Naomi (naomikritzer) wrote,
Naomi
naomikritzer

I spent Saturday at the City DFL Convention

Caucuses were back in February. I was elected a delegate to the Senate District Convention and to the City Convention (getting elected as a delegate to these means raising your hand and writing your name down; the State convention is much more competitive.) I wound up skipping the Senate District convention, but yesterday was the endorsing convention for the school board seats, so I went.

According to the Star Tribune, a DFL-endorsed candidate for school board has not lost in over 20 years.

The new, exciting thing with the school board race this year is NOT instant runoff (we have IR for City Council, Park Board, and Mayor, but NOT School Board, I think because the School Board process is dictated by state law) but the fact that we have switched to a district-based system, like Park Board. We are transitioning to a system with six members from districts plus three (three? I think three) at-large members. This year, we are electing members from districts 1, 3, and 5. Next time around we'll do 2, 4, and 6. We're also electing two at-large members. Since there were four incumbent school board members up for re-election, this could have been awkward, but three of them decided they wouldn't take the job again if it were handed to them on a silver platter. Only one, T. Williams, is running again.

I'll put my lengthy story of last-minute candidate research and poorly executed parliamentary maneuvers below the cut.  


Here's who was running.

In District 1, there were two candidates: Marcia Thomas and Jenny Arnesen. This was an incredibly hotly contested race but it's not my district and I didn't research it even slightly.

In District 3, there was only one candidate running, Hussein Samatar. He's an immigrant from Somalia and, I realized partway through the day, the father of one of Molly's classmates from last year. He seems like everything I want in a school board member, so I was happy to see him get the nod without a fight.

In District 5, my district, there was only one candidate, Alberto Monserrate. He's an immigrant from Puerto Rico and a really good candidate, like Samatar.

I suppose I should spell out what I want in a school board member. I want them to be smart; I want them to have a personality type where they will not snap or burst into tears when yelled at (this is for their own good; people are NASTY to the school board); I want them to have substantive answers when asked about the budget. If your answer to "what are you going to cut to make up the budget shortfall" is "we'll get the state to give us more money," I'm done with you. Not because I oppose a tax hike; I'm quite enthusiastic about a tax increase, actually. But because it is not within the power of the school board to make the state give us more money, and what I want to know is, how are YOU going to handle the budget shortfall? People who recite platitudes really do not impress me. I know the platitudes and I can recite them right along with you, and I am not running for school board for a long list of reasons that starts with, "I have NO IDEA how to fix the current set of problems." I want candidates who are smarter about this stuff than I am.

There were eight (EIGHT) people asking for DFL endorsement for the two at-large seats. (There's also a Green in the race, Doug Mann, and we might get an independent in the actual race and possibly even a Republican. This is a non-partisan race, so there will be a primary at the same time as the Governor's race primary. You vote for your top two, and the top four advance. Odds are good that all four who advance will be Democrats, but you never know.)

The eight at-large contenders:

T. Williams, the incumbent.
Marika Pfefferkorn
Mohamud Noor
Dick Mammen
Rebecca Gagnon
David DeGrio
Chanda Smith Baker
Shirlynn Lachapelle

One of the few advantages of the endorsement system is that it allows people to run a very small-scale, personal, inexpensive campaign for office: instead of printing up a zillion brochures, they can call or door-knock people who are delegates. However, not one of these people called me. Marika and Rebecca jumped into the race really late, but the rest of them have no excuse; they should've at least had a campaign volunteer calling delegates.

Some of them did send me mail -- I got fliers from Dick and David for sure and maybe a few others. The fliers were overwhelmingly uninformative: they quoted platitudes and sounded identically generic.

On Friday night I realized that I still knew nothing about any of these people, so while at a Seward picnic I sought out a friend who is a state legislator and asked if he knew of anyone I should be sure to vote for, or vote against. He said he'd heard that Chanda Baker was a voucher supporter and that he knew that Dick Mammen was