Friday, May 23, 2014

Don't Like the Message? Discredit the Messenger

It's a time honored tactic in politics- if you don't like the message that someone is sending, but you can't really rebut it, try to discredit the messenger.  (Think: "Well yeah it says that, but it is the Star Tribune we're talking about...")  It's a tactic that I've employed myself from time to time, so it's something that I understand the mechanics of.  It's rarely a tactic that is used by a campaign in a winning position.

Since February it has been clear that the Jeff Johnson for Governor campaign has been losing steam.  After taking an early lead in a State Central straw poll at the end of 2013, Johnson finished a distant third place in the caucus night straw poll, and then turned in the lowest fundraising total of any major campaign for Governor in the first quarter, raising about half of what his closest competitor raised.

Johnson has struggled to find a running mate, and this week, only days before the endorsing convention, hastily announced that Bill Kuisle, a former legislator from the Rochester area will join his ticket.  Nobody can credibly make the argument that Kuisle was Johnson's first pick for Lieutenant Governor, and Johnson's team is not even trying.

One of the reasons that I soured on the Johnson campaign early was that Johnson and his staff displayed what I felt to be an oversensitivity and thin-skinnedness that signaled that they were not ready to compete in a statewide race.

As an example, when questions were raised about Johnson's support of the Kingfish program in Hennepin County, Johnson ended his explanation with this passage:
Given the negative “gotcha” direction this endorsement campaign has taken in the past couple weeks, I suspect that even as I write there are political operatives digging for dirt.

Based on the push-back from Team Johnson recently, the following topics are out-of-bounds or invalid: Johnson's voting record, Johnson's electoral record, Johnson's fundraising results or lack thereof, Kuisle's voting record, Kuisle's electoral record, and the list goes on. Team Johnson has shown consistently that they just don't think that any criticism of their candidate is fair.

In the wake of the Kuisle pick, a number of Johnson supporters have stepped up their push-back on social media against blog posts that they feel do not reflect their campaign in a good light.  However, nobody from Team Johnson has indicated which facts are incorrect in these blog posts.  Instead, they try to discredit the writers through innuendo.

Johnson campaign advisor and his assistant at Hennepin County Danny Nadeau got things started by posting this to Twitter a few days ago:
This is quite a different take than what Johnson himself wrote last July when he invited me to an event for bloggers:

Despite what many in the mainstream media wish, bloggers are journalists, and my campaign intends to treat Minnesota bloggers like we treat the traditional media.

Not content to be quite so subtle, Johnson supporter Jeff Bakken took things to the next level a few days later:

A few tweets before that, Bakken explicitly accused Scott Honour campaign manager Pat Shortridge of secretly funneling money to blogger Michael Brodkorb for research.

Note that Bakken, like other Johnson supporters or staffers, did not point out any specific areas where blog posts they didn't like were factually inaccurate.  Instead Bakken and Nadeau were employing that time honored tradition of trying to discredit the messenger.  Specifically in this instance implying that any analysis that paints Johnson in a bad light is because the writer is a secret paid agent of a rival campaign.

I have been very clear who I am supporting in contested elections this year.  I disclose this information in my Twitter bio, and here on my blog in the sidebar.  In an earlier blog post I indicated some of my reasons for not supporting Johnson.  I have never knowingly posted incorrect information on my blog, and if I was requested by a campaign to note an objection I would do so.

I spoke to Brodkorb for this story and he confirmed for me that 1) He has not done any paid political work for any MN candidate this election cycle and 2) Johnson's campaign has never asked him to print a correction or indicated any factual deficiency in a post he has written.  He also pointed me to his blog's About page where he lists his policy on disclosure for paid work.

While I am disappointed that Johnson's campaign has employed these discredit the messenger tactics, I certainly understand why they did.  Campaigns are in the business of getting their candidates elected, and controlling the information available about your candidate is an important part of the process.  When you don't have the option of rebutting the facts at hand, you have very few options left but to attack the messenger.

The bottom line: Johnson's campaign is lashing out at critics because they know what is being said is true, not because it isn't.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Drinking Liberally

Earlier this week I went to an event called Drinking Liberally.  It's a meeting for liberals (or progressives or whatever) where they drink and talk politics.  Apparently it's part of a nationwide network of these types of things. Neat.

