Election 2017: Caucusing & City Races

So there’s a declared candidate for the St. Paul School Board who’s (a) a TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist), (b) apparently also an anti-vaxxer, (c) this is apparently just the tip of the iceberg of her overall awfulness, according to people who know her from Facebook neighborhood groups and so on.

I do not normally start blogging in March for a race that’s going to happen in November, but she’s upsetting enough to have already attracted a bunch of attention. And in fact, there is something worth bringing to the attention of my St. Paul readers that they can participate in if they’re concerned about making sure that TERFs (and other potential assholes) don’t slip by and onto the St. Paul School Board: the DFL Caucuses and City Convention are both still upcoming.

 

https://stpauldfl.wordpress.com/

Caucuses are being held next month: which day depends on your ward (if you live in St. Paul). It’s possible that you went to the caucuses a year ago and are already cringing. Just put that thought right ouf of your mind. Caucuses that are not trying to be a presidential primary are completely different events. They are calm, pleasant, celebratory little meetings, and you will be able to drive right over, find a place to park, stroll in, and chat casually with people who are running for School Board and Mayor and who want to earn your support. (And you can ask them things like, “so. Trans kids. Any thoughts?” and see what they say.)

At a lot of caucuses, you basically just raise your hand and sign up if you want to go to the convention to Be a Big Powerful Decider of Endorsements. This is not guaranteed, however. If you have more people who want to go than you have slots, you figure it out with Walking Subcaucuses. But you can, among other things, propose your own Walking Subcaucus for Undecided St. Paul Citizens Who Support Trans Kids and round up a bunch of likeminded people and send some of you on to the City Convention to focus on this particular issue. (Also, if you don’t get to be a delegate, you can easily sign up to be an alternate, and with a City Convention, odds are extremely high that if you show up on the day of the convention, you’ll get upgraded. I mean, for one thing, it’s June 17th. There will always be committed delegates who get up on a nice day in June and think, “fuck spending an entire day stuck inside the Washington Tech high school cafeteria. It is June in Minnesota and I am going to spend the day in my garden.“)

The City Convention is on June 17th, at Washington Tech High School, and will likely be a fairly long day, as they will be endorsing both School Board people and a Mayoral candidate. (Or possibly they’ll fail to endorse a mayoral candidate! That can happen, too. I expect they’ll settle on some school board candidates, though.)

But you can go to your caucus, and you can either sign up to be a delegate, or you can go to a walking subcaucus to send delegates who pledge not to support a transphobic asshole, and you can make absolutely damn sure that this woman doesn’t wind up with DFL endorsement.

(I think she’s very unliikely to get it. VERY VERY VERY. For a whole lot of reasons, including the very basic one of, “when neighbors who barely know you dislike you so strongly that they are actively out there warning people against you, your odds of finding diligent, helpful volunteers who will help you get through the endorsement process are really quite low.” But also, most of the people who show up at the DFL City Convention are quite progressive, and this woman’s views are not going to be a selling point that will impress many people. Note, I have no idea whether she’s even going for DFL endorsement; I don’t get the vibe that she actually knows what the hell she’s even doing politically. She could, I suppose, ask for Republican endorsement, instead, but most St. Paul residents consider that endorsement to be a big old warning label, so that certainly won’t get her any closer to the school board.)

DFL endorsement is extremely important in St. Paul for down-ticket races like school board, because the list of DFL-endorsed candidates get printed on ALL THE THINGS that come from the DFL, and lots of people just use those brochures as a checklist. There’s money that comes from the DFL, and volunteers who drop lit for everyone, and lots of other stuff.

Here’s a post I wrote last year about how a caucus runs:
https://naomikritzer.com/2016/02/28/minnesota-caucuses-what-actually-happens/ Ignore the stuff about (a) crowds and (b) counting presidential preference ballots, that’s no longer current.

