Shorter political calendar causes headaches

Politics in Minnesota
Original Post
by Charley Shaw
Published: May 28,2010

Early primary may be the least of them

When legislators decide to retire on the last night of session, the political parties in their home districts usually scramble to field possible successors and endorse a candidate.

But with this year’s primary election moved up from September to August — and most of the major events on the political calendar bumped up a month as well — the scene in Senate District 67 this year has looked more like chaos than a rush job.

Paul Sawyer, chairman of the District 67 DFL Party in St. Paul, found himself in a race against the clock beginning on May 18, the morning after Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, announced her surprise retirement on the last night of session.

“It’s been completely different for us,” Sawyer said. “With the filing period previously [coming] in July, we would have announced the retirement and we would have got together with candidates and then held an endorsing convention.

“With this [year’s situation], we had an emergency meeting and, I would say, made a hasty decision for one of four bad choices.”

The menu of unattractive options included a Memorial Day weekend endorsing convention, throwing the whole matter to the State Central Committee to decide, or refraining from endorsing a candidate at all. District 67’s board chose the last, and the number of DFLers who have filed to run reached five when retiring St. Paul police chief John Harrington announced on Friday that he would run as well.

Federal changes caused crunch

The changes to Minnesota’s political calendar, which were prompted by new federal rules designed to ensure that military members and other voters who are overseas can submit ballots in time to be counted back home, has imposed new hardships on campaigns for the Legislature.

The difference was felt even before the onset of the candidate filing period, which ends Tuesday. Incumbents stuck in St. Paul watched endorsed challengers emerge earlier than in previous years. Political parties and legislative caucuses have had less time to field candidates. And the state GOP and DFL endorsing conventions, which used to happen after the Legislature adjourned, were held in late April as the end of session still loomed a few weeks away.

GOP political consultant Gregg Peppin was a central figure in candidate recruitment efforts for his party’s House caucus from 1992 until 2006. He said the earlier calendar has had an impact on candidate recruitment.

“What I’m finding is that — obviously — taking a month off the recruiting calendar is a huge, huge challenge to both parties,” Peppin said.

Melissa Parker, who ran House DFL campaign efforts in 2006 and 2008, said the party in the minority likely faces the greatest challenge in the bumped-up political calendar because it has to field the larger number of challengers. Peppin concurred.

The two-week candidate filing period, which has traditionally happened in July, began on May 18 and ends Tuesday. Coming on the heels of the legislative session that adjourned on May 17, it left more than District 67 in a pickle.

In House District 15B, two DFL candidates filed for office after Rep. Larry Haws, DFL-St. Cloud, announced his retirement on the last night of session. DFLers in 16B plan to endorse a candidate on June 16.

Carol Lewis and Zachary Dorholt have filed to run for the seat as DFLers. Dorholt said he’s inclined to abide by the endorsement. But the DFL Party’s rules prohibit either candidate from withdrawing from the primary ballot after June 4. Both candidates will be on the primary ballot unless one of them drops out before the deadline.

“It would be a matter of agreeing not to campaign. That’s what it’s going to come down to,” Dorholt said.

Because of the earlier political season, some Senate District endorsing conventions were held earlier than in past years. That led to political anxiety among legislators, who were chained to day-to-day business at the Capitol while election season was starting to take shape in their absence, Peppin said.

Rest anticipates few changes

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, is the chair of the State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee, which oversees elections policy. She said she’s keeping an eye on the headaches that come with the new political calendar. But she doesn’t foresee any major changes.

“Unless something startling happens, I think we will give ourselves two elections cycles and make only minor changes in 2012 and maybe not any,” Rest said.

She noted that one proposal floated in this year’s legislative session would have prohibited legislative sessions from starting after precinct caucuses. While the filing period is playing out under the new calendar, the impact of the Aug. 10 primary date remains a matter of conjecture.

In May, Hamline University political scientist David Schultz released a study making the case that an August primary would probably drive down voter turnout by about 2 percent. Peppin, on the other hand, said he doesn’t think primary turnout will be substantially different from the old September primaries.

“I guess we’ll find out,” he said. “I’m going to be bullish and say the drop off isn’t going to be that great. These are civic-minded people that are engaged in the issues in both parties.”