Local activists say 59B primary race is too close to call
The retirement of DFL Sen. Linda Higgins from her District 58 Minneapolis seat set off a game of musical chairs in one of the most staunchly DFL areas in Minnesota. Higgins’ announcement opened the door to the upper body for HD 58B Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, who won the DFL endorsement for the open seat. Champion’s move left a vacancy that attracted half a dozen Democrats.
The field for Champion’s seat has come down to three remaining DFL candidates. But even longtime Democratic players are unwilling to predict which of the would-be rookie legislators will survive the August 14 DFL primary and coast to an Election Day landslide.
The primary features Raymond Dehn, a veteran of DFL politics and north Minneapolis neighborhood activism, Terra Cole, a one-time employee and rising star of the Hennepin County bureaucracy, and Ian Alexander, a lawyer and New York transplant who became a DFLer after a mid-life party conversion. The trio reached a stalemate at last spring’s district endorsing convention, and since then each has reached five figures in campaign contributions and racked up prominent endorsements from politicos and organizations.
Attorney and lobbyist Brian Rice, whose father, Jim Rice, once held the same seat, said the contest is too close to call.
“It’s one of these races where, in a close three-way race, if somebody can get to 40 percent, you’ve got a good chance to win,” Rice said. “It’s not like you throw any one of the candidates out and say, ‘You don’t have a chance.’”
Alexander a converted Republican
Ian Alexander drifted away from the Republican Party bit by bit, before finally losing faith altogether one night. The son of a black father and a white mother, Alexander grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in New York City. When he moved to Minnesota to attend graduate school at the Humphrey Institute, Alexander at first styled himself a socially liberal Republican in the New York/Rockefeller mold.
In 2005, Alexander took an internship with the general counsel’s office in the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty. At the time, Michele Bachmann was a conservative lightning rod in the State Senate. Back then Alexander saw Bachmann as standing on the social issues fringe of the party.
“But over the past few years,” he said, “people have accepted her kind of politics as mainstream in the GOP.”
Alexander was still active in the GOP as recently as 2009, when an exchange at a party turned him away from the Republican Party of Minnesota. As he explained to the group that he didn’t understand why the party was spending so much time fighting against gay rights issues, one party member stood up to challenge Alexander.
“Why are you always protecting the sodomites’ agenda?” the member asked.
It was, Alexander said, among the last Republican events he ever attended.
“I said to myself, ‘What am I doing with these people?’” he recalled recently.
His conversion story notwithstanding, the Alexander campaign has been dogged by rumors that he is a conservative, or even a Republican spoiler in the DFL primary. Alexander acknowledges that whisper campaigns are part of playing politics, and said is trying to laugh off the rumors, though perhaps through gritted teeth.
“I’m finding it absolutely hysterical that people are saying, ‘He’s a Republican candidate plant,’” Alexander said. “I live in north Minneapolis, I work in north Minneapolis. People know me. People know I’m not some crazy right-wing person.”
Alexander has dedicated long hours to overcoming his outsider status, as former City Council member John Derus can attest. Derus, who has met and observed all three DFL candidates, said he thinks Alexander is “by far the best” choice for the district, thanks in part to the candidate’s outreach efforts.
“[Alexander] has called me, probably, 10 times asking for advice,” Derus said. “To me, that means he’s working, and he’s working hard.”
Dehn learned he hard way
Raymond Dehn says his political consciousness grew out of his criminal past, and the second chance granted to him by the justice system. Along with his three siblings, Dehn grew up crammed into a 600-square-foot house “just outside North Minneapolis.” In 1976, Dehn, then 18, was convicted of a felony burglary. He received a five-year suspended sentence and, after spending seven months in a county ward house, entered treatment for his drug and alcohol addictions.
In 1982, at the age of 25, Dehn was granted a “pardon extraordinary” by the Minnesota Board of Pardons, effectively clearing his criminal history. Years later, after Dehn had attended the University of Minnesota for undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture, he came to believe that he had received a remarkable break because of his race.
“I decided that we have a pretty unequal criminal justice system,” Dehn said. “I had received advantages, and some of those advantages were granted to me specifically because I was white.”
Though he became more aware of racial and urban politics after his prison-spawned epiphany, it took decades for that to translate into political activism. Dehn’s first foray into electioneering came as a phone bank volunteer on the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 campaign. After Wellstone died in an October plane crash, Dehn felt obligated to keep contributing. On election day, he carried out “knock-and-drags” to get voters to the polls for state legislative races, including an energetic young DFLer named Keith Ellison.
Ellison, of course, won the 58B seat by a wide margin, and eventually used his legislative career to launch a bid for the Fifth District U.S. House seat. By that time, Dehn had come to know Ellison through community activism on social justice issues and involvement in North Minneapolis neighborhood events. Through that relationship, and his participation as a county delegate in the contested 2006 DFL convention that saw Ellison win the party’s congressional endorsement, Dehn recognized the importance of intraparty organization.
Dehn started constructing his endorsement strategy almost immediately after declaring his candidacy. At the District 59 convention on March 31, he finished first on each of four ballots, but fell short of the 60 percent threshold for the party’s endorsement.
Cole has backing of prominent DFL women
For Terra Cole, who has lived in and around the same neighborhood since she was 10 years old, the campaign for 59B has a decidedly familial tone, with fundraisers and events featuring bunches of relatives and old friends. One uncle has undertaken the role of volunteer door-knocker.
