Iron Range candidates on rough road to the convention

Bakk and Rukavina harvest delegates one by one

Jon Collins
Legislative Correspondent
ST. PAUL — Last week it was a meeting of 30 people in Minneapolis. Over the weekend it was small groups in Coon Rapids, Becker, and other cities.
As the April DFL State Convention approaches, Iron Range candidates for governor are crisscrossing the state in hopes of winning delegates that will reward them with the DFL endorsement.
Although some candidates have said they will disregard the endorsement process, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, have vowed to abide by the DFL endorsement, which focuses their energy on a narrow group of people.
As Bakk explains it, leading up to the straw poll at the DFL caucus, many more people were involved.
“We started with a universe of 22,000 people who went to caucuses,” Bakk said. “Now every week, out of that group it gets narrowed down to delegates to go to the state convention.”
Only about 1,300 delegates will remain in April.
But there are few clear victories in this stage of the endorsement process. This week, Rukavina said, there are about 20 conventions across the state, some of which he will attend personally and some which his supporters will attend.
“You choose the ones where you think you have the best chance of getting delegates to the state convention and that you can realistically make driving,” Rukavina said. “This is the game of getting a delegate here and a delegate there.”
Bakk said it’s common that the meetings he attends across the state are only a few handfuls of people, most of whom will serve as delegates.
“Right now we’re not reaching out to the general public, our goal is to reach out to this universe of delegates,” Bakk said. “It’s kind of like getting elected mayor of a small town — it’s a pretty small universe of people you have to convince 60 percent of [to support you].”
Even at these small meetings, both candidates share a common challenge.
“When you’re from up north you start at a name recognition disadvantage over an R.T. Rybak who can get his name in the Twin Cities’ newspapers any day he wants,” Bakk said. “It’s a matter of trying to get myself introduced to a lot of people.”
Tough love and Farmer-Labor populism

Both candidates, due partly to their backgrounds in organized labor, have made job creation a main platform of their campaigns. But they’ve each also carved out a specialized niche in the DFL ecosystem.
Bakk’s is a tough love message of fiscal responsibility.
“What I’ve called it is an honest conversation,” Bakk said. “An honest conversation about what Minnesota is facing and what kind of Minnesota we want to have and what are we willing to pay for.”
As Senate Tax chairman, Bakk deals intimately with the budget. Considering the Legislature has faced deficits for the last four bienniums, Bakk has had a long time to think about how to fix the state’s budget system.
“People are looking for a simple solution, ‘make it easy for me,'” Bakk said. “I’ve been very consistent saying this problem is bigger than taxing the rich, bigger than reforming government, that we’re all going to have to help with this.”
Bakk proposes that the state combine restraint in spending with the creation of new revenue sources to help blunt the economic crisis.
“But really we’ve got to get the economy again so people are working again,” Bakk said. “My campaign theme is three words: Jobs, jobs, jobs — because you can’t raise taxes enough to solve this problem.”
Rukavina often introduces himself as being from the “Farmer-Labor” wing of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
“I’ve set myself apart for years,” Rukavina said.  “I think people appreciate the fact that I’ve been a strong defender of a lot of people who don’t have a voice at the Capitol.”
With Internet videos and public statements, he’s tapped into the populist DFL voice most often associated with late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
“I’ve been a populist and a progressive all my political career,” Rukavina said. “I’ve told all my supporters that are working for me that I intend to be myself and not change and if works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Both candidates have done relatively well in fund-raising, with Bakk edging out Rukavina, although Bakk has been fund-raising longer.
A muddled process
Despite rapt media attention, the crowded field for the DFL endorsement wasn’t winnowed by the straw poll at early-February state caucuses. Even as their Republican opponents seem to be gathering around former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, or Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, the Democratic field is as crowded and chaotic as ever. The non-binding caucus straw poll ended with Rukavina barely edging out Bakk in the middle of the pack, while two Minneapolis candidates — House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — vied for the lead.
Further muddling the DFL process, self-financing candidates like former Sen. Mark Dayton and former House DFL Minority Leader Mark Entenza have said they won’t honor the DFL endorsement process. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner is also traveling that route. That means that even after the convention in Duluth in April names the DFL endorsee, that candidate will face Entenza and Dayton’s well-funded operations in a bruising August primary — an expected date change from September by federal regulation.
“Even the endorsed candidate, whoever that is, is still going to face a tough primary against a couple people who are very wealthy and can pour millions into their campaign,” Bakk said. “It’s not helpful to have a knock-down drag-out primary over the course of the summer and spend a lot money that would be better spent taking on whoever the Republican is.”
With some DFL candidates that have little chance of coming back from their very low performances in the caucus straw poll, observers think it’s likely that some candidates will try to engage in some horse-trading with their delegates at the convention; leveraging delegate support for adoption of a political stance or position in the administration.
But both Bakk and Rukavina say they are focused on the DFL endorsement for governor.
“My intention is to go to the convention, get the endorsement, run against a couple Democrats who said they won’t abide by the endorsement, defeat them and be on my way to run against someone like [Republicans] Marty Seifert or Tom Emmer,” Rukavina said. “Which I would really look forward to.”