as a candidate, I decided to run the full campaign gauntlet. I knew I had zero-to-slim chance of getting the DFL-endorsement, but still decided to go through the screening process. I’d bounced through a couple of election cycles in the coach section, and figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. Who knows, I thought, maybe I can smooth-talk myself into a first-class seat, and if nothing else--at least I’ll steal a peak inside the VIP cabin. 

I picked up a few uncomfortable vibes as I met with the screening committee, but overall--as is their trademark--the DFLers were nice, and it seemed like we had a productive discussion. I told them that, due to a sizeable increase in state largess and local taxes, the district had experienced a brief reprieve from budget problems. Without some changes, however, I predicted the budget would soon slip back into deficit. In my opinion, I added, most of the promises being made by other candidates were not based on reality. The Red Plan had failed to deliver on its fiscal promises and had fallen short on all of its projections. That was a real problem, I argued, that had to be acknowledged and dealt with. 

Some members of the screening committee nodded politely and seemed to actually hear what I said. Later on, however, I was told by someone who’d been present that several committee members complained I’d spent too much time “talking about numbers,” and not enough time “on education and the kids.” This insider also warned me that I’d made a big mistake by “even mentioning the Red Plan.” 

In other words, when it comes to securing the help of the town’s most powerful political machine, it is not advisable to employ TOO MUCH reality. 
What’s it take, then, to get endorsed by the machine? It’s pretty simple, really: a bright, Sally Trnka smile and a happy promise to “make Duluth schools the best in the State!”

Also a “values” test, including a demonstrable love for unions. 

DFL values are best described by lifting some quotes from Rosie Loeffler-Kemp’s and Jill Lofald’s responses to the DFL’s screening committee’s questionnaire: “The DFL platform represents me and my family’s values.” Rosie L-K wrote. “I believe in the social justice issues the DFL fights for. Since I was 18, I began my DFL activism. I have a history of working to bring new activists from diverse backgrounds into the DFL…” 

Lofald wrote: “The DFL is in my blood…” She added that she believed in the political organization’s “values of: good working conditions for all, strong living wage, union strength.” Interestingly, Ms Lofald also declared that she is “committed” to her “right to vote,” begging a question about how she felt when her DFL predecessors robbed the public of its right to vote on the Red Plan. 

The most important of all DFL values is political correctness. The party advertises itself as a big house that is a refuge for all ethnic groups. In the screening committee’s questionnaire, all eight school board candidates listed student equity or the achievement gap as one of their three top priorities, if elected. From all the responses I’ve heard through various forums, every candidate clearly cares about this issue and assigns it very high on the “values” list. 

Given the fact that all the candidates running are equally concerned about the achievement gap, the question that should be asked in this election cycle is: what has the group in power delivered? The DFL-endorsed have held the Board majority for several years. They’ve had the vote. What is their record? 

The anointed members of the DFL actually believed they’d found the answer to this long-vexing problem, about a decade or so back. They pushed through a big, RED, very expensive project that promised to “ultimately close the achievement gap” between white students and other ethnic groups. Unfortunately, that plan was foolhardy and completely backfired. Virtually no progress to close the achievement gap has been made. In fact, all the fiscal mismanagement around the big expensive investment has starved the district’s budget and made any real solutions to deal with the achievement gap much more difficult to implement. 

The Red Plan will go down as the worst, most unpopular investment in Duluth history, and yet the power clique that pushed it through stands a better-than-even chance of maintaining control of the boardroom. Why? Has Duluth devolved into nothing but a party-machine town? 
The most potent part of the machine’s power base is the unions. Candidates are frightened of the unions, because speaking out about them is political suicide. All eight school board candidates--including the four candidates who failed to secure the coveted DFL endorsement--voiced support for the party’s most vested special interest group. 

In the screening committee’s questionnaire, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp promised to “continue to support and work with our Duluth public schools union staff.” Candidate Sally Trnka promised that to “actively listen to union concerns and issues and celebrate victories will be a top priority.” Josh Gorham wrote that he would “support union represented members of staff in the Duluth public schools,” and Jill Lofald wrote that she “grew up in a union household.” 

Board candidate Harry Welty wrote that he is partial to “union bugs,” referring to the label that advertises a union-made product. Kurt Kuehn wrote that he’s “always been pro-union” and that he’s “served as a union steward in two different jobs for 12 years.” Dana Krivogorsky wrote: “I am a big proponent of the union…I support Fair Labor Standards Act and collective bargaining agreement.” Art Johnston wrote in his screening committee response that he “was an elected union Chief Steward for many years…I will continue working with staff to assure fair representation and fair treatment.” 

The DFL/union machine parsed out these statements and decided the last four candidates didn’t make the cut: apparently, somehow, they weren’t deemed DFL and union-supportive enough. 
What partisan race? 

According to the 2015 Minnesota Election Laws, chapter 200, subd. 28, “all judicial, county, municipal, school board and special district offices” are supposed to be nonpartisan elections. In reality, all this means is that no party identification appears with candidate’s names on the ballots. In Duluth, these elections--especially for the county, city and school board--are made intensely partisan by the DFL political machine. 