And here’s a post I wrote about political conventions, and why you might want to go:
https://naomikritzer.com/2016/02/29/political-conventions-and-why-you-might-want-to-go/
This includes a detailed explanation of Walking Subcaucuses, but one additional note I’ll make: if you’re at your Senate District Convention picking delegates for the State Convention, you’re trying to divide up like 30 seats between 500 eager volunteers. Whereas if your precinct caucus DOES have to run a walking subcaucus to sort out delegates to the City Convention, it’ll be something more like, “50 people want to go and we only have 40 slots.” Very different dynamic.

If you become a City Convention delegate, you can expect a lot of phone calls and visits from people who’d like to serve on the School Board or be the next Mayor of St. Paul. Candidates will likely call you personally and ask to discuss your personal concerns. So among other things, if there’s an issue you feel strongly about, this is a GREAT opportunity to make sure that school board people and possible future mayors hear about it. (Note that these are not fundraising calls: what they want is your physical presence and votes at the City Convention, and hitting you up for money will just encourage you to dodge their calls. Although possibly you’ll get super excited about someone, and if that happens, they will be ecstatic if you want to volunteer, particularly at the City Convention — they need people to come in super early and stake out table space and hand out t-shirts and tell everyone who asks why you are thrilled to be supporting so-and-so… A lot of smaller candidates rely heavily on family members and personal friends to do this particular work, but when they can get convention delegates who are excited about supporting them, that is great news.)

AND ONE FINAL NOTE:

Everyone in Minnesota has caucuses upcoming! And Minneapolis ALSO has very interesting city elections coming up, so if you are a Minneapolis resident, by all means go to your Caucus, Ward Convention, and City Convention. (The Minneapolis DFL page has a list of who’s running for endorsement — not just for Mayor, but for the City Council, Park Board, and BET positions as well. Lots of excitement upcoming!)

 

Political Conventions, and why you might want to go

I was actually going to write up a FAQ on caucuses next, but I got hung up on not knowing the answer to something for the GOP caucuses. I sent out e-mails, had to wait for a response, and decided that in the meantime, I might as well write my post on political conventions.

When you go to your caucus, if you stay for the meeting, one of the questions you will hear is whether you’d like to be a delegate to the next-level convention. Most of the time, there are enough slots that anyone who wants to can sign up to be a delegate.

Sometimes there are a few more people who want to be delegates than there are slots, and they’ll ask if anyone’s willing to be an alternate. If you’re an alternate, the theory is that you’ll fill in if any of the delegates from your precinct don’t show up. (Most of the time, all the alternates who show up get promoted to delegates.)

When you vote in the fall, your ballot will have the Presidential race at the top. In Minnesota, we are not voting on the Governor (or other statewide offices like Attorney General) this year, nor are either of our Senators currently up for re-election. However, all our U.S. House Representatives are running for re-election and that race will be on the ballot. (If you are in the 2nd district, this is a particularly interesting year. If you’re represented by Betty McCollum or Keith Ellison, not so much.)

Continuing down the ballot, you will also see your state legislators. You have a State Senator and a State Representative, and both races will be on the ballot. Finally, depending on how your city structures things, you may have city races this year. (Not in St. Paul or Minneapolis, though.)

The DFL endorses people for most of the non-judicial races. The statewide people are endorsed at the State Convention, but the legislative races are endorsed at the smaller, local-unit conventions and you, if you go, can get to be one of the ones to decide.

(I’m pretty much just making this post about the DFL, because I have never been to a Republican convention. I expect that they are very similar in most ways, but I don’t know in which key ways they differ.)

How much the DFL’s endorsement matters varies tremendously by race. Historically, in the very big statewide races — U.S. Senate and Governor — it doesn’t actually matter much. In the smaller races, though, especially legislative races, it often basically decides the race. My district would be a good exapmle of this. I live in a solidly DFL district in St. Paul (and previously, I lived in a solidly DFL district in Minneapolis). In this sort of district, legislators who are DFL incumbents almost always win, and when they retire, the DFL-endorsed candidate for the office nearly always wins. So any time there’s an opening, the big race is for the endorsement.

