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Martin has officially announced he is seeking the top post in the state's DFL Party.

Ken Martin sets his sights on being state DFL chair

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Ken Martin played a major pro-DFL role in each of the last three cycles. (Photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The year 2000 was a stressful one personally and politically for Ken Martin. The longtime DFL operative was working for attorney David Lillehaug’s U.S. Senate campaign at the time, and his fiancé, Jen O’Rourke, was the committee administrator for state Sen. Jerry Janezich – who happened to be one of Lillehaug’s opponents for that year’s DFL U.S. Senate endorsement. While Lillehaug eventually lost the endorsement to Janezich and Martin moved on, it was a tough year for the soon-to-be-wed pair.

“When we were at home,” Martin remembered recently, “we couldn’t even talk about work because [our bosses] were competitors. That was so stressful that I told my wife I was out of politics, I’m done.

“That was ten years ago.”

Now Martin – who lives in Eagan with O’Rourke and their two children – has officially announced he is seeking the top post in the state’s DFL Party. Martin’s bid for the job follows months of rumors about his interest in being party chair, capped off late last week by news that current DFL Chair Brian Melendez won’t seek another term. Martin played an instrumental role in DFL Gov.-elect Mark Dayton’s victory as executive director of a pair of related PACs, WIN Minnesota and the 2010 Fund – which, together, raised millions of dollars and battered GOP candidate Tom Emmer with negative ads all campaign season – and subsequently as manager and chief fundraiser for Dayton’s election recount team.

Winning the chairmanship would be another step in a life steeped in Democratic politics that started when Martin first volunteered for Paul Wellstone’s 1990 Senate campaign while still in high school.

Not a desk-job guy

Born in Minneapolis and raised in Eden Prairie, Martin got his first taste of political activism as a pre-schooler, tagging along with his mother to women’s rights marches at the state Capitol. The atmosphere of the marches must have stuck; in high school Martin joined rabble-rouser Wellstone’s campaign as a volunteer, making photocopies, stuffing mailers and doing whatever else the underdog DFL U.S. Senate candidate needed.

Martin headed to Republican territory for college, getting a degree in political science and history from the University of Kansas. While still in school, Martin worked for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, organizing campus Democrats on his behalf. While Clinton was successful, Martin was discouraged by the state’s staunchly Republican inclinations. He worked for the Kansas Democratic Party in the 1996 election cycle as a field director, but decided to move back to his historically blue home state after Kansas Democrats lost all their major races that year.

In 1998, Martin toiled on the state DFL payroll as a field coordinator. Democrats were optimistic that year, he said, thinking they could take the governor’s office with Skip Humphrey on the ticket. But no one saw the insurgency of Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura coming.  In the early part of 1999, Martin helped get Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman elected, and worked for her on the county board for a period of months.

“I wasn’t ready to get behind a desk,” Martin said of the job. He began working on Lillehaug’s U.S. Senate bid shortly thereafter.  “That was the single bad instance of bad judgment I’ve seen from Ken Martin,” Lillehaug joked.

After Lillehaug lost the endorsement battle, Martin worked around politics in various capacities. He was state director for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, and later served as chief of staff to Ramsey County Commissioner Sue Haigh. In 2004, he managed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s Minnesota campaign; in 2006, he helmed the campaign of DFL gubernatorial nominee Mike Hatch.

That race slipped away in the late going, after Hatch called a reporter a “Republican whore” for questioning running mate Judi Dutcher’s inability to identify a gas/ethanol blend dubbed E-85. Hatch’s narrow loss in that race left Martin hungry for a DFL win.

“That was a really tough election cycle,” he said. “We had been up the whole time and never down in a poll to [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty. Losing in those final days was really tough.”

In 2008 Martin worked on the campaign for the Legacy amendment, a ballot measure that sought to amend the state constitution to provide dedicated taxpayer dollars for arts and the environment. While many thought the measure was a long shot, the amendment passed – and garnered a higher percentage of votes than any statewide candidate in history.

After the Legacy amendment campaign succeeded, one of its chief proponents, Rockefeller heiress and Dayton ex-wife Alida Messinger, asked Martin to jump on board with WIN Minnesota as executive director. That effort raised almost $7 million for this year’s election, and nearly all of it was spent on ad buys attacking Emmer.