Prior to this week, I knew of the event, but had never been. A few weeks ago Keith Ellison was the headliner and he dished about his electoral strategy and how he uses his campaign funds to get other Democrats elected.  This much I knew, having helped run a race vs. Ellison in 2012, but it was interesting to see him be so explicit about it.  So DL kind of popped back on my radar as something I'd like to observe some time.

This week's featured speakers were Michael Brodkorb and Tony Petrangelo, and they were going to be talking the 2014 elections.  Michael is a Republican and blogs at Politics.MN, and Tony is a Democrat and blogs at Left.MN.  Both blogs are on my regular reading list, and I've been a fan of Tony's hPVI stuff for quite some time, so, last night seemed like a good time to go.

The event is held in a bar called the 331 Club, kind of a dive and smaller than I expected. There were maybe 15-20 people there.

I wandered in and took a seat at the bar. My intention was to keep my head down and try to just observe quietly. Until Mr. Brodkorb noticed I was there and helpfully called over to me, blowing my cover.  Thanks for that.  A few minutes later and despite my best efforts I was recognized by someone else, and I abandoned the effort to blend in.  So much for anonymity in the Internet age.

I shook a few hands and only got one "fuck you," and figured that ain't too bad, so I sat back down to watch the show which had just kicked off.

Brodkorb started with a brief intro, then Petrangelo joined him on stage a few minutes later. They talked for a few more minutes and then the questions from the audience started up.

The topic of the evening was supposed to be the 2014 elections, but the topic on the audience's mind was apparently "big money in politics."  Just about every question from the audience was in that vein. They hit all the big villains: The Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the NRA, ALEC, etc.  They expressed frustration that it's so hard to rein in all this spending and get a bill passed to restrict it.  No, nobody mentioned that the DFL has total control of state government.

One man mentioned in his question that "union money is not the same as rich guy money" and another woman asked a question about how the concentration of wealth in the upper one half of one percent was coarsening the political discourse in this country. Brodkorb did mention that groups on the left spend more than groups on the right, and specifically mentioned ABM's Rockefeller money, but that kind of fell on deaf ears.

A man suggested that we should just switch to total public financing of campaigns, so that campaigns could be about "issues not personalities".  At this point I spoke up and shared my personal experience with Arizona's public financing scheme, and how it creates a situation where you actually get more extreme candidates because candidates don't have to be accountable to donors, so they really have no incentive to not be crazy.  The man then said public financing works in Europe. I just let that go.

I tweeted at one point that I had the feeling some of the people in the room had never actually spoken to a real-life Republican. One guy asked me at the end of the night if Republicans cared about free speech. After I answered in the affirmative, and used the example of the recent Condoleezza Rice event to illustrate the point, he replied that we only care about free speech "if it wears a suit."  The only response I could muster to this was a blank stare.

I did notice that the crowd at this event was just as old and just as white as any comparable Republican event that I have ever been to.  It was also predominantly male, whereas most GOP events are pretty evenly split.  Of course this was one event on one night, so it's hard to make any broad conclusions, though I'm pretty sure most on the left wouldn't hesitate to do so were the situation reversed.

When we finally got to the predictions part of the evening, Petrangelo predicted an Ortman endorsement in the Senate race, and no endorsement in the governor's race.  Brodkorb didn't exaclty offer clear predictions: he hedged a bit on the Senate race, and thought Seifert had a lead on the governor side.

At then end of the night someone asked a question about the most interesting intra-party divides in each party. Brodkorb spoke about the Tea Party's recent attempts at resurgence. On the DFL side, before Petrangelo could answer, an audience member shouted "Tom Bakk vs. everybody else!" which was met with a lot of laughter, probably not a good sign for Bakk's future political plans.  (Petrangelo has blogged about his displeasure with Bakk in the past.)

Petrangelo then went on to explain that mining was the big divide on the DFL side right now, and that we should watch the convention for some potential mining related shenanigans.  Apparently both the pro and anti mining factions of the party are pushing for changes to the DFL platform, which could make for some fireworks at the state convention. He also predicted State Audior Rebecca Otto could face some backlash, but predicted she would ultimately be endorsed for reelection.

