Dayton v. Kennedy

Returning Senator Mark Dayton to the Ranks of the Idle Rich in 2006

3/21/2005

Mark Kennedy's Grassroots Campaign

In response to an inquiry made a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to ride along with Congressman Mark Kennedy on Saturday, March 19. The Congressman was visiting some local BPOU conventions, hoping to persuade the delegates to support his candidacy for U.S. Senate in person.

My main reason for riding along was to get a chance to ask the Congressman some questions as we rode between locations. I had plenty of opportunity for that, and will be sharing his responses over the course of the next week. But first, some observations about the BPOU appearances themselves.

The BPOU (Basic Political Operating Unit) conventions are Minnesota's party mechanism for nominating delegates who decide on the endorsement of candidates. They're as close to the grassroots as any official party gatherings can come.

Shortly after I arrived at the Woodbury City Hall, I spotted Congressman Kennedy deep in conversation with one of the attendees. This would be a pattern throughout the morning. At every stop, no matter what else was going on in the meeting, a few people broke away to speak with the Congressman personally, and every time he gave them as much time and attention as his campaign staff could bear before whisking him away to the next scheduled appearance.

As part of his regular speech delivered to the BPOU’s, the Congressman said he’s one of those rare politicians who likes to campaign. Witnessing him in action one could easily believe it. Speaking with his campaign staff, one can’t help being convinced. One of his staff workers said, “he wears us out,” in an admiring rather than complaining context. His energy and enthusiasm were certainly in evidence Saturday morning.

At the first BPOU convention, in Woodbury, I spoke briefly with Rep. Jim Knoblach. Having lost count, I asked him if he had come out with a formal endorsement in the Senate race yet. He gave me a puzzled look and mentioned he had already endorsed Mark Kennedy, adding that they went to college at St. John’s together. I asked him if he had any opinion on former Senator Grams bid for the nomination. The first of many similar inquiries and responses, Rep. Knoblach had nothing negative to say about Sen. Grams either personally or professionally. But did offer his opinion that he thought his time had passed, and he wished Grams would realize it.

In fact the only negative comments about Grams all day could be summarized in a couple of short points: Where is Grams at the BPOU’s? Many also wished Grams would knock off the “kingmaker” stuff. In fairness to Sen. Grams, I think much of the latter is being stoked by the local media in attempt to create controversy in a race that – judging from Kennedy’s warm receptions yesterday – doesn’t seem terribly contentious or heated in reality.

After giving a brief speech to the Woodbury BPOU (at which he received a standing ovation upon introduction), he left the meeting room after some handshaking a brief follow-up conversation. In the lobby outside the room, he met with a couple of different people to answer more specific questions.

And then we were off to the Maplewood / North Saint Paul BPOU.

This one was held in a Moose Lodge. From what I could tell, Moose hate light. The meeting room was windowless, and even the artificial light was quite low. None of my pictures in there turned out visible enough to keep.

We entered to find Obi Sium, a candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 4th district, speaking. A fascinating candidate in a race that is surely one of the two most difficult districts in which a Republican can run for Congress in Minnesota. Being an immigrant to the U. S. from Eritrea and/or Ethiopia (we arrived late and his literature isn’t clear), he believes he can speak to the large immigrant community in the 4th, driving a wedge into a reliable DFL voting block who respond well to Sium's conservative message. We wish him much luck.

After Mr. Sium, Congressman Kennedy was introduced. Professional observers of politicians would probably find this old-hat, but I thought it was interesting to see how the Congressman varied his presentation from place to place. Most of the same speaking points were hit – and there were clearly some specific catch phrases he liked using everywhere. But in style he came across as conversational, rather than oratorical, and this played quite well every time. Those who are worried about Kennedy lacking charisma need to turn off the television and come watch him in person.

At this appearance a man stood up at the end of the speech and asked if the Congressman would take questions. Kennedy immediately said yes. And then had to stand there attentively while the man read from a prepared text for about the next three minutes. The man was apparently a Republican union worker who found the Republican party’s resistance to a minimum wage increase and recent support of bankruptcy reform bill difficult to defend to his fellow union members. Kennedy answered as best he could, but there were so many twists and turns in the way the question was presented, I’m not sure how satisfied the questioner was with the answer. But after a few more questions, as Kennedy was leaving, he took the time to speak to the man personally for another five minutes or so.

Just as we were leaving, we passed (and I stopped to greet) Attorney General Candidate Jeff Johnson on his way in. I had interviewed him just a couple of weeks ago. Minnesota politics apparently isn’t as big a world as I had previously assumed.

Back to our luxurious campaign limousine (the VW Jetta version), we were on our way to North Minneapolis. I mentioned my somewhat surprise that the campaign was targeting such heavily DFL dominated areas. I offered an observation some of us local bloggers had worried that the Republican Party was abandoning these areas, and wondered what might be done to reverse this. This brought a wry smile, and a reply that the first thing is for the Republican candidates to show up there – which is exactly what he was doing.

One of the points the Congressman made in the standard speech was that he won his first Congressional race by 155 votes. That taught him to campaign hard for every single vote he can get. There was surely no disconnect between that lesson and his behavior on Saturday.

I jinxed Kennedy staffer Lonnie on our way to the next BPOU, as I complimented him for finding these rather out of the way locations all over the Twin Cities. He promptly got lost. But recovered within about five minutes, and we arrived slightly ahead of schedule.

Our final BPOU was at the Weber Park Recreation Center in north Minneapolis. The crowd was smaller, but enthused. We were informed as we entered the building that the folks in the meeting room had noticed Kennedy arriving, and had just passed a motion that the next person to walk through the door had to speak. Playing the good guest, I let the Congressman go in ahead of me.

In contrast to the Moose Lodge, this room was very bright. Our smallest attended meeting, it was nonetheless one of the most energetic. After the speech, questions were taken once again. One was an impassioned, though somewhat difficult to understand, question regarding family reunification and immigration law, asked by a man with a heavy (Russian? Ukrainian?) accent. The oddest question of the day came from someone apparently trying to get the Congressman to disagree with the Marbury v. Madison decision in the name of opposing judicial activism. After some back and forth, with the questioner not seeming to have much of a question left after the initial oddity but refusing to yield to floor, the chair finally stepped in to call for two more questions before they moved on to other business.

This same questioner made a beeline for the Congressman afterward, and he spent the usual five or so minutes speaking to her before he had to move on.

There was also some time for a photo-opportunity with a man running for State Senate. This was another recurring theme throughout the day. The Congressman made clear that a photo was not an endorsement, but he was also quite enthusiastic about supporting people at the "entry level" positions of elective office.

And then the Congressman was off to an Eagle Scout award presentation, and we parted company. With much new insight into how Mark Kennedy campaigns, and plenty of recorded questions and responses (which I’ll cover over the course of the week), it was a fascinating morning.

P.S. There are some pictures too. But I can't get the picture hosting service to cooperate. If I can, they'll be added to this post.

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