Tonight is a big night for Minneapolis politics. DFLers across the city will be caucusing in their precincts to take the first step in endorsing candidates in the open mayor's race and several City Council races.
MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert spoke with Tom Weber about what to watch for tonight.
Weber: Why are tonight's caucuses really important?
Gilbert: They're important because this is the DFL precinct caucus and Minneapolis is a heavily DFL town. Basically, this is where the process by which the DFL decides which, if any, candidates to endorse for mayor, City Council and any other number of city offices begins. It all begins tonight.
Weber: What is going to happen tonight at these individual caucus meetings?
Gilbert: People from these neighborhoods — every precinct, and a precinct is like when you go to vote — there are more than 100, I think 117, precincts in the city of Minneapolis. People will gather in that room; anyone can show up as long as they're eligible to vote on Election Day and pledge that they're a DFLer.
They are going to elect delegates to two conventions. There's the citywide convention, which is June 15, and then there are conventions for every City Council ward, and that's where the endorsements will be decided for that ward. There's two sets of delegates that will be elected — city convention delegates and ward convention delegates. That's the main order of business tonight.
Weber: So this then leads up to the city convention where we get a DFL endorsement, possibly?
Gilbert: Or not. The DFL will try to make an endorsement. They haven't had a great track record when it comes to the mayor's race in making endorsements at the city convention. Even popular incumbent Mayor R.T. Rybak, when he was seeking reelection the first time eight years ago, he didn't get the endorsement. It was blocked.
Weber: And by blocked, you mean there wasn't enough of a percentage at that convention.
Gilbert: It takes 60 percent, so that's a high threshold, and in this case we're going to have five candidates that we know of vying for the DFL endorsement.
Weber: When we look at the field of candidates, who seems to be putting more emphasis on the endorsement process rather than waiting for the November election?
Gilbert: There's this thing in party endorsements called "abiding by the endorsement" that means that the candidate pledges to drop out of the race if the delegates at the convention endorse someone else. So far, only one of the candidates — Council Member Gary Schiff, who's running for mayor — has clearly pledged that he will drop out if the party endorses someone else. A couple other candidates — Jackie Cherryhomes, former council president, and Mark Andrew, former Hennepin County Board chair, said they probably would as long as everyone else does. City Council Member Don Samuels, also running for mayor, said he's not going to abide by the endorsement. He's just going to go through to the general election. Council Member Betsy Hodges, also running for mayor, she says she hasn't decided yet whether she'll abide by the endorsement.
Weber: In the case of Samuels, since he's not abiding by it, is he even trying to get the endorsement?
Gilbert: He's trying, but he's probably not trying as hard as Gary Schiff, who's put a lot of emphasis on the DFL Party process.
Weber: We have that field who's going for the DFL endorsement. Who else rounds out the field as we sit here today?
Gilbert: The major candidate who is not seeking DFL endorsement is Cam Winton. He's an attorney who works in the wind energy industry. He has been active in Republican politics in the past, calls himself a Republican, but is not seeking the Republican endorsement or any other party endorsement. Arguably, if you're not seeking the DFL endorsement in Minneapolis, there's really not much benefit in seeking any other party endorsement, given what a lock the DFL has on politics in Minneapolis.
Weber: I know it's early, but is there any way to handicap who has an advantage?
Gilbert: Who has an advantage overall in becoming the next mayor of Minneapolis?
Gilbert: Hmmm. It's really hard and I'm going to say that the reason it's hard is because Minneapolis is using a relatively new system of voting called ranked choice voting. That means there's no primary. All the candidates go on to the general election ballot as long as they don't drop out, and voters get to rank up to three candidates for each office on the ballot, including mayor. So even the second and third choices of voters are going to play a role. For me, observing the political process, it makes it really tough. No public polls have been done. I think it's going to be rather hard to figure out who has the advantage under a system like that.
Weber: This was actually in place four years ago but it didn't matter as much because Rybak pretty much had a lock on re-election.
Gilbert: He did. He had a lot of challengers — maybe 11 or so — but no one anyone had really heard of. I mean, that was a coronation. He won with something like 60 or 70 percent of the vote.
Weber: Is the endorsement even important or a must-have anymore? Especially given the fact that even Mayor Rybak didn't get the endorsement when he went for re-election.
Gilbert: There are two ways you can look at that. As I noted, Rybak didn't get the endorsement until his third term running for mayor. But on the other hand, if you look at the current composition of the Minneapolis City Council, every member that the DFL endorsed last time got elected to the Minneapolis City Council. The only person they didn't endorse was in Ward 2, Green Party member Cam Gordon. Maybe in the mayor race, the track record's not that great. But at the City Council level the track record of these party endorsements in recent history is exceptional. They ran the table last time.
Weber: As you noted, three council members are running for mayor: Samuels, Hodges and Schiff. What's happening in their and other City Council races? That comes up tonight too.
Gilbert: There are three open seats — the three council members are giving up their council seats. There are competitive contests for DFL endorsement for all three of those seats. There are also a couple of City Council members who appear to be in tough endorsement races right now. In Ward 3, there's Diane Hofstede. A number of her colleagues on the Minneapolis City Council actually endorsed her challenger, which is quite unusual. Jacob Frey is giving her a run for her money on the endorsement and both of them have pledged to abide by the endorsement — that is, drop out if someone else gets it. In Ward 10, there are at least three candidates who are challenging Meg Tuthill for her seat and endorsement, so that's thought to be a hot race as well. Three open seats, a couple more competitive ones. While nothing gets decided tonight, this is a big night for politics in Minneapolis.
Weber: What are the big issues that have come up so far in the mayor's race?
Gilbert: Amongst the DFL candidates there's certainly a lot of overlap. These are different flavors of DFL in some ways. There are a couple of issues where the candidates clearly disagree. For instance, the stadium. Stadiums are always controversial. Samuels voted for the Vikings stadium deal, where Schiff and Hodges voted no and that continues to come up in the race. Cherryhomes and Andrew never had an opportunity to vote on the stadium but they've positioned themselves as supporters of the stadium and the jobs it will create.
Weber: Will that come up tonight?
Gilbert: It certainly could, although I think the big thing that happens at caucuses is that the campaigns want to get as many of their supporters elected as delegates. The big dynamic is not so much issues as turning out your supporters. The more people you turn out, the more people raise their hands when they ask who wants to be a delegate. That will increase your chances of having a favorable composition at the city convention in June.
Weber: There are also caucuses tonight in St. Paul, but not as much drama.
Gilbert: There's not. For one thing, City Council elections don't happen this year in St. Paul. Incumbent Mayor Chris Coleman has no announced DFL challenger, so there's not going to be a big competition there. So all that's on there are some school board races.