All in all, I'm glad I went.  It was an interesting experience to say the least, and it's important to get outside the echo chamber occasionally.  Not everyone at the event was entirely unreasonable. There were a number of people who were very nice and that I had good conversations with.  I can't say I will be a regular, but if the program is interesting I would probably attend again.

I do think it would be fun to attend a similar event that was maybe held at a slightly more neutral venue that may attract more people from both sides. So if anyone starts that up, count me in.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Improving the Endorsement

I've written a bit about how I would like to see the Minnesota Republican Party do away with the endorsement process (two of those posts here and here).  I also did an hour on the radio (The Eight Debate: Endorsement vs. Primary) arguing against the process, where I was accused of hating freedom by one of the callers.

Since then a few posts have been written offering opposing viewpoints including this one by John Rouleau who argues for keeping the dual system we have now, and this one by Dave Thul, who is one of the most vocal supporters of our existing process.

Thul challenged me on Twitter a few weeks ago to come up with changes to the endorsement process instead of just throwing it out the window.  Although I would prefer to just eliminate the process altogether, as I think it's fundamentally flawed, I thought I would take him up on the challenge by proposing a few changes that would make the endorsement process better.

1) Change the threshold for a vote on endorsement to 75%
Currently, before an endorsement vote is taken, there is first a vote to consider whether to endorse or not. The vote currently requires a simple majority and is usually routine, as the motion is rarely defeated.

By raising the threshold required to hold the endorsing vote, perhaps delegates would consider whether they should be endorsing at all, and it would make the motion less "automatic".

2) Restructure the Nominations Committee
In the current process a small nominating committee meets with candidates in advance and then reports to the delegation on whether they find the candidate qualified or not.  One of the easiest ways to manipulate a convention is to stack the nominations committee with your supporters, and find a reason to disqualify the other candidate.

The nominations committee rarely provides useful information to the delegation, and in its current form is useless.

In my mind the nominations committee should report three things: 1) If the candidate is legally qualified to run for the position (age & residency) 2) If the candidate has a criminal record 3) The candidate's fundraising results (more on that next).

I am also in favor of signature requirements to get on the ballot, showing that a candidate has a minimum amount of support before they are allowed to participate in the election process. This allows a way to keep joke candidates from wasting everyone's time.

3) Require disclosure of financial results one week before the convention
Candidates running for office are required to file financial reports on a varying schedule based on the position they are running for.  It's easy for candidates to play games with their numbers by holding certain things back or shifting expenses to the day after the filing period, etc.  We have seen an unfortunate amount of that manipulation this election cycle.  In addition, the timing of the endorsing convention may mean that delegates are forced to make their choice based on seriously outdated information.

I would propose that any candidate seeking the nomination would be required to submit a set of financial results to the nominations committee one week prior to the convention.  This would include total amount raised, total amount spent (including unpaid invoices for convention expenses), current cash on hand, and any debt owed.  By providing this information in a uniform matter, delegates will be able to consider the financial viability of the campaigns going into the endorsement process.

4) Eliminate nominations from the floor
If a candidate is serious about obtaining the party's nomination, they should begin participating in that process prior to the day of the convention. Nominations from the floor should not be allowed.  All candidates should have to go through the nominations committee process in advance of the convention.

5) Limit the number of ballots to 5 if 2 candidates and 8 if more.
Rules of endorsing conventions vary, but typically there is no limit to the number of votes that can be taken on the way to endorsement.  Each subsequent ballot makes the ultimate result of the convention less credible, so I would propose rules that end in no endorsement after 5 ballots.

We have seen marathon conventions that go into the early morning with 23 ballots over 14 hours. We have seen conventions end because the high school auditorium they were held in needed to close down. We have seen conventions where the ultimate result was based on the number of supporters who had to go home because they had a long drive and it was getting dark out.  None of these are good ways to select a candidate.

If delegates can't come quickly to a consensus about an endorsement, there shouldn't be one. All candidates should just go to a primary and let the voters decide.