These days Martin is working in Dayton’s old campaign HQ on Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul, laboring to close a $200,000 fundraising hole en route to paying off the campaign’s total $2 million in legal bills associated with the recount.

Convincing the committee

Martin, the only person to publicly announce a run for the chairmanship, looks to some like a shoo-in for the post after helping to elect the first DFL governor in more than two decades. Marge Hoffa, current chair of the Third Congressional District DFLers, has agreed to run as his associate chair. The committee will vote on leadership positions on Feb. 5. But Martin may face challenges convincing the DFL State Central Committee to elect him after years of working outside the party establishment.

In 2005, outsider Josh Syrjamaki ran against Melendez for party chair. His background was similar to Martin’s: He worked outside of the party and had a good relationship with donors and elected officials. But he ultimately fell to Melendez, who was strongly favored by the activist group that dominated the committee.

Martin and others say the situation is different this year. Martin – who has built a strong relationship with Dayton and big time donors through WIN Minnesota – has also had a spot on the DFL payroll in the past and knows many of the activists in the party.

“He has maybe done some things outside the party, but he has been around and has been at party functions, he knows a lot of party folks,” former DFL Chair Rick Stafford said. “I think the challenge for Ken is he will have to share his vision on what the party needs to do and how the activist side of that fits into that vision.”

Some say Martin will also have to tread carefully with certain activists who are turned off by the financial power of big name players like Messinger. Shortly before Melendez said he wouldn’t seek another term, a reliable DFL source told Capitol Report that there wouldn’t be any checks arriving in DFL coffers from Messinger if Melendez remained head of the party. Many observers took this as a sign that Melendez had lost the confidence of Messinger’s ex-husband and political ally Dayton. But some party activists are likely to chafe at the perceived power play.

The DFL Party is not in good financial standing after years of fundraising struggles and some unpaid dues. Stafford said Martin’s ability to get larger donors on board is “invaluable” in building the party up for the 2012 election.

Martin’s response: “The fact of the matter is the party needs resources, and I think I’m in a unique position to bring people back into the fold who left years ago. The party has been really marginalized as people started to work outside of it.”

A ‘thankless’ job

In 1998, Martin was among a small group of people who recruited former Party Chair Mike Erlandson to run. At the time, Erlandson was the perfect candidate, Martin said.

“The party was in shambles and really needed resources to rebuild, and Mike came in and raised the money,” Martin said. “But I also feel like he squandered an opportunity. While he was able to raise all this money, he didn’t have a strong vision on how to build it over the long term. Flash forward six years to Melendez, who had a vision on how to build the party, but didn’t have the resources to execute that vision.”

Martin thinks the combination of his fundraising experience and his intimate knowledge of the workings of campaigns brings both of those aspects together. He also proposes to treat the position as a full-time job (Melendez also works as an attorney for Minneapolis firm Faegre and Benson) and to take a page from GOP Chair Tony Sutton’s book. Melendez keeps a mostly low profile, while Sutton regularly holds news conferences and is always ready to sound a critical note about his opponents, even if the practice has earned him negative attention in the media.

“Tony Sutton has been a good mouthpiece for the Republican Party,” Martin said. “He stood up and traveled across the state to get the message out there. That’s something that is needed in our party, someone to be more actively involved in getting the message out.”

That will be important for the 2012 election, Martin said, when Democrats will try to win back the Legislature.  Weak DFL messaging has been criticized by politicians and activists within the party.

In the end, Martin said he understands chairing a political party is a less than glamorous endeavor. “It’s a thankless job,” he said. “It’s one of those jobs where your high-water mark is on the first day. You are never more liked than on that first day and by the time you leave, everyone – including the folks that got you elected – doesn’t like you anymore. You receive all of the blame and none of the credit.”

But Martin is knee deep in DFL politics, and despite threats to leave the Capitol world behind, he knows he will stick around, even if he isn’t the next party chair. “Every time I say I’m just going to live a normal life, [my wife] just shrugs it off,” Martin said. “She knows me.”

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