“When he comes back each day,” she said, laughing, “he has, like, 50 more houses on his list that he wants to get to the next day.”
Aside from family, almost all of Cole’s most prominent supporters are women, including former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and former Secretary of State Joan Growe. Cole also received the endorsement of the Women Winning PAC, taking in a $500 contribution from the pro-female candidate fund that counts Sayles Belton as a member of its board of directors.
That endorsement has helped deliver additional support from women, including Carolyn Chalmers, a University of Minnesota employee who lives outside the district, but still contributed $150 to Cole’s campaign. Chalmers said she followed Sayles Belton’s lead, and, after meeting Cole and learning more about her, decided to donate “because she’s African American and a beginner, and I think it’s good to support candidates who bring that diversity.”
Politically, Cole acknowledges the “beginner” label, but with a bit of clarification: Cole has been involved on various levels of city and county government dating back to the mid-1990s, when, as a teenager, she chaired Sayles-Belton’s youth task force on racism. Cole said her youthful appearance, while it might be a blessing in another context, is something of a political obstacle.
“I’m 34, but I look 22,” Cole said. “I can’t help my genetics.”
Cole said supporters of her opponents’ campaigns have quietly used her youthful appearance and gender in attempts to undermine her credibility, adding that the race has gotten “nasty and ugly in multiple ways.”
“You can try to suppress me,” she said, “but not only have I survived – I’ve thrived.”
A close race
The signs that the 59B race will be a close one are everywhere. Literally.
Though each candidate has held a number of forums and event, a large part of the race is taking place in the front yards of North Minneapolis, where a pitched sign war is underway. The diversity of signage indicates a close race, a notion underscored the relatively equal financial contributions the campaigns have received.
According to her pre-primary campaign finance report, Cole raised the least, with $11,962 in total donations, and about $2,500 cash on hand. Cole said coming in third in the money race doesn’t trouble her, because her experience in municipal government conditioned her to “doing more with less,” or, as she later put it, “ballin’ on a budget.”
Dehn’s campaign recorded $14,350 in contributions, which included a $1,500 personal loan to his own campaign, and has $3,301 in the bank.
Alexander’s filing is at once the most impressive and the least informative. The Friends of Alexander committee claimed $18,324 in total contributions and $4,900 cash on hand, though the $13,000-plus in apparent expenses is unaccounted for. Alexander claims that the missing disbursements are the result of problems with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board software, and that his treasurer is working with the board to file an amended report. On Tuesday, meanwhile, a campaign finance complaint was lodged against the Alexander campaign for its non-disclosure.
A number of Alexander’s itemized contributions are also missing the contributor’s place of employment, though nightclub enthusiasts might recognize six donations totaling $3,000 from the Hafiz family, including $500 from patriarch Peter Hafiz, who owns Déjà Vu, Dream Girls, the Brass Rail and Gay 90’s. Alexander said he met with the family to talk about economic development downtown, where the Hafizes also own a number of developable lots.
“When they said they were going to contribute, I didn’t know what extent that meant,” he said. “I will tell you I looked extensively into their backgrounds, and found them to be very financially savvy, and very responsible business owners.”
With all three candidates running low on funds, their most valuable capital in the final push might be the big names they have secured to back their campaigns. No name in the district is bigger than Ellison’s, who received 78 percent of the area’s vote in his 2010 Congressional reelection. Though Dehn failed to secure the nod from the party, he does have Ellison on his side, as evidenced by a Youtube clip in which Ellison praises Dehn’s leadership on issues of transportation and social justice.
“I think Ray Dehn is the right candidate this time, because our neighborhood needs a strenuous, energetic advocate who will really reach out and listen to everybody,” Ellison says.
In the view of Brian Rice, Ellison’s name and resources are among Dean’s most critical assets, even more important than the support of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which also endorsed Dehn.
“If Dehn wins,” Rice said, “it’s because of Ellison.”
Aside from the prominent women who have thrown their support behind Cole, there is also Al McFarlane, the publisher of Insight News and a frequent contributor to KFAI radio. Speaking frankly on the topic that the candidates spoke of only in passing, McFarlane raised the issue of race, which he said will play a central role in the campaign for District 59B.
“It has to, and it should,” McFarlane said. “Black people have to speak from our perspective as black Minnesotans and black Americans, and, consciously and conscientiously, move to take our place at the table of power.”
Dehn knows the limitations he faces as a white male candidate in a district that is 40 percent black, giving it the most heavily concentrated African American population of any district in the state, according to the 2010 census. Dehn said he has often encountered constituents who say they will not support a white candidate.
“I tell them, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do about that,’” Dehn said. “But I find it odd in 2012 that we still think about elected officials and race in that way.”
Ian Alexander said he hears about the importance of diversity in the Legislature, though it comes up just as often from progressive white voters as blacks.
“I’ve heard it from people in downtown Bryn Mawr, who say they want a person of color in this area,” Alexander said. “From [black] people in North, it’s just about jobs.”
Weighing the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, neutral observers have trouble picking a winner. Not even Sen. Linda Higgins, whose retirement lured Bobby Joe Champion away from his House seat and created the three-way race, would venture a guess, saying only that the primary would be “very close.”
“My friends and I spend a lot of time going, ‘Gosh, I wonder who’s going to win,’” Higgins said.