A rookie delegate’s view from the convention floor

Although I was a rookie at being a delegate to the Minneapolis DFL convention, held earlier this month, I was fully prepared for a long day. I packed a lunch. And I packed a dinner.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was to leave the Minneapolis Convention Center 14 hours after my arrival having cast only one ballot on whom the party should endorse in this fall’s mayoral election.

I’m not arguing that the city party was capable of reaching a consensus anywhere near the 60 percent support that is its threshold for endorsing a mayoral candidate; it was widely expected that the presence of four credible candidates would make that difficult despite a drop rule intended to narrow the field to two after a few ballots. Given that rule, taking just one ballot seems like merely going through the motions.

I left the convention with two strong opinions. One is that in a digital age the party needs to embrace technology to automate the casting and counting of ballots, just as municipal election officials have done. That alone makes more ballots more feasible.

The second is that the progressive-dominated convention’s endorsements for Park Board may well result in a vastly different approach to Minneapolis parks if those candidates are elected this fall. One nominator lauded a candidate as “someone who will turn our Park Board into the most radical park board in the country.” Among the promised changes were pesticide-free parks (a goal that eluded long-time Green Party incumbent Commissioner Annie Young) and requiring park police to buy their own liability insurance.

The potential change might be enough to prompt Superintendent Jayne Miller to seek a job elsewhere; her current employment contract expires 10 months after the new board will be seated next year, unless the lame-duck board extends it.

Although Miller’s potential departure would gladden her critics, who have made her their lightning rod on the Park Board, it could also create instability at the top of a well-regarded park system. Whatever her faults, Miller has brought some needed organizational discipline to what has historically been an old-boys network. But her critics also make a persuasive case that low-income areas of the city deserve better equity in the number and variety of programs offered to children and their families.

However, the Minneapolis DFL party needs to look more seriously about how it handles endorsements. Perhaps a two-day convention — one for Park Board and one focused only on the mayoral race — is in order. Or eliminate the lengthy process of candidate speeches that largely rehash what’s on a candidate’s web site or what that candidate’s campaign has said in contacting delegates between precinct caucuses and the convention.

It’s inexcusable that voting for the mayoral endorsement didn’t start until 6:45 p.m., almost nine hours after the scheduled start of the confab. Then it took hours to get results.

That delay is partly a function of size — the party’s maximum delegate strength of 1,402 people makes it the nation’s third-largest political convention after the quadrennial Democratic national convention and the California convention. That’s roughly one delegate for every 285 city residents. That brings the party closer to grassroots; a Bernie Sanders-rooted movement like Our Revolution MN can still tilt the process.

But the delay in results also reflects the antiquated hand-counting of ballots with seven mayoral candidates this year.

It turns out that the party did look into automating the casting and counting of ballots, according to Scott Graham, co-chair of the city party’s credentials committee.

It found that technology is viable but expensive. The optimal vendor, one that would have run the tabulations hands-free of party officials, would have cost at least $15,000.

Graham said the state party was willing to cover that. But others in the party raised concerns about ease of use for technophobes, the security of a voting system and whether the largest convention in the state was the appropriate forum for testing it. Graham predicted that the technology would be tested at a future meeting of the state party’s central committee.

Adoption of the technology for a future city convention would eliminate the lengthy counting process as an impediment to the convention’s prime task: bestowing an endorsement.

Of course, a convention split between two strong candidates, as in the R. T. Rybak-Peter McLaughlin mayoral standoff in 2005, or divided among this year’s field of four, can still thwart an endorsement. That’s particularly true when most of the campaigns don’t want to endorse or at least stick around for a second ballot.

The campaign of my preferred candidate, state Rep. Raymond Dehn, was the only one of the four not arguing against a second vote. Dehn led the field with almost one-third of the vote, fulfilling his goal of coming out of the convention as one of the top two. Council Member Jacob Frey was fewer than 5 percentage points back, trailed by incumbent Betsy Hodges, who polled just under a quarter of delegates, and former Hennepin Avenue theater impresario Tom Hoch, who faced likely drop-rule elimination on a second ballot.

But with Hoch’s 10 percent of the convention up for grabs, as well as another 5 percent scattered among also-rans, didn’t delegates deserve a second or third ballot as a reward for sitting all day? And didn’t they deserve a chance to see if Dehn could build on his surprising first-ballot lead or if another candidate could rally?

Apparently not, in the minds of the majority of delegates who voted for adjournment, urged to do so by campaigns bent on trying their luck with ranked-choice voting next fall.

So now it’s on to the fall election without an endorsement. Hodges, who gave a rousing speech, likely has more appeal to the general electorate. She excelled in leading the first-choice round of the 2013 ranked-choice election, and eventually accumulated enough second-choice votes to win.

She faces a determined ground game that Dehn’s campaign employed for caucuses and the convention but now needs to recalibrate to try to translate from a convention plurality to winning over a much more ideologically diverse fall electorate. Frey and Hoch also are in the hunt.

And don’t forget Captain Jack Sparrow.