At DFL convention the Range yells a mighty Yalp

I’ve spent a day decompressing from my service as a delegate to the DFL state convention in Duluth this weekend (or, if you are not of that political ilk, I was instead gathering among the Bear People). Margaret Anderson Kelliher won party backing for the office of governor. That’s well known. From my standpoint, the question I struggle with is whether to write a blog post about the proceedings or a novel.

Who am I kidding? Novels are hard! Here’s a very long blog post. The novel will come friends, it will indeed.

There’s plenty of speculation about the outcome. Fundamentally there are three reasons Margaret won this endorsement:

  1. The MAK team had the most delegate votes at the start, something that was in question before the convention.
  2. The MAK team had the best convention plan. Bigger demonstrations, more delegates working the floor as extra persuaders, etc. Others showed flashes of strength, but MAK’s team had a plan for the entire night that was executed exactly as conceived.
  3. The Iron Range delivered for her, thanks to the endorsement of outgoing candidate Tom Rukavina, labor backing and the floating of Iron Range Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) as a possible running mate. DISCLOSURE: I am a close friend and the campaign manager for Tom Anzelc. I confirm nothing; he has not been offered the job to date.

That’s all fine and good. I’ll be voting for Margaret Anderson Kelliher in the primary election and general election because I think she’s got the most realistic and practical sense of how to handle the massive budget problems in Minnesota while delivering the services and leading the vision of what makes Minnesota a good place to live. Remember, without excellent schools and nice towns we are just a cold place to live. But this post is not about my personal endorsement and I don’t want it to be any more partisan than necessary. Margaret is a nice, smart, focused woman who could probably break away from her 4-H forensics speaking style, but who is otherwise a solid progressive Minnesota leader worth getting to know. We’ll leave the talking points alone from here on out.

The real story of this convention was the way Iron Range delegates delivered, in an old school way, in a convention that was a smoky haze away from being an old school convention. In the run-up to this event countless blogs, news stories and pundits expounded on what the ReNEW caucus, a group of progressive delegates that were planning to break for one of three candidates — Kelliher, Mayor R.T. Rybak or Rep. Paul Thissen, (all DFL-Minneapolis) — at a key time. For Thissen in particular, ReNEW was a key part of the strategy. ReNEW controlled about 10 percent of the convention floor, so their ability to swing one way or the other was the ninja in the woods everyone was waiting for.

The classic Iron Range/labor coalition that has swung conventions for decades took ReNEW out back and beat it with a pool cue until it cried. I’m not saying that because I think it’s good, I’m saying it because that’s what happened.

Everything ReNEW promised to do, deliver votes and victory for the candidate most aligned with its causes, was actually accomplished by the Eighth Congressional District and labor interests in other districts. At a key time, when the outcome was highly malleable, Tom Rukavina dropped and endorsed Margaret. From where I sat at the Itasca County table I could see Rukavina’s sea of supporters, my friends from SD5, absorb the shock and disappointment of their dear friend’s defeat and WITHOUT FLINCHING put on the red MAK shirts provided by the campaign. Old school, baby. This ain’t a new thing. When ReNEW had a belated chance to counter in supporting their majority candidate, R.T. Rybak at the time, they blinked and let everyone vote how they wanted.

The top three finishers for this endorsement — Kelliher, R.T. Rybak and Paul Thissen — were all people who could have been slam dunk frontrunners had they not faced such a crowded field for such a long time. Rybak and Thissen are both top shelf candidates for future offices. As others have pointed out, a series of synthesized conventions might have produced many different ways for Rybak or Thissen to have won this one.

But why didn’t they win this one?

I’ll start with Rybak because, God’s honest truth, I thought he’d win. Rybak was an early supporter of Barack Obama. (He joined me in being an early supporter of Howard Dean (2004) and Bill Bradley (2000) before that). His whole style is built upon the youth-oriented, independent-focused, intellectual, energetic approach shown by those candidates, particularly Obama. Why didn’t it work? Short answer, the Obama strategy works when you flood the field with your people — especially new people — early. It doesn’t work when you’re working with the party regulars, and it sure seemed like this was a convention with fewer new delegates than the last two. Rybak had the right message and, time will tell, might have been at minimum as good a candidate as MAK. I enjoyed all my conversations with him and he’s a pure star for the DFL faithful.

Same true for Paul Thissen, who — OK, I’ll admit it, even though I was a proud Rukavina vote at the convention — was my straw poll choice. He’s just such a smart guy, a good guy, a hard worker without the politician skin wrapped around him like you often see. He made a lot of friends at this convention and if he runs for any damn thing at all in the future, I’m committing early and not messing around.

But the real story of this convention was the Iron Range, its history and how its history influenced the turning points of this convention:

  • Tom Rukavina’s speech — a flaming piece of pure Range populism and heart that flew through a space time rip from the 1930s. This speech was the only thing I heard all weekend that provoked an actual emotional response in me or most others.
  • Labor politics — for reasons, some imagined, Rybak was deemed unacceptable unless necessary. MAK played this factor to her advantage.
  • Rukavina’s endorsement and the Anzelc factor. These two guys are living examples of the Iron Range story. They ain’t perfect; they’re human; they care. That’s the Range.

Did the right thing happen? The only answer is, the thing happened. The rest is a test of the character, will and endurance of the people involved. Any nervous DFLers now taste the exhilarating, frightening, uncertain, wild taste of being a 21st century young adult living on the Iron Range. Jobs are scarce, as are lattes. What will you do? Will you do anything? You should.

My first book’s title sums up the struggle: “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” I’ve read about and researched, talked to and grown up among the people of this place. I know it and yet I don’t because, despite appearances, things are not the same as they used to be. Indeed, the central purpose of my work is to determine where we, the people Iron Range, are going and what we should be doing. This convention was revealing, but only in the way that a really good episode of “Lost” is revealing. There’s always more to learn. I learned quite a lot this weekend, but I’m not even halfway to the truth.


The Uptake has the Tom Rukavina speech that changed the course of this convention:


  1. Toni Wilcox says

    Good analysis Aaron. Particularly insightful on the “4-H forensics” style.

  2. I only steal from the best, Toni! 🙂

  3. Aaron, That was a great analysis of the convention. MAK did win the old school way. And it was within a great field. Thissen and Rybak will be heard from again. The groundwork is laid.

  4. Nice work Aaron, I’m biting my tongue!!

  5. Aaron –

    Stepping back a bit, its useful to remember its been almost 40 years since a DFL convention chose a successful candidate for governor. That was Wendell Anderson.

    The real decision on who the DFL candidate is will be made in the August primary. There are three other candidates in that race. What the convention did was eliminate the other candidates who agreed to letting the convention eliminate them. Given the turn out at the caucuses, its not clear to me that many DFL voters are going to let the party decision make theirs.

    The trick now is to elect Kelliher. Delivering the goods for a losing candidate has never been an empowering experience for anyone other than party insiders.

  6. I think that’s a fair point, LCB. All bets are off now, but Margaret will have some advantages if she gets up and running soon.

  7. Thanks for the link-thru, Aaron. I agree with this post in nearly every way, and I say that as a disappointed RT delegate.

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