Phifer scores early wins; DFL convention, primary loom

Current DFL candidates for Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District.

Local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party delegates convened county conventions across Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District these past few weeks. Through hours of messy, complicated political wrangling, they elected delegates who will endorse one of five announced candidates at the April 14 DFL convention in Duluth.

And Leah Phifer is winning.

She hasn’t won. She doesn’t have the endorsement wrapped up by any means. Sure, she had a head start, announcing her campaign last year. Further, she’ll face a primary challenge from at least two of the other candidates, Jason Metsa and Michelle Lee. But Phifer’s campaign generates enthusiasm that continues to surprise longtime DFL insiders.

Joe Radinovich and Kirsten Kennedy also seek the endorsement and plan to abide by it. Radinovich is doing pretty well, probably in second place, while Kennedy is far behind the field at this point. (Though I continue to hear positive reviews of her in candidate forums).

Still, Phifer consistently pulls in delegates wherever she goes.

Case in point, this past Saturday’s SD6 convention in Hibbing. Senate District 6 is the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range, half of which constitutes Metsa’s State House district. I expected Metsa to dominate here, with Radinovich in second.

Instead, SD 6 dedicated nine of its 20 delegates to Phifer. Metsa won six named delegates, but has at least three more uncommitted delegates in his tally, according to two different campaign vote counters. Radinovich has at least two delegates from the uncommitted ranks. Some of those uncommitted votes seem to be on the fence between Radinovich and Metsa.

If Phifer can win 45 percent of the delegates from the blood-red heart of the Iron Range, you can safely say she’s generating momentum on the campaign trail. Remember, at this level grassroots energy is vitally important. These meetings take hours. They’re complicated. People yell at each other. It takes fortitude.

Meantime, in North Branch, the SD32 convention elected five delegates for Phifer, one for Kennedy, who is the mayor of North Branch, and eight uncommitted. I don’t know the nature of those uncommitted delegates, but it stands to reason that Radinovich and Kennedy have the best chance at those votes.

Up in Koochiching County on Sunday, Radinovich and Phifer laid claim to the small number of delegates there. In any event, Phifer keeps pulling a solid share in very different parts of the district.

You can’t count out Radinovich as an alternative to Phifer. He had a disappointing showing in Hibbing, but still has some juicy local conventions in the Brainerd Lakes area next week where he is sure to do better. He needs to go into the convention in second place. If he wins over the support of the other candidates (at least for a day) he could have a shot.

Nevertheless, with Metsa and Lee going directly to the Aug. 14 primary, the strategy will shift. Those campaigns now have a vested interest in a hung convention. I still doubt this convention will end without an endorsement. Delegates don’t show up at these things to not endorse. Speeches, retail politics on the floor, these things still hold sway in the weird, archaic (beautiful?) world of endorsing conventions.

One interesting note. I had heard a rumor that there would be an effort to delay the House 6B endorsing convention in the event Metsa chose to stay in the legislature. If that was true, it sure didn’t pan out. House 6B DFLers endorsed Shaun Hainey. So it’s Congress or bust for Metsa.

Over the past few weeks I’ve encountered a few Iron Range political hands who have told me there is “no way” Phifer could be endorsed for Congress. Some DFLers still hold a grudge that she challenged retiring Rep. Rick Nolan for the endorsement before he left the race. I have to say, after seeing the results in Hibbing, Phifer’s the front-runner for the endorsement now. She could win. She would have a lot of patching over to do among some constituencies, but I think that will end up being true of any of the candidates.

Nevertheless, this story still has a few chapters to go, most notably the April 14 DFL convention and Aug. 14 primary election. A primary could involve new money, new tactics. (New candidates? Anything is possible).

Next, you can see the DFL candidates in action at some upcoming forums. The first takes place at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 25, at St. Scholastica. The next happens 6-9 p.m. Wednesday, April 4 at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet.

Meantime, Republican Pete Stauber and Independence Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman remain able to focus on the Nov. 6 general election. It will be one of the closest races in the nation. One of the most expensive. And it could affect the control of Congress at a time of overwhelming political instability in the United States.

No pressure, MN-8.

For more on the candidates and past coverage, see my MN-8 campaign coverage page.