6) Require "No Endorsement" to be a choice on the ballot (and count blanks as a vote for no endorsement
Different conventions have different rules on how to treat blank ballots, some count them as part of the vote totals, some count them as spoiled ballots.

I would propose that the option for "No Endorsement" would be required for any endorsement race. This would send a clear message to the delegates that they are not required to vote for a candidate, and that their vote for no endorsement will be counted and reported as a part of the vote totals.

7) Raise the threshold for endorsement to 66%
Currently it requires 60% to be endorsed. I would propose raising that threshold slightly to 66%.  This minor tweak would again make no endorsement more likely, but is still attainable.

The changes I have proposed to the endorsement process would ultimately make an endorsement harder to attain, which means that endorsement would be reserved for candidates who truly have consensus among the delegates.  It would also make the process of endorsing a candidate more rare, rather than the automatic action it is today.

As I stated in the beginning, I would still prefer a system of selecting candidates that is more inclusive, instead of the exclusive and easily manipulable system we have today, and I would prefer to eliminate the party endorsement entirely.  That being said, implementing some meaningful reforms may be the only thing that can keep the endorsement process relevant, and I hope fans of the system will consider these proposed changes as a compromise as we work toward a way of selecting candidates who can ultimately win general elections.

Use the contact form to the right to send me an email or find me on twitter @jpkolb.  These are sincere suggestions, and I am interested in constructive feedback.  I am also entertained by non-constructive feedback, so feel free to send that along too.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

That's Not Jeff Johnson

Photo source
The first time I saw the lit piece pictured to the right, I thought it was really bizarre. But as time went on, I realized just how right it was.

In 2008, shortly before I abruptly relocated to Arizona for an unexpected but welcome work opportunity for my wife, I stood on the stage holding a Jeff Johnson for County Commissioner sign at the Hennepin County endorsing convention.

Jeff Johnson and State Senator Warren Limmer were both seeking the endorsement for the county commissioner seat that was being vacated by the retiring Penny Steele.

I had met Johnson in 2006 during his campaign for Attorney General, which he ended up losing by the widest margin of any constitutional race that year.  (We met at the MN State Fair while my wife and I were working the booth for Tim Pawlenty and handing out Governors-on-a-stick, if memory serves me correctly.)

From 2000 - 2006 Johnson represented an adjacent district to mine in the MN Legislature.  He built up a pretty average body of legislative accomplishments- a bit too nanny-ish for my tastes, but hey, it's a big tent.  Johnson was the chief author of legislation restricting the sale of video games to minors, and he's also the guy you can thank every time you get treated like a criminal because you want some Sudafed.

But Johnson was a "nice guy," seemed like a decent Republican, plus I was a constituent of Warren Limmer for quite a few years and he never knocked my socks off, so I backed Jeff for Commissioner.

I left for Arizona in July of 2008, and returned to MN in late 2011.  Johnson was elected RNC National Committeeman earlier that year.

In 2012, the "liberty" wing of the Republican party swept into power in MN, and that's when the reinvention of Jeff Johnson began in earnest.

In May of that year Johnson gave his infamous "get over it" speech to the MN State Convention, trying to endear himself to the liberty faction of the party.  Later that year when Johnson ran unopposed for county commissioner but chose to shoot an ad and spend over $22,000 on advertising, it was an open secret that he was running for Governor.

A few months into his second term as county commissioner Johnson officially stepped into the Governor's race and it became clear that he was going to be pandering hard to win the support of the liberty delegates, as he saw them as his path to victory.

Gone was the old fashioned family values conservative who was worried about the effect of pornography and violence on our youth. In his place we got a guy who would co-sponsor an event headlined by 9/11 truther, all in the name of liberty.

Gone was the team player that Republicans had just voted to help lead them. Instead we got a guy who wouldn't endorse incumbent Congressman John Kline over challenger David Gerson, for fear of upsetting some liberty delegates.

Johnson's most stunning flip-flop was on the topic of Kingfish, a $425,000 device that was purchased by Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek in 2010 that can be used to track cell phones.  Johnson was a leading proponent of Kingfish in 2010, but when it became a potential campaign liability in 2013 in the wake of the NSA spying scandal, Johnson couldn't throw his old friend Stanek under the bus quickly enough.

