Monday, October 28, 2013

Minnesota Nice

Andy Kroll at Mother Jones looks at how Minnesota is getting back to its liberal heritage in the name of the late Paul Wellstone.

A decade ago, Tim Pawlenty was governor, Norm Coleman had replaced the late Paul Wellstone in the US Senate, and Rove was touting Minnesota—which hadn’t voted for a Republican president in 37 years—as a battleground state. Today, Democrats control the state Legislature. They hold both US Senate seats, five of the state’s eight congressional seats, and every constitutional office—governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state auditor. In November, they defeated ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage and enact restrictive voter ID rules. And to top it all off, Rep. Michele Bachmann, the tea party torchbearer under investigation for ethics violations, announced in May that she would not seek reelection. “If you look at the history of our party since 1944, we’re at the apex of our political power,” gushes Ken Martin, the chairman of what in Minnesota is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.


For that Minnesotans can thank—or blame—a small, press-shy circle of operatives, activists, donors, and party leaders who have built a political machine that chugs year-round to elect Democratic candidates and pass progressive policies. It is fueled by big unions and wealthy donors, the best data in the business, and an unusual level of collaboration among organizations that have very different priorities. Their strategy has created a road map for Democrats from Concord to Santa Fe. “The next phase for the progressive movement has to be taking our states back,” says Jeff Blodgett, a 30-year veteran of Minnesota politics who was the Obama campaign’s state director in 2008 and 2012.

It started with the death of Sen. Wellstone and his wife and daughter in a plane crash on October 25, 2002.  From that sad day, though, Mr. Blodgett started organizing to get Minnesota back to the blue side of the aisle.

Blodgett was shattered. He pulled himself together enough to recruit former Vice President Walter Mondale to run in Wellstone’s place, but Norm Coleman, a onetime campus radical turned Republican rising star and Rove acolyte, eked out a 2-point win. After the election Blodgett was unemployed and adrift. He turned over the same thought in his head: It can’t end like this. “If we didn’t have Paul and Sheila around,” he recalled some years later, “we had to figure out the next best thing.”

The next best thing became Wellstone Action, an organization conceived by Blodgett to train candidates, campaign managers, and activists to win elections the “Wellstone way”—promising bold policy ideas, investing heavily in grassroots organizing, and forging diverse coalitions. In May 2003, Wellstone Action held its first Camp Wellstone, a two-and-a-half-day crash course in campaigns and elections, and in the ensuing years 55,000 people would graduate from these trainings. Of the 112 DFL lawmakers elected to the Legislature last year, 40 were Camp Wellstone alums. US Rep. Tim Walz and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie graduated from the same Camp Wellstone class in 2005.

Read the whole story and see how it could be a model for other states where there have been traditions of old-fashioned populist liberalism overrun by the whackjobs.