REGIONAL— DFL District 3A Chair Paul Fish abruptly canceled a party endorsing convention this week that had been set for Sept. 19 in Ely— and some top local party officials say they see Iron …
REGIONAL— DFL District 3A Chair Paul Fish abruptly canceled a party endorsing convention this week that had been set for Sept. 19 in Ely— and some top local party officials say they see Iron Range politicians, and the politics of copper-nickel mining in particular, behind the move.
The endorsing convention was called by three of the four DFL county chairs late last week as a way to give party stalwarts a voice in the selection of a candidate ahead of the Sept. 29 DFL primary. The primary will ultimately determine the party’s nominee in the Dec. 8 special election called to replace the late Rep. David Dill, but parties typically make endorsements in advance of primary elections.
The endorsing convention was supposed to have included a morning forum for the candidates to talk to the assembled delegates before an afternoon endorsement decision. Marlys Wisch, the DFL’s Lake County Chair, said the day-long convention would have been a valuable way for the four DFL contenders to meet party activists, and potential volunteers, from other parts of the sprawling district.
Wisch said Fish never consulted with her about the decision to cancel the event, but she’s convinced he didn’t make the decision on his own. She said Iron Range politicians were almost certainly involved. “I hesitate saying any names at this point,” she said.
But St. Louis County DFL Chair Kirsten Larsen had no such hesitation, suggesting Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, was behind the decision. “The only person I am aware of that Mr. Fish met with regarding this issue is Senator Bakk,” stated Larsen in an email on Tuesday. “It is my belief the convention was canceled because it was perceived that it would result in a choice being made by more than one hundred representatives from precincts all over the district that a few powerful people don’t want,” Larsen added.
The cancellation of the convention left Cook County DFL Chair Anton Moody particularly perplexed. “It’s been a bumpy past couple weeks,” he said. Moody had supported holding the Sept. 19 endorsing convention but was shocked when a delegate list circulated by Fish didn’t include a single delegate from Cook County, a stronghold for candidate Bill Hansen. Moody notes that Hansen is the only one of the four contenders for the DFL nomination to publicly question the wisdom of approving new copper-nickel mines in the region and he says Hansen’s stance has made him the target of the pro-mining Iron Range delegation. He said he sees Iron Range political tactics behind the intrigue surrounding the endorsing process. “The Iron Range delegation has the party by the neck. And they change the rules as they see fit,” he said. “It makes me fearful of what’s happening with the DFL.”
Hansen, a longtime active DFLer, has twice before won the party endorsement for the House seat formerly held by Dill, but lost to Dill both times in a primary.
Moody said Cook County DFLers did caucus last year, which he said qualified them to take part in an endorsement process. He said he and the local party secretary had spent several days getting all the paperwork into the state party to ensure that the county’s delegates would be seated at the planned convention. That effort, he said, would likely have made the difference, and thrown the party endorsement to Hansen.
“What this has to do with is Bill’s stance on copper-nickel mining,” said Moody.
“The easiest way to make sure he couldn’t get the endorsement was to keep Cook County delegates from being seated. But once it began to look like they were going to get seated, the only solution was to cancel the thing.”
Both Moody and Wisch said they were frustrated with the lack of transparency behind the decision. Larsen agreed, saying Fish regularly spends large amounts of money on candidates without consulting with other party officials in the district, or answering questions about his decisions.
Fish, in a brief statement he emailed to the county chairs on Monday, stated: “The voters of 3A deserve the opportunity to select the DFL candidate who best represents their interests. Therefore, a DFL endorsing convention for the 3A seat will not be held. Participation in the Sept. 29 primary is encouraged.”
While the DFL party strongly encourages the use of the endorsement process, even for special elections, State Party Chair Ken Martin said it’s always a local decision. “It’s not unprecedented that party units have decided not to endorse in special elections,” he said. “Usually it’s because of the timelines involved.”
The Hansen campaign cried foul in a press release on Tuesday, calling Fish’s action a “circumvention” of the DFL party process. They also noted that Fish never notified their campaign of the change. “We had to learn about it from the I-Falls paper,” said Hansen campaign chair Nancy Powers. “In this strongly DFL district, the primary election often determines who wins the seat in the general election. The endorsing convention helps the electorate understand who, among the candidates running as Democrats in the primary, truly represents DFL priorities and values,” said the statement from the Hansen campaign.
Candidate Rob Ecklund, another longtime DFL activist, said an endorsing convention would have been appropriate if there had been more time. “I know that if you were to see my schedule for the next 20 days, it would have been a tough stretch to get one scheduled. I am sure the rest of the candidates are in the same position,” he said.
Ecklund, a current Koochiching County Commissioner, said he applauds the activists who wanted to hold a convention. “But in these special elections it may be best that the voters that always vote in primaries are the ones to make the choice,” he said.
Fish did not return a phone message seeking additional information for this story.