The endorsement for State Senator and State Rep is done at the Senate District (/House District) convention. That is the thing to which you can probably become a delegate, if you want.

(The other major thing that happens at the local-unit conventions is that they elect delegates who get to go to the State Convention. I’ll explain that in more detail further down.)

State Legislature Endorsements for Beginners

So first off, your district may not have an upcoming vacancy. There’s still a convention when there aren’t any vacancies, but endorsing a bunch of unopposed incumbents is pretty dull.

But, sometimes you have an open seat; sometimes the incumbent has done something infuriating and generated a bunch of opposition challenging him or her for endorsement; or maybe you live in a swing district, and there’s currently someone from the other party in that seat and your party has a shot at retaking it. (If you live in a district that is a safe seat for the other side, these endorsements tend to be more “let’s volunteer Fred, since he’s not here.” Okay, I exaggerate slightly.)

Let’s say you have an open seat because your State Senator is retiring, and let’s say you signed up to be a delegate when you were at your precinct caucus. There are several hundred delegates who will be meeting at your Senate District Convention to decide on an endorsement, and one of them is you. That means that each candidate who is running, and there will probably be quite a few, really needs your support. Instead of convincing 50% of the thousands of voters in your district, they need to win over 60% of the delegates — a much, much smaller group.

So if you’re a delegate, you can expect to be contacted, personally, either by phone or by door-knocking, by each of the people who are running. They may not be experts on your particular set of concerns, but you will never have a more attentive ear from a (future) legislator than when they’re running and you’re a delegate. Since they need strong enthusiasm from a small number of people, you can expect that they will have the time to answer your questions and respond to your very specific concerns, whatever they are.

In addition to chatting with candidates, you might also want to chat with politically-connected friends in your district who can dish any interesting back-room gossip. I recommend having a favorite, a list of people who would be fine with you, and a list of people you really don’t want to see get the nod.

At the Convention

So for your imaginary open Senate Seat, let’s say you’ve got five candidates who’ve filed. After talking to all of them, your favorite is Andrea Jackson. Your least favorite is Bill Smith. You think that Carmela Garcia or Dan Feinman would also be fine. You think that Esmeralda Moonbeam sounds like a weirdo.

When you first arrive, you will have to check in with the organizers to get your credentials. There will probably be a line. Once you sign in, they will hand you a printed form on colored paper (it’s about the size, shape, and weight of an ancient computer punch card, if that means anything to you) with your precinct and ward printed on it along with the word DELEGATE. It will be on a ribbon or piece of yarn so you can wear it around your neck. You are expected to do so.

Next, you should check in with your candidate’s campaign. (They’ll have a table.) Tell them you’re a supporter, and they will give you a t-shirt or button or both. Put those on, too. The t-shirt serves a couple of purposes, but the most important is that it communicates to your candidate’s campaign that they need to let you know if there’s something they need you to do. Often, candidates want all their supporters to come up on the stage and stand behind them when it’s time for them to make a speech. More crucially, sometimes there’s some interesting parliamentary maneuver that someone is trying to pull, or trying to thwart, in which case your candidate’s volunteers need to know that you need to get the message on what’s happening. You might not realize that it’s critically important that you vote NO on some very routine-sounding procedural thing until your candidate’s campaign tells you.

These are always held at schools, so far as I can tell. Typically the convention itself is in the school auditorium, lunch room, or gym. Each campaign gets a classroom that’s like their campaign clubhouse. They will have snacks for their supporters (another reason for your t-shirt!) and when it gets to be dinner time, they’ll order pizza. Usually, when I go to a convention, I check in with my candidate first thing, then go track down their room so I know where to go when I get hungry.

There will be a section of the auditorium that’s reserved for your precinct, and that’s where you’ll be spending most of the day.