The Duluth News Tribune reported in a 6/3/17 article, that “as far as endorsing in nonpartisan races,” the party machine’s chairperson explained, “I personally think it’s appropriate because other groups, special-interest groups (like our union brothers and sisters,) endorse in those races. In order to maintain our viability, as a party, we need to keep our fingers on the pulses of these races…We have an interest, no matter how small the race is.” 

This year, Duluth may have hit a milestone of DFL political takeover. We not only have intensely partisan races, both for the school board and the city council; we have intensely UNILATERAL partisan races. All candidates for all the seats of power are different shades from the same end of the spectrum — the left. All of them are active DFLers or have sought DFL endorsement. 

The political right has no dog in these electoral fights at all, which of course prompts another question: where in the world did all the Republicans disappear to in this town? Have they largely given up and thrown in the towel? 
A few Republicans made an attempt in the city council primary, but overall the Duluth GOP appears to have become a beaten-down lot that doesn’t DO much anymore. 
Watching the machinations of this town for over a decade, I’ve become almost as disenchanted with the right as I’ve been with the left. Even ‘sensible’ business people from the Chamber of Commerce swallowed the Red Plan’s trumped-up sales pitch--hook, line and sinker. The right should have been actively demanding accountability on the left’s runaway fiscal train wreck. The failure from both ends of the spectrum has left me with no political affiliation, no base I can believe in, a dilemma that has become almost endemic in our country.

Non-DFL endorsed, but DFL candidate. 

The above descriptor applies to several candidates in this year’s local election, but none has labored under the label of ‘DFL, but not DFL endorsed,’ longer than Art Johnston. In a statement presented to the Senate District Seven DFL Executive Board, Mr. Johnston said: “I would say that most of us here are supporting at least one ‘non-DFL endorsed, but DFL candidate’ in this election. So why are we playing this game? This is bad for the party and bad for personal relationships. Why are we fighting our own, in nonpartisan races?”

The mighty DFL political machine is experiencing the downside of taking everything over: it has candidates popping out of the woodwork and gotten into the odd predicament of running against some version of itself in virtually every race. An embarrassment of riches, if I’ve ever seen one. 
Mr. Johnston made his statement two years ago, during the 2015 election season. Most of his speech in front of the DFL SD7 Executive Board is even more relevant in this go-around: 
“Personal affront is taken towards the non-endorsed candidate. The DFL is getting to the point that when a ‘non-DFL endorsed, but DFL candidate’ is on the ballot, too many of us DFL shun them. This is getting to be a very large and uncomfortable issue. DFL people are digging up dirt on the ‘non-DFL endorsed, but DFL candidates,’ like going around and asking inappropriate questions to candidate’s ex-spouses. I could give you many more examples. This is not DFL inclusiveness.”

Mr. Johnston continued to make his case for DFL exclusivity: “We have lost too many good people because some of the SD7 Board members are wrongly being told to resign because they are supporting the ‘non-DFL endorsed, but DFL candidate.’ Recent examples are Barb Russ, Rogier Gregoire, and even calling out of Scott Yeazle…We are also spending too much money on nonpartisan races to defeat candidates. That money should be left for real partisan races…The DFL should not be the ‘Gatekeeper’ for nonpartisan races.”

The gate is carefully guarded, and often swung prematurely shut, as Mr. Johnston further pointed out: “Frequently, the DFL is endorsing candidates for nonpartisan races long before the filing deadline, so we have no idea whether we are even endorsing the ‘best’ candidate. This is being done to discourage other people from running. I believe that is contrary to the DFL constitution and to good, (small ‘d’) democracy, by ‘limiting the recruitment of candidates.’ We need more people running for office, not less, and many people running for an office in these types of races file the last day…”

According to Mr. Johnston, the whole system has become riddled with problems for functional democracy: “The way we endorse DFL nonpartisan candidates is also problematic. In the last convention, we had a candidate endorsed by only 9 delegates! What kind of democracy is that? Where is the ‘every ballot shall be a test of a quorum’? All of this is, by design, very problematic for a grass roots democracy like the DFL--when a very small number of people can run the show.”

I can’t speak to the city council races, but real differences between the two camps--the DFL-endorsed and the DFL-unendorsed candidates--do exist in the school board races. The DFL-endorsed candidates want to tow the line. They all want to continue along the same path behind the Superintendent, promoting and cheerleading. The non-endorsed take issue with the way the party’s favored ones have been governing. They want a change of direction in the boardroom, and more accountability. The unendorsed candidates are also disgruntled about the whole electoral process, which to them feels greasy and manipulated by union kingpins and biased power players. 

The party’s endorsed candidates, as always, have a big leg up: they are guaranteed buckets of votes from the DFL hardline loyalists, along with a lot of support and money. Duluth voters, meanwhile, have been left with an election that is essentially a strange family feud--a bunch of cousins and half-cousins squabbling about who is DFL enough.