Ken Martin describes his reaction as “shocked” when he began going through the DFL Party’s finances after becoming state chairman in February. The most unnerving discovery: The party was roughly $700,000 in debt.
“To find out how much debt there was was really distressing to me,” said Martin during a recent interview at DFL Party headquarters. “I sort of slumped in my chair and thought, what the heck did I get myself into?”
Occupying part of Martin’s desk was a massive three-ring binder that contains the names of thousands of potential donors. He estimates that four to five hours of each workday is devoted to calling names in the binder and cultivating would-be contributors. Roughly 80 percent of his job is devoted to stocking the DFL’s political war chest for 2012.
“For the last five to six years, this party has always struggled,” Martin said. “A lot of the large donors — individual donors and also the institutional donors, like unions — were leaving the party because they were frustrated. For me that was a huge, huge concern, that the party was … becoming more and more marginalized as they weren’t able to raise money because all these donors were fleeing the party.”
Martin took over as the party’s top state official after former Chairman Brian Melendez decided not to seek a fourth term. Melendez takes issue with his successor’s characterization of the party’s finances. He points to an internal financial document dated Jan. 19 that calculates the party’s financial obligations at less than $500,000.
“I don’t know how the number could have changed by a quarter of a million in six weeks, especially if the same person is doing the books both times,” Melendez said, noting that the party’s comptroller remains on the job. “I would say it was in pretty good shape, fairly normal shape for [the period] after a very tense election cycle.”
Martin attributes the discrepancy to changes in how the party calculates financial liabilities. But whichever figure is accurate, it’s indisputable that the DFL Party has significant debt to retire as it prepares for a 2012 election cycle in which it will be seeking to win back control of the state House and Senate and to re-elect President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
According to federal and state campaign finance reports, the party took in $13.3 million in 2010 but spent $13.4 million. It finished the year with less than $55,000 in the bank.
Martin has a track record of fundraising success. His resume includes overseeing former Attorney General Mike Hatch’s doomed 2006 gubernatorial campaign and running the successful 2008 Legacy Amendment drive to raise the state sales tax to support arts and environmental programs.
In 2010 Martin served as executive director of two related independent expenditure groups, the WIN Minnesota Political Action Fund and the 2010 Fund. Together the organizations raised roughly $6 million from wealthy donors and labor unions primarily to run ads attacking Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer. The television spots — principally one that hammered Emmer for an old DWI arrest — were widely credited by political observers with mortally wounding his candidacy.
Vance Opperman, president of Key Investment and a longtime DFL contributor, was involved with the independent expenditure groups from the outset and has worked with Martin for years. “He’s pragmatic,” Opperman said. “He is goal-driven. He’s not an ideological idiot. He isn’t given to silly statements.”
Opperman credits Melendez for running a lean administrative organization and keeping at bay the party’s far-left activists. He also argues that the former chairman did a good job of reuniting the party last year after what could have been a divisive three-way gubernatorial primary. “He was able to heal some of those breaches a little more quickly than they’ve done in the past,” Opperman said.
“Things could have been a great deal worse if he hadn’t been there.”
But he also thinks that Martin’s presence at the top will encourage some donors that have been reluctant to sink dollars in the state party to step up their contributions. “That will be a positive draw for reinvolvement with the party,” Opperman said.
After learning the severity of the party’s financial obligations, Martin took immediate steps to ease the pressures. He cut the party’s staff from nine employees to four (although one worker has since been hired back). He has been meeting with potential donors all over the state to solicit advice and cultivate relationships. Last week, for instance, he attended a gathering of 25 to 30 people at the St. Paul home of Tom Kayser, a lawyer at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi.
“You have a huge mountain of debt,” Martin said. “You couple that with the fact that the morale out there and the feeling about the party these days are so low. These are two things that you have to reconcile. You’re never going to be able to erase that debt until people start to feel better about the party. That’s the challenge here.”
Melendez takes issue with that characterization. He points out that the party set contribution records in two of the six years that he was serving as chairman and that some turbulence in the donor base is inevitable. “That just always changes,” Melendez said. “Our donors are always in flux.”
Martin declined to say how much of the party’s debt has been retired since he took over four months ago. He also demurs in providing fundraising figures so far for 2011. A major fundraising event — the annual Hubert H. Humphrey Day Dinner, with tickets starting at $100 and featuring U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois — takes place next week.
“I don’t want this to be about the past,” Martin said. “There’s no sense in looking through the rearview mirror. We’ve got to look through the windshield, to the future.”