This is a Really Long Meeting

Typically the convention gets called to order at 10 a.m., although a lot of delegates arrive late. There is a ton of time at these that is spent on stuff that makes you wonder why you gave up a lovely spring Saturday to go sit in a high school auditorium. Like ten-minute-long debates on whether some person should be allowed to speak for two minutes.

There are people who are much better at running efficient conventions than others, you will discover if you go to a bunch of these. I am a big fan of the efficient people.

Bring an extra battery for your smartphone, bring your knitting, bring a book.

Speeches!

There will be lots of speeches.

Typically there’s some time allocated for candidate Q&A, so that people who have not made up their minds will have information to go on.

Lots of elected officials come to speak, either about their own upcoming race or to get you revved up about the DFL generally. At various conventions I’ve heard Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, R.T. Rybak, Chris Coleman, various and sundry City Council reps, Park Board people, County Attorneys… never all of the headliners at one convention, mind you. (They try to spread themselves out.)

If there’s a state-wide race coming up, you’ll also hear either from candidates or from people who are there to speak on their behalf.

 

When it comes time to really deal with the people running for State Senate, there are official speeches from each candidate (that’s when you might get herded up to stand behind them. If you don’t want to do that, you don’t have to.)

It is entirely up to you how much attention you pay to any of this. At the last convention I went to, there were large portions of it that I couldn’t hear at all due to bad acoustics and a lot of ambient noise, so I just ignored it.

You may also find yourself talking to candidates and campaigns through all of this. Especially if you look around the crowd and notice that your t-shirt color is super outnumbered — that’s a good sign that you should start thinking about your fallback choice. People from the other campaigns will find you and say, “hi, can I talk to you about Carmela?” or “can I talk to you about Bill?” They’re not necessarily trying to sway you from Andrea; they’re trying to get you to consider their candidate as your fallback.

When I get this question, I usually say, “sure!” and let them give me their pitch. One of the questions I often ask volunteers is, “why did you decide to support Carmela?” because their answers are often very enlightening. (Unless it’s, “oh! well, she’s my mom.”) At an actual convention, they’ll sometimes ask you, “would you like to speak to Carmela directly?”

You may get asked this same question by the people you’re sitting near. Feel free to talk about what you find appealing about the person you’re supporting! Remember that you’re not trying to convince them to drop their candidate for yours; you’re presenting reasons why your candidate would be a terrific second choice, if their candidate gets dropped from the ballot early.

 

Balloting

I am always shocked at how late in the day it is when we finally start balloting.

This is the bit where you really need to be wearing your credentials. If you were an alternate, a lot of the time everyone present just gets automatically upgraded, but if that didn’t happen, definitely check in before balloting and see if you can get an upgrade. If not, you won’t even be allowed in the room when the balloting happens.

They will seat everyone in their precinct, and they will give carefully counted ballots to the precinct captain, who will bring them, distribute them, and collect them.

Right before the balloting happens, they “freeze the floor,” which means that they shut the doors and no one else is allowed in. If you go to the bathroom at the wrong time, you can literally use your chance to vote in that round. Once the countdown starts to voting, get into the room and stay there. It won’t actually take long, and you’ll have plenty of time to pee or get a snack while they’re counting all the ballots.

Then they count the first ballot, which also takes forever. (It speeds up a lot as they eliminate candidates.)

The Resolutions

Somewhere in this whole process you’ll get handed a packet of resolutions and a scan-tron sheet to fill in. This is a compilation of all the resolutions that got passed by precinct caucuses, compiled together by people who did their best to roll stuff together so that “MN should have a primary!” and “caucuses are the worst, holy cow, THE ABSOLUTE WORST, and we should have presidential primaries like every other civilized state” get combined into something concise.

During the various periods of downtime you can go through this packet and mark the scan-tron ballot to indicate the ones you find particularly important or unimportant. There’s no limit to how many you can mark. This data gets compiled after the convention and forwarded on to the platform committee.

