Elections 2018: US Senator (partial term)

We have two Senate races this year. Amy Klobuchar is running for a regular six-year term. Tina Smith is running to finish out Al Franken’s term. This is the Tina race. Not surprisingly, it’s more hotly contested.

Whoever wins this election will serve for two years, instead of six, and will run for re-election (or, I guess, decide they’re sick of the job) in 2020.

Running in the DFL primary for this Senate seat:

Nick Leonard
Ali Chehem Ali
Richard Painter
Tina Smith

Nick Leonard

I had never heard of either Nick Leonard or Ali Chehem Ali when I sat down to research this race. I’d heard of Tina (obviously) and Richard Painter (because he’s viewed as her main rival) and then there were these other two guys whose names were unfamiliar to me.

Nick is endorsed by Our Revolution MN, so it’s genuinely sort of weird that he’s so invisible in the race as a whole, but he really is. One of the things Twitter can be good for is a sense of whether some person or topic is on anyone’s mind. The only person talking about Nick on Twitter, is Nick.

Possibly this is because he really doesn’t sound all that progressive. On his issues page, he has very short, sound-bitey statements on the issues without any sort of depth, and here’s what he says about health care:

“Americans can and should have access to high quality comprehensive health care. I believe Universal Health Care is a fundamental right. “

Nowhere in that statement does he talk about single payer, Medicare for All, or any of the other policies that at this point are fairly standard for progressives to roll out. His immigration statement could come straight from Jeff Flake:

“We need fair and compassionate immigration laws that keep families together and use common sense in protecting our borders while growing our economy for Minnesotans.”

If you’re going to use a phrase like “use common sense in protecting our borders” I want to know exactly what you mean. He doesn’t say. Also, if you include “while growing our economy for Minnesotans” I think you’re trying to signal that you think immigrants are coming in and taking everyone’s jobs, which is not an attitude I want in my Senator.

(His really un-detailed positions are particularly weird given the exhaustively detailed biography that starts with his parents getting married and includes the detail that his 5th and 6th grade basketball team was undefeated.)

I’ll also just note that whoever gets elected needs to be able to win the general election and if one month out you’re so obscure I had never heard your name and no one is talking about your on Twitter, you’re a lost cause.

(His Our Revolution questionnaire had a lot more progressive statements in it but he seemed to be mostly just checking things off, so … I don’t even know.)

Ali Chehem Ali

Ali Chehem Ali is an immigrant from Djibouti who previously ran for a state legislative seat. I did find one person on Twitter talking about him: she looked up the candidates, found him, and very excitedly voted for him because he is really progressive. And yeah: if you really want to vote for The Most Progressive Candidate In This Race, he might be your man. He has extremely detailed policy positions on a bunch of issues.

Aside from that one person, he’s gotten no particular traction. Like it or not, I think this is a race between Painter and Smith.

Richard Painter

The weird thing about Richard Painter is that there are all sorts of scenarios where I’d be a huge fan of the guy:

  • If he held elected office as a Republican, and loudly and publicly switched parties.
  • If he were running in a Republican primary against an enthusiastically pro-Trump incumbent.
  • If he were running in the Republican primary for any of the open seats, including Tina’s.

Richard has been loudly and consistently anti-Trump. That’s pretty much his brand. And that’s legitimately appealing.

But he is also a Republican. Or at least, he was a Republican until about five minutes ago, or (let’s just go ahead and be precise here) until April 30th of this year, when he announced he was running.

His bio and positions emphasize that he was always a more centrist Republican: he favored campaign finance reform. He opposed the anti-marriage amendment that was on the Minnesota ballot in 2012. (He doesn’t comment on whether he also opposed the Voter ID amendment that was on at the same time.) He’s been anti-NRA for a while. His issues section claims that he’s pro-choice, pro-environment, and pro-single-payer, and he has a section on the economy that starts out saying, “Fiscal responsibility is a classic Republican talking point, but since the 1980’s it has been nothing more than lip service.”

And yet in an interview in May of 2017 he said, “I’ve been a Republican for thirty years.” He apparently campaigned for Mondale but despite the fact that Reagan was really only the beginning of the Republican party’s utterly shameless and disingenuous strategy of claiming the “party of fiscal responsibility” mantel while creating enormous deficits and periodically driving the entire economy over a cliff (thanks, GWB!) he nonetheless joined the GOP sometime after 1984 and stayed in it until (checks calendar) 11 weeks ago.

And his site really doesn’t address this. He claims to be pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-environment, and pro-single-payer. There is a party that favors abortion rights, gun control, strong environmental regulation, and a plan for health care that doesn’t boil down to “if you’re poor and sick, this sounds like a you problem, not a me problem,” and that party is not the Republican party and has never been the Republican party in the thirty years that Painter was a Republican. So why was he a Republican? Surely he had a reason? What are his policy positions that line up with them?

 

Digging around, I found a letter to the editor he wrote in July 2016, endorsing Hillary Clinton:  “Clinton is more generous with domestic spending than I’d like, but her fiscal platform does not depart radically from that of her husband, who achieved a balanced federal budget as president.” This letter also cites his experience in Bush’s administration as evidence of his Republican credentials: “My Republican credentials are strong: I served in the White House of President George W. Bush as associate counsel from 2005-07. It’s my commitment to conservative values that leads me to support Clinton over Donald Trump, who represents an unthinkable step in the wrong direction — both for our country and for the Republican Party.”

