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Eight months have passed since Chris Tolbert won the DFL endorsement contest over John Mannillo in Ward Three for a seat on the Saint Paul City Council. On the third – and final – ballot Tolbert topped the required 60 percent threshold by two votes.

State DFL chair admonishes St. Paul party officials over endorsement process

Ken Martin

Eight months have passed since Chris Tolbert won the DFL endorsement contest over John Mannillo in Ward Three for a seat on the Saint Paul City Council. On the third – and final – ballot Tolbert topped the required 60 percent threshold by two votes.

But ever since that June gathering, Mannillo’s supporters have insisted that the process was hopelessly flawed. They argue that the endorsement convention was poorly organized, chaotic and resulted in votes being cast by individuals who should been ruled ineligible.

“I have seen a lot of things in my almost 40 years of DFL activism, which includes attending and chairing more conventions than I can count,” wrote DFL activist Don Gemberling, in an 18-page complaint seeking to overturn the endorsement filed with the state DFL Party last June. “I have never seen anything that comes even close to comparing with how bad this endorsement process was conducted. The stain it puts on the endorsement that was obtained can only be removed by invalidating the endorsement that occurred.”

On Friday state party officials finally issued a ruling on the matter. In a letter of admonishment to St. Paul party officials, state DFL chair Ken Martin acknowledged that there were flaws in the process.  “While we understand that errors occur from time to time, particularly in a volunteer organization, it is still incumbent upon party officers to fulfill their obligation of conducting a well-run endorsing convention,” reads the letter, which was also signed by the co-chairs of the party’s constitution and bylaws commission. “Based upon the testimony given at the hearing, we specifically note: the poor notice, lack of record keeping (minutes), floor control, and other disorder that occurred at the convention.”

But state party officials insist that the endorsement process was still legitimate. “After lengthy deliberations, the Commission determined that the evidence did not rise to the high standard required to overturn an endorsement,” they wrote. “Furthermore, there was no evidence to suggest that the procedural errors … would have materially changed the outcome of the Ward 3 convention. Chris Tolbert received the endorsement fair and square.”

It would have been unusual if party officials had granted Gemberling’s request to overturn the endorsement. That’s because Tolbert won the city council contest in November, handily defeating Mannillo and two other challengers. Mannillo reneged on his promise to abide by the DFL endorsement because of the irregularities in the process.

Even though Gemberling didn’t get what he was seeking, he expresses some satisfaction in the acknowledgment that the process was flawed. “Frankly I thought we were going to get nothing,” Gemberling says. “We got something.”

Gemberling continues to be angry over the role that elected officials – particularly Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi – played in the endorsement process. All three were backing Tolbert, an assistant Hennepin County attorney, in the contest and worked delegates on his behalf. “The incest just drives me crazy,” Gemberling says. “What do we know about incest biologically? It’s not good biologically and it’s not good in the party.”

Mannillo remains convinced that the irregularities proved decisive in the endorsement contest. “Clearly I would have blocked it,” he said of the endorsement. “Even with all of the invalid ones being used I only lost blocking it by two ballots.”

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