Johnson raced to Facebook to say he would not support the purchase of Kingfish today, but of course hasn't felt strongly enough about it to actually try to restrict the Sheriff's office's use of the device.  Gone was the law & order conservative. Instead we got a cheap and transparent pander. I hope Sheriff Stanek was able to get the tire tracks out of his uniform.

It was in the wake of Kingfish and the truther convention flaps I decided that Jeff Johnson could not win the Governor's race, and that I could not support him.  Johnson's response in the face of a challenge- to put up an incredibly weak defense then pivot to playing the victim, is a game I have seen played too many times, and it's never played by winning campaigns.

In the ensuing months as I have watched the Johnson campaign sputter I have felt encouraged that my determination about Johnson was the right one.  Johnson has tried hard to turn himself into someone he is not in order to get elected.  Every time I see him deliver his pre-programmed "It's none of the government's damn business!" applause line in his stump speech I cringe. (But not as bad as I did the time he tried to tell the joke about New York Times reporters hiding up President Obama's butt.)

His statement on Dayton's state-of-the-state speech was, I believe, supposed to make him look tough, but came across as petty, and childish. "Mark didn't go to my birthday party, so I won't go to his!"

Johnson has developed a "nice guy" persona over the years, and his attempts to ditch that have been embarrassing.

I would say that Jeff Johnson would have been better off just running as himself instead of trying to pander and reinvent himself, but I think the issue is that once you remove the ambition there just isn't that much left to justify a run for higher office.

Johnson's only tangible accomplishment on the Hennepin County Board, the only one he mentions in his stump speech, removing the UN Flag from the plaza, turns out to belong more to Davis and Emmer.  Heck, Jeff wasn't even present for the vote to remove the flag. That's a convenient fact he forgets to mention during his speech.

After 5 years under commissioner Jeff Johnson my tax burden as a Hennepin County Taxpayer has not gone down, and government spending is still way up. Johnson defenders will tell you there's not much he can do with one seat. True enough, but I'd ask Johnson what he has done to recruit and support candidates for the other suburban board seats, like lone Republicans have done in other counties. Hey, but your ad when you ran unopposed sure looked slick.

Johnson's campaign has stalled recently. He turned in a pathetic $32,000 in the first quarter of 2014, despite the fact that he has been in the race for an entire year.

I expect he will be eliminated quickly at the state convention and have heard reports that he has been calling delegates and asking them to support Dave Thompson after he is eliminated, in an effort to deny the endorsement to Marty Seifert.

It's too bad what happened to Jeff Johnson, but it's ultimately predictable. Voters reward authenticity, and they can usually see through someone's attempts to remake themselves into something they are not.  I, among others, told Johnson that the liberty wing of the party was not going to be a major player in 2014, but the strategy was set, and Johnson ultimately unsuccessfully reinvented himself for nothing.

I would hope that future campaigns could learn a lesson from Johnson's experience, but I've been around long enough to know that won't happen. Ambition makes people do dumb things.

Later this month Republicans will gather to select someone to endorse for Governor. I haven't yet decided who I will be supporting, if anyone, but I know it won't be that guy, because That's Not Jeff Johnson. Or worse yet, maybe it is.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ruling Out Zellers

A few weeks ago I wrote about the state of the Governor's race from my perspective as an undecided voter (and GOP State Delegate).  At that time I had ruled out supporting Jeff Johnson, for reasons I will expand on soon.

Unfortunately today I need to also rule out supporting Kurt Zellers.

I'm not a single issue voter- far from it actually.  I think there should be room under the proverbial big tent for a variety of viewpoints on most issues. However there are a handful of issues that would make me rule out a candidate, and supporting National Popular Vote (NPV) is one.

Zellers gave an interview on the Up & At Em show this morning where he came out in support of NPV.

I won't go into why NPV is such a terrible idea.  Instead I will direct you over to Mitch Berg's blog to read his recent post called "Kill National Popular Vote With Greasy Fire"

What is so unfortunate about Zellers' embrace of NPV is that he is actually one of the best communicators we have on our side.  He gives a great interview, and he is quite likeable.

But NPV is an idea that is so bad, and so potentially destructive, that support of it is a disqualifier for me.