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A little help from their friends, part I

Gov. Mark Dayton, shown at the DFL State Convention in May, is among the candidates supported by Minnesotans United for All Families, the chief organizing group behind the legalization of gay marriage. “Without [Dayton’s] leadership, the freedom to marry bill would never have been signed into law,” said the organization’s founder and former head, Richard Carlbom. (AP file photo)

Gov. Mark Dayton, shown at the DFL State Convention in May, is among the candidates supported by Minnesotans United for All Families, the chief organizing group behind the legalization of gay marriage. “Without [Dayton’s] leadership, the freedom to marry bill would never have been signed into law,” said the organization’s founder and former head, Richard Carlbom. (AP file photo)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series 

No political candidate is an island. This fact is especially true in the current moment, when political and advocacy fundraising has grown into a burgeoning industry of its own. As Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken both embark on their re-election campaigns, their attempts will be buoyed by a number of progressive political action committees (PACs), which don’t operate under the same donation limits imposed on state or federal campaign accounts.

The DFL-aligned outside spending scene is still dominated by the party’s most well-heeled ally, Alliance for a Better Minnesota. That outfit is gearing up again to play a major role in this year’s campaign, but is joined by other like-minded funds, including a number that are new to the state this election cycle.

2014 Fund

This new player in the campaign finance field is the updated version of the 2012 Fund, an affiliated component of ABM’s operation that acted as a pass-through during the last election cycle. As with its predecessor, the 2014 Fund is chaired by Adam Duininck, a former union lobbyist who now sits on the Metropolitan Council. As of June, the PAC had collected $665,000 this year, with a combined $150,000 of that sum coming from the national and state chapters of the AFSCME public employee union.

Added to the current holdings of WIN Minnesota, the other progressive “feeder” fund, ABM had about $1.3 million at its disposal at the end of May — roughly as much as the organization had on hand at the same point in 2012. The obvious difference between that year and this one is that ABM is now looking to play a part in two major statewide elections. In its seven-year history, the group has never been forced to spend on competitive gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races simultaneously.

Carrie Lucking, ABM’s executive director, said the decision of prioritizing how money is spent will often be left to a donor’s discretion.

“It’s a different cast of characters,” Lucking said. “Some people here tell us it’s absolutely essential that we re-elect Mark Dayton. Other people, here and nationally, say it’s essential that we send Al Franken back to Washington.”

Lucking conceded that fundraising in the governor’s race, particularly from national groups, is complicated by the unsettled state of the GOP field. With four candidates vying for the Republican nomination, she said ABM’s fundraising appeals are based not on any one specific person, but on a set of shared policy positions.

“There certainly isn’t much difference between the Republican candidates,” she said.

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee

The national campaign organization gave $700,000 to the state DFL during its successful 2012 campaign to win back Democratic legislative majorities. Those contributions later became the subject of a complaint from then-Republican Party of Minnesota chair Pat Shortridge, who claimed the national group had gone around state disclosure laws by failing to register in Minnesota.

The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board finally rejected Shortridge’s complaint at its June meeting; regardless, the DLCC registered a pair of political committees to operate in Minnesota just days later. Dave Griggs, a veteran DFL operative who will oversee DLCC’s independent expenditures in the state, said creating the local funds allows DLCC to “maintain flexibility” during the campaign.

Griggs, who served as campaign manager on Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s gubernatorial bid in 2010, said Minnesota is among the DLCC’s “targeted” states, given the DFL’s 73-61 majority — which leaves Republicans needing to pick up just seven seats to regain control — and the state’s historical tendency toward volatility.

“You routinely see a lot more than six seats flip back and forth in the Minnesota House,” said Griggs, who also works as part of the DLCC’s operation in other states. “The districts are small, and the margins are narrow.”

The DLCC is still determining the best way to spend money in Minnesota this year, according to Griggs, who said he is in talks with other Minnesota politicos to help inform that decision.

“All options are open, and we’re ready to … fill in gaps as much as we can,” Griggs said.

Labor groups

Three seemingly notable labor-aligned PACs have also formed in recent months, including two major forces in political spending. The SEIU labor union’s national chapter formed a Minnesota committee in June, and brings a long track record of donating to boost Democratic candidates and parties at the state level.  During the 2012 election cycle, the SEIU’s main fund contributed more than $66 million toward state PACs and campaigns around the U.S., according to a database maintained by the Sunlight Foundation.

Another committee recently registered in Minnesota will represent the UNITE HERE union, which brings together workers from the hospitality, airport and gaming industries. UNITE HERE counts more than a quarter-million people among its members, and, like the SEIU, has been a faithful supporter of candidates who support raising the minimum wage, as Dayton and the DFL majorities did earlier this year.

Also new on the state scene is a fund called “Middle Class Majority,” which signed up to spend on state politics in mid-June. Geri Katz, a lobbyist and political organizer with the Minnesota Nurses Association, is listed as the PAC’s chair, and the fund was registered to the same address as the nursing union’s headquarters.

Social issues

Two LGBT rights groups, one familiar and one unknown, are also hoping to affect the campaign season.  Minnesotans United for All Families, the chief organizing group behind the legalization of gay marriage, is leveraging its extensive network to boost legislative candidates who cast potentially risky votes in 2013, as well as Gov. Mark Dayton. The MN United PAC helped organize a late June “pride reception” fundraiser for Dayton, which organizer Richard Carlbom said was attended by around 130 people.

“Without [Dayton’s] leadership, the freedom to marry bill would never have been signed into law,” Carlbom said.

The other new social issues PAC on the progressive side is the “Can’t Convert Love” PAC, which was formed to support efforts to pass a ban on controversial “conversion therapy” for children under 18. Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill to that effect during the 2014 session, but the proposal failed to win attention or support.

Fund co-founder Gabe Abderhold, a student at the University of Minnesota, said the PAC began building its fundraising network by amassing a contact list at the recent Twin Cities Pride event, including some who volunteered to host fundraisers for the nascent group.

“Our main goal, because our work is nonpartisan, is we want to give info to the voters on where a variety of candidates — especially gubernatorial — stand on the issue,” Abderhold said.

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