In his bio now, here’s how he talks about his job in the Bush White House: “Took a leave of absence from teaching at the University of Illinois College of Law to serve as Associate Counsel to the President and chief White House ethics lawyer. The White House ethics lawyer’s job is not a policy or political job. The fact that Mr. Painter often disagreed with the policy preferences of the contemporary Republican Party was irrelevant. His consistent theme for decades has been that ethics is not political.”

I agree with him that ethics shouldn’t be political. But holy shit, the George W. Bush administration decided that waterboarding prisoners was okay. (Years before Painter arrived, FTR. He did not sign off on the torture memos; here’s something he wrote about the issue in 2009. But he did join this White House.)

Working on the draft of this last night, I said that I don’t trust Richard Painter, and that’s a little unfair, because there are some things I definitely trust him to do. I absolutely trust that if elected, he would dedicate himself to going the hell after Trump, and nothing, not Republican foot-dragging, not the other Democrats complaining that his actions were badly-timed or unproductive, not hell or high water or dark of night or a literal invasion by space aliens, nothing would stand in his way. And there’s an appeal to that.

But I very much distrust his support for the wider progressive agenda that he suddenly announced his support for in April. I strongly suspect there are a number of issues where he still aligns with the Republicans, that he’s just not going to talk about right now. If he beats Tina in the primary, then obviously he’ll have my vote. But I would expect him to be a Democrat in the model of the Blue Dog coalition, and we can do better than that with a Senator from Minnesota.

Tina Smith

Tina is one of those political figures who kind of came from the political back room. Prior to serving as Lieutenant Governor (which she did her best to make a real job), she ran a bunch of campaigns and served as Chief of Staff for Mayor Rybak and Governor Dayton. This article talks a bit about this: she went from “random campaign volunteer” to “running major campaigns” in about a decade.

There are incompetent people who wind up running campaigns and working as Chiefs of Staff, but when you see a woman who’s had this sort of semi-meteoric rise, it’s usually because she is incredibly good at her job. According to everyone who’s worked with her, she is smart, competent, and extremely good at talking people into things.

She’s been a Senator since January, and has been a consistent voice for — well, progressive values, sure, but mostly basic fucking human decency, which is currently in remarkably short supply in GOP-controlled Washington. She took an immediate stand against family separation and was one of 11 Senators who signed a letter demanding updates on whether kids were back with their parents. She took an immediate stand against confirming the Supreme Court nominee (even before he was named, she and Amy Klobuchar released a statement saying no vote should be held until after the election in November.) Whenever I read the latest briefings from the nightmare hellscape that is our country in 2018 (there’s something new every hour) with the instruction to Contact My Senator ASAP, I check Tina’s Twitter feed, and usually she’s Tweeted out the position I want to see from her quickly enough that I don’t have to call. I really appreciate that in a Senator.

I like Tina’s positions on stuff. (I like Richard’s stated positions on stuff, too, but in Tina’s case, I trust her sincerity. And I trust that even if she doesn’t explicitly call out the voting rights positions of the DFL vs the GOP, to name one topic neither covers on their site, she’s aligned with the DFL.) The biggest issue on which Richard has been running to her left is copper/nickel mining. I sort of wonder if he pounced on this particular issue because he’s not going to be a hit with organized labor anyway and so walking the tightrope we string every election cycle between Environmental Protection and Union Support was something he could just opt out of entirely? Regardless, he was a Republican until April. He was a member of a party who declared in their 2016 platform that coal is “an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource” and that “we reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.” Why am I supposed to believe that he’s genuinely and sincerely outraged about copper/nickel mining? Since when, exactly?

If you’re thinking, “but what I really want is a Senator who will go after Trump like a rabid honey badger,” I mean, I hear you. And I sympathize. But I believe that the person we elect this year will have the opportunity to serve under a Democratic administration, someday, with a Democratic majority in the Senate. I want someone who will use that opportunity to work to create the world I want to see, and Tina is someone who I really believe will do that. (I mean, she’ll also have to win in 2020, because that’s when the term ends. We’ll have to get out there and create that blue wave in 2018, and then we’ll have to do it again in 2020.)

(Speaking of creating the blue wave, if you live in Minneapolis or Saint Paul, MN-02 and MN-03 are right down the road, and I bet their Indivisible groups could set you up with some volunteer work. You could door-knock for Angie Craig or Dean Phillips. (Angie is not facing a primary opponent; Dean Phillips has an opponent in the primary, kinda, but the guy just has a Twitter feed, not an actual campaign, from what I could find, so you really can get started right now, no need to wait until after the primary.) I hate phone banking and door knocking, to be honest, but I am haunted by the fact that the last time I was actually motivated enough to get the hell out there and do it, in 2012 when I was motivated by those ghastly amendments, we not only defeated both amendments, we swept the Governor’s seat, the MN House, and the MN Senate. Call me superstitious, but I’m going to try to make myself volunteer for someone this year.)

Anyway. Vote for the actual Democrat who’s been working to further the progressive agenda since the beginning of the 1990s. I really believe that Tina Smith is going to be a really good Senator. 

 

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