Dropping Candidates and More Balloting

Once the results come back, they report the results and then immediately start the countdown to freeze the floor for the next round.

They will drop any candidates that got below a certain threshhold of votes. The required percentage goes up with each round, so each time it gets harder to stay on the ballot — or maybe they’ve switched to just dropping the lowest vote-getter until we’re down to two? I can’t remember if that’s officially how they do it, or if it’s just how functionally it tends to work out.

In this make-believe Senate race, we’re going to say that in the very first round of balloting, they drop Esmeralda Moonbeam and Dan Feinman.

Esmeralda and Dan’s people now have to vote for someone else. (Or leave. Sometimes they just leave.) At this imaginary convention, you’re seated next to an Esmeralda supporter, who is very disappointed that her candidate dropped out, but decides to vote for Andrea because you’re wearing an Andrea t-shirt and she has bonded with you over knitting so thinks your favorite candidate would be a good choice.

(At the last convention I went to, the woman across the table from me told me that I seemed like a delightful person and did I know any single women who might be interested in her son? I said, “well, I do have some single friends. But, um, I kind of don’t have their permission to randomly matchmake for them at political conventions?” and she said, “oh, here, let me give you my card.” I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)

You usually have a couple more rounds of balloting. Sometimes this is expedited by people seeing that they have no realistic chance and pre-emptively dropping out so as not to waste everyone’s time. Eventually you get down to two people.

The Final Face-Off and All the Fun Ways This Can Go Awry

In order to get the endorsement, a candidate needs 60% of the ballots. So you get down to those last two, and there’s a split.

At that point, a couple of things can happen.

The most frequent outcome I’ve seen is that some people shift. If I came in planning to support Andrea, and she’s made it into the final two but she’s got 45% of the vote and Carmela has 55%, and I’m fine with Carmela, I’ll usually go ahead and shift. Enough people do that, and voila, on the next ballot Carmela has the 60%.

If things are very close, or if this is an acrimonious campaign where the two sides feel very strongly that the opposing candidate is unacceptable, there’s more likely to be a deadlock. The very first Senate District Convention I went to ran until after 10 p.m. It can turn in a test of endurance.

Frequently, when it’s clear no one will shift, there’s an adjournment without an endorsement. There are a number of ways in which this can happen. That very late-night SD Convention, we weren’t allowed to vote for adjournment until after a certain number of ballots, but once we’d racked up the required number of rounds, we could adjourn with a simple majority and didn’t need 60%. And that’s what happened.

At a Minneapolis City Convention some years back, both campaigns sent representatives up to propose an adjournment (making it clear that this was desired on both sides). It was very clear even after the first ballot that things were sufficiently split that there wasn’t going to be an endorsement, and so we had a (surprisingly amicable) agreement to adjourn.

In order for a convention to conduct business, you need a quorum: there has to be a certain number of people there. So sometimes a campaign will herd all its people out of the room, then call the quorum, usually right before a floor freeze. If a quorum is not present the convention is required to adjourn immediately. (If you get grabbed by someone wearing your candidate’s t-shirt saying “out, get out, get out!” … that’s the tactic they’re attempting.) This can massively backfire if not enough people leave the room — since at that point, you’ve just yanked a bunch of your supporters out of the room and they won’t be able to vote on that ballot and the other candidate will happily coast to endorsement.

The other risk with using the “break the quorum” approach is that when a convention just adjourns without finishing its business, the local central committee has the option of doing an endorsement. (I think in theory this is an option with a planned adjournment as well, but much less likely. Or maybe you usually pass a “no going behind our back and endorsing someone” motion as your adjourn? Usually by that point in the process I’m so desperate to get the hell out I’m not paying close attention.)

Picking Delegates for the State Convention

One of the other agenda items at the Senate District convention is picking delegates to go on to the State Convention. There are always more people who want to go than slots available, so to send delegates, we do Walking Subcaucuses.

