As one of the state’s two longest tenured lawmakers, Phyllis Kahn has witnessed plenty of political donnybrooks among her fellow DFLers. But Kahn, now seeking her 22nd consecutive term in the House of Representatives, said she has never seen anything as chaotic as the fracas that shut down a precinct caucus in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood on Tuesday night.
“We used to have better control when the caucuses were composed of the Teamsters,” Kahn said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “This was a pretty big fight.”
The dispute centered on a relatively mundane procedural question: Who would chair the caucus? Before the meeting was called to order, Kahn said there was “a very calm agreement” reached between her camp and that of challenger Mohamud Noor to split that duty. “Then the people supporting Noor tried to take total control,” she said.
Kahn said she had difficulty following the argument between the factions because most of the shouting was in Somali. With tempers running hot and incidents of scuffling, Minneapolis police cleared out the estimated 300 caucus goers at the Brian Coyle Center before a single delegate was chosen.
Police made no arrests at the scene and found no evidence of serious injuries, according to Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder. “If someone makes out a report, our investigators will review it,” Elder said.
For his part, Noor, a Minneapolis school board member, called the incident “very unfortunate.”
“I don’t want to blame anyone, but it wasn’t my supporters who created this situation,” Noor added.
Noor was not present at the time of the disruption. He said he had stopped by earlier but moved on to Prospect Park because he figured the overwhelming turnout from his supporters all but guaranteed him the precinct’s delegates. “Who benefits from chaos? I’m not finger-pointing, but this should have not happened,” Noor said.
Noor also said he intended to contact Kahn “to ensure we have a clean process going forward.”
Hashim Yonis, a close Noor ally who was present, blamed the chaos on Kahn’s supporters. “There were no more than 10 to 15 people on the Kahn side. They knew they were losing, so they had to stop the democratic process.
“Our community deserves better. This is not what our community looks like. This is a few bad apples,” said Yonis, whose own political aspirations suffered a blow last month after he was charged with felony theft for allegedly pocketing $5,300 as an employee of the Minneapolis Park Board. In the course of the caucus fracas, Yonis said, he was slapped in the face by a woman he could not identify.
“We are demanding that an investigation be launched,” Yonis said. “What happened last night should never happen again. I believe the DFL needs to look into what happened and reflect on how to solve this problem.”
In a statement issued on Wednesday, DFL chairman Ken Martin deplored the violence and said the party intends to re-schedule the caucus, with the proceedings to be chaired by a neutral party and with interpreters on hand.
According to Kahn, state law only permits postponements of caucuses for weather-related reasons. “Can you say a bad social climate is the equivalent of bad weather?” she asked. However, the DFL has determined that the caucus can still be “re-convened” because it was never officially adjourned.
Despite the chaos of the event, Kahn said she never felt in personal danger. “Maybe I should have, but I was just trying to make my five-minute speech,” she said.
Still, Kahn said, it was one of the more unusual experiences of her long political career. The only remotely comparable experience came at the first caucus she attended, at Prospect Park in 1968. That year, the DFL was divided by the rivalry between native son presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. But, said Kahn, “That was pretty mild compared to this. The fight then was over who was more peace-loving.”
Andy Kozak, a longtime DFL lobbyist, said chaos used to be a common feature of the caucus system, especially in the more closely contested races. “What happened yesterday was probably a little over the top. But this is nothing new,” Kozak said.
According to Kozak, the more sonorous nature of the contemporary caucus can be traced to a 1972 rule change that substituted a winner-take-all model in place of proportional representation. That measure, designed to weaken the influence of political machines, also “took a lot of the excitement out of the process.”
“In the old days, some of the caucuses got pretty damn close to a civil war,” Kozak said.