  1. Nice recap Aaron. I surely hope your prediction that there will be an endorsed candidate is correct. Your concern that Metsa and Lee have “a vested interest in a hung convention” describes a broken DFL. After 2016, the party is hyper sensitive to any notion of manipulation. Should there be no endorsement the perception will be that money and power over rides the will of voters.

    The candidate with the greatest vested interest in a hung convention is Pete Stauber.

  2. The problem the DFL and all of the candidates face is that Nolan waited until after the caucuses to announce his decision not to run. That means that aside from Phifer none of the candidates have had the chance to organize to get delegates selected who would back them at the higher conventions, making it difficult or impossible for them to be endorsed. Phifer may have enough momentum to win, perhaps by a narrow margin. Radinovich may have enough support from DFL and Labor regulars and a “not Phifer” vote to win by a narrow vote. Neither of those outcomes are what the endorsement process usually is.

    In this setting, the endorsement process is very different than it was ever intended to be. Ordinarily, candidates would have gotten organized last fall to work to get their supporters elected as delegates. That chance never existed for most of them. Consequently, the DFL is left with a choice between endorsing a totally unproven and inexperienced candidate who happened to decide, for reasons that still are unclear, to run what appeared to be a quixotic race against Nolan (perhaps to position herself for a more realistic run in 2020?), or to allow the party organization to pick a candidate who never has submitted themselves to the public, or allowing the convention to not endorse a candidate. This is no reflection on Phifer, who seems to be doing a good job of running, but is the reality.

    This does not mean the DFL is broken. It means that Nolan himself broke this particular race and prevented it from being carried out in the usual and intended way.

    As to Stauber being the winner of a DFL primary race, I am not at all sure that is true. In reality, since the candidates are, at this point, largely unknown — or, in the case of Lee, untried — a primary may well be the best way to select a strong candidate who will become much better known during that race and emerge as a winner for the fall. Perhaps Phifer will prove that she is really that strong candidate, or Metsa will demonstrate popularity south of the Range, or Radinovich will overcome his own recognition problems and emerge, or Kennedy will become known outside her immediate area and pick up a following, or Lee will prove to not only be a recognizable personality and adept public figure but also a politician with a grasp of both issues and personalities. Money spent in the primary will serve to make DFL positions clear and educate the public on issues as well as make the public aware of the candidates.

    in the end, although I am a strong supporter of the caucus and endorsement process, to argue that the will of the fewer than 1% of the population who choose to caucus represents the “will of the voters” is a little over the top, especially in a race that did not actually exist at the time of the caucuses. Caucuses tend to reflect the will of a few people who are motivated to turn up, but certainly not necessarily the will of the voters. History has proven that to both parties on many occasions.

    As to the role of money, like it or not, everyone from Phifer to Radinovich and in between has to be prepared to raise and spend millions in this race if they are selected the candidate, since certainly the GOP will do exactly that. Best get started now.

    • Gerald, Thanks for the thoughtful response. It is obvious that you see the strings being played. The big guns were caught unaware. Nolan screwed up their plans a couple days after the caucuses, when it became evident he could not put together the coalition he needed to win. The existing power structure decided that they would rather lose to Stauber than lose their grip on the DFL 8th. To accomplish this they say… it’s too late to mount a campaign….we didn’t even try for the endorsement…we don’t have to follow our own rules….caucus voters are unrepresentative, yada yada yada, and turn it into a race for money. Throw in a couple of multinational corporations and a trillions dollars worth of minerals and then we will see what the real people think. At the same time the DNC will be advocating the need to get corporate money out of politics. Yep clear as mud.

      • I understand your feeling, but, as I noted above, everything also can be explained without reference to conspiracy.

        As far as mining, Phifer has opposed the two bills Nolan offered in Congress, but otherwise has called for just following the standard state and federal protocols for approval. That will certainly result in the state approving mining, as they have always. The EPA, which shot down the first Polymet plan, seems to have signed off on this one. That basically leaves just the courts in the way of opening the mine, and ultimately the Supreme Court as currently constituted will almost certainly end up coming down in favor to the mine, so the courts will undoubtedly cause delay but not stop it.

