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Former party chief now bucks the party process

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Filing papers
DFL Congressional candidate Mike Erlandson, right, filed his paperwork at the Secretary of State's office Thursday. He's running to take the place of his boss, Rep. Martin Sabo, left, who is retiring at the end of the year.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

During his years as DFL State Party Chair, Mike Erlandson worked vigorously to make sure the party's endorsed candidate survived any challenge in the primary election.  But now that he's the challenger, Erlandson says his purpose has changed.

Mike Erlandson
Mike Erlandson, former DFL state party chairman, is running for Congress in the 5th Congressional District -- and bucking the party's endorsement process. Party delegates endorsed Keith Ellison for the race last month.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"I had a job to do, and I did my job and I did it well. I have a job to do right now, and it's talking to the voters of the 5th Congressional District," says Erlandson.

Erlandson has decided to forego the DFL endorsement and run in the DFL primary this September. He's running in a crowded field of DFLers hoping to replace U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, who is retiring after serving 28 years in Congress. Erlandson is Sabo's former chief of staff, and has his old boss' endorsement.  

Both men have a long history of loyalty to the party endorsement, but are ignoring it in this race.  Sabo was at Erlandson's side when he filed for office. He says he usually stayed away from endorsing candidates who don't have the party's backing, but says he believes Erlandson is the best candidate. 

I had a job to do, and I did my job and I did it well. I have a job to do right now, and it's talking to the voters of the 5th Congressional District.

"I thought Mike was a highly qualified person, and the best person to represent the 5th District in the U.S. Congress," says Sabo.

Sabo also says the party endorsement hasn't been a sure sign of success, pointing out that  Attorney General Mike Hatch and U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton both ignored the party's decision to endorse someone else in their most recent elections, but still won in their primaries. 

Erlandson is one of at least seven Democrats who have indicated they'll run in the September primary.  

Minnesota's 5th, which includes Minneapolis and several first-ring suburbs, is a DFL stronghold in Minnesota.  Whoever wins the primary receives the DFL nomination, and is expected to have an easy time winning the November election. 

DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez says he's disappointed that Erlandson and Sabo are not sticking by the party's endorsement process.  He characterized Erlandson as doing what's best for Erlandson.  

"For a long time, Mike was been in charge of defending the endorsement. He has now stepped out of that role. He's making the decision that he thinks will best serve his own political interests, and he's free to do that," says Melendez. "I think at the end of the day, that Keith Ellison is the best candidate in the field and he'll come through the primary."

Melendez says he's also not surprised that Sabo is backing Erlandson, especially since Erlandson worked for Sabo most of his adult life.  

Sabo and Erlandson
Retiring Rep. Martin Sabo, left, supports Mike Erlandson's campaign for the office he's leaving. Erlandson has worked for Sabo for most of his professional career.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Melendez says the DFL Party will do what it takes to secure a primary victory for Ellison.  He says DFL party volunteers will knock on doors and make phone calls for Ellison.  Ellison will also have access to party staffers and voter ID lists, and will receive financial support from the party.  

Keith Ellison says he isn't surprised that Sabo is actively supporting Erlandson, since Sabo backed his former staffer at the party's endorsing convention in May. Ellison says Sabo's endorsement will have little effect on the race.

"The people of the 5th Congressional District are very independent-minded and they don't like kingmaking, and that's been shown in this race in particular," says Ellison. "The candidate that puts forth the progressive strong message about peace, about universal health care, about renewable energy, will win -- and that person is me."

Ellison's campaign has faced some problems in recent weeks.  His past relationship with members of the Nation of Islam has been criticized.  

An Ellison campaign staffer also confirmed that Ellison's driver's license has been suspended because of unpaid parking tickets. The staffer also said the license will be reinstated and Ellison will be able to drive again later this week.  Ellison declined comment.

For his part, Erlandson says it's up to the voters to decide if Ellison's past is an issue.  But he did offer a subtle criticism of Ellison while touting his own background.   

"This is a very important job, the United States House of Representatives. None of us should be judged on anything other than our character, our experience," says Erlandson. "If we laid resumes on the table, clearly there's one person's resume who stands out. I believe that's mine."

The other Democrats running in the primary include former State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, Minneapolis City Councilmember Paul Ostrow, peace activist Erik Thompson and Robbinsdale resident Patricia Wiles.  

Republican Alan Fine, Independence Party Candidate Tammy Lee and Green Party candidate Jay Pond are also running.