People “nominate subcaucuses,” which means they go up to the microphone and suggest groups. Sometimes the groups are to support a specific candidate for whatever major statewide office is currently up for grabs; sometimes they are uncommitted, but with a specific focus on a certain issue. The idea is that those delegates will go to the State Convention with the goal of endorsing whichever candidate is the best on whatever their particular issue is.

So if you’re sitting there, you’ll hear people go up to the microphone and say things like, “Uncommitted for Environmental Issues,” or “Uncommitted for Stop Global Warming Now,” or “Uncommitted for Education.” As well as “People for Mike Cerisi” or “Minnesotans for Al Franken,” and there was a trend for a while where a dozen different people would all nominate the same candidate but with a different phrasing, like “Al Franken for CHOICE” or “Al Franken for VETERANS” or “Al Franken for KITTENS AND PUPPIES AND RAINBOWS AND UNICORNS.”

The organizers will then announce where everyone should go. Groups that are obviously related (like Environmental Issues and Stop Global Warming) will always go next to each other so that they can easily combine (…because they totally will).

Now it’s time for everyone to move around! (This is why it’s called a walking subcaucus.) You pick your favorite subcaucus and physically go over and hang out with them. If you have a favorite candidate for the contested statewide office, you go stand with that group. If you want to send uncommitted delegates for some issue, pick an issue.

Someone will run around and physically count everyone and then they will announce a number that gives a subcaucus “viability.” That means that your subcaucus needs to have that many people in it in order to qualify for one delegate and one alternate. If the number is 12, and you have 11 people, you look around for a person at loose ends or a smaller subcaucus you can absorb. If the number is 12, and you have 5 people, you might look for a larger subcaucus you can join as a group, or you might just go your separate ways. In any case, they give you a few minutes to shuffle around and redivide, and then they freeze the floor, count everyone again, then tell each subcaucus how many delegates they get.

So let’s say you’re in a subcaucus of 14 people and will have one delegate and one alternate. Now you have to pick your delegate and alternate. Let’s say you have four people who would love to go to the State Convention: typically each person gets a minute or two to make a speech to the rest of the subcaucus about why they’d be a good person to send, and then you vote, probably just by raising hands and counting. The top vote-getter is the delegate, the runner up is usually the alternate, and I am trying to remember if the DFL still mandates gender-balance because if it does, then it’s the nearest runner-up of the opposite gender.

If you actually go to the State Convention

It lasts for multiple days and I’ve never been elected as a delegate, so I can’t tell you much about what it’s like.

Other Conventions

So there’s a Congressional District Convention (for your U.S. House seat) that will be critical this year in the 2nd District, since Kline is stepping down. I don’t remember if they send a subset of the State Convention delegates or if that one gets its own Walking Subcaucus process.

In Minneapolis, in years with city races, there may be a Ward Convention if you need to endorse a candidate for City Council, and there’s a City Convention to endorse candidates for Mayor, School Board, and Park Board. There’s also a County Convention where candidates for County Board, Sheriff, County Attorney, etc. get endorsed. St. Paul does a similar set of conventions — Ward, City, County — but has no Park Board. City offices vary some by city.

Last year in St. Paul, the school board race was particularly contentious. Sufficiently so that we had to do walking subcaucuses at my precinct caucus to select delegates to go to the City Convention. Usually you can just sign up to go to Ward or City Conventions.

 

So in summary

If you go to your next-level convention, you will have to spend a weekend day, often at the point when the weather is finally turning nice, sitting in a high school auditorium listening to people give speeches.

However, some years and in some districts, this can give you a truly outsized piece of political influence.

Worth it or not? Very much up to you. If imagining sitting through all this makes you want to gnaw off a limb to escape, don’t put yourself through it. If you think you’d like to give it a try, sign up! (And you’re definitely allowed to sign up and not go.)