        Phifer’s position is clearly stated on her web site and has also been clearly stated in a couple of forums I saw her in. She says specifically that she does not believe she has the expertise to make a decision on mining, but believes that Minnesota regulators will make the correct decision. She also stated she thinks that Congress has no real role in the mining issue.

        So far Lee seems to be the most aggressive in suggesting restricting mining. Kennedy has said she agrees with Nolan, including the Congressional bills. Metsa is obviously in favor of non-ferrous mining. I expect Radiniovich will try to create some sort of straddle like Phifer, but like her will have a position that will allow the project to proceed.

        I have heard that Nolan’s main reason for stepping down is family health issues, with his daughter and some other unnamed problem, but there is widespread belief that his strong stance in favor of non-ferrous mining would not have stopped him from being endorsed, although the process may well have been close and could conceivably end up hung, but that he had a good chance of losing enough votes to Sandman to lose the election to Stauber. Of course, as Independent notes below, it is also widely assumed that an actual opponent of non-ferrous mining would lose enough votes to Stauber to lose as well.

        The key question is how strong an impact Trump will have in driving votes away from the GOP, and how much people like you will think that it is better to have Stauber in DC supporting Trump than to have a DFL Representative (Phifer, Metsa, Radoinovich, etc.) who favors progressive views on health care, immigration, taxes, and everything else except mining.

  3. independant says

    If whoever wins out is an anti-mining candidate I have a hard time seeing them win in the general election. Stauber will get a huge boost from Iron Range Labor (remember the “L” in DFL) folks if they feel abandoned by the party. After seeing scores of guys with faded Obama 2012 stickers on their hard hats and pickups vote for Trump in 2016 the DFL either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care about those particular voters anymore.

    • I am uncertain of Lee or Kennedy on Labor credentials, but Phifer is not just a union member but a union officer and organizer, Metsa has a long record of union involvement, and Radinovich seems to be drawing a lot of his strength in the conventions from union sources.

      Non-ferrous mining will continue to vex the DFL candidate, without a doubt. Stauber has embraced Trump, which makes him the potential heir to the massive “buyer’s remorse” over Trump seen in election after election since 2016, most recently in Pennsylvania CD18, another district with a high labor — and especially steelworker — vote, where a 20% plus victory by Trump and a 2016 congressional election where the Republican had no opponent turned into a loss in 2018.

  4. Gerald, where did you get the info about Phifer’s union activity? I had never run across this in any resources I have read.

    • She said it herself at a forum I attended, and here is a reference from an article in her hometown newspaper

      She is an adjunct faculty member at Augsburg College (adjuncts are non-tenure track employees working on temporary contracts who are often paid not much over the minimum wage,) and said she has been both an organizer and an officer in the efforts of SEIU to organize the group. SEIU won the right to organize those employees in an NLRB election in November of 2016.

      I am a bit puzzled, as I am sure you are, that she does not make a bigger deal of that in her campaign, given the strength of labor in the district. She mentions it on her website — — but not as prominently as you would think.

      Part of the reason may be that she is also involved in a very public dust up with the head of SEIU in Minneapolis over her comments in an op ed piece in the Minnesota Post in early 2017, when she wrote to defend ICE field employees, arguing that they are only following orders and that she, when she worked for ICE, found them to be good people. SEIU, of course, represents many immigrants in its organization of low income workers throughout the country.

      In response to direct questioning at the forum I was at, she argued that the problems with ICE enforcement, which she admitted exist, are based on the orders and directives given them by Congress and the administration, and that part of her motivation in running was to try to change those policies.

      I will admit that she has sometimes worried me that she may be trying to give impressions of one set of beliefs while holding another, mostly based on observing her efforts to gain support from opponents of non-ferrous mining by making a big issue out of her opposition to Nolan’s Congressional bills while simultaneously endorsing policies that will undoubtedly lead to the mining, and on her professional background. After hearing her talk and answer questions (very effectively for over an hour and completely off the cuff) I am by no means ready to endorse her, but I am less worried about her possibly being the candidate and about her sincerity.

  5. Thanks, Gerald
    “when she wrote to defend ICE field employees, arguing that they are only following orders and that she, when she worked for ICE, found them to be good people.”
    Gee, where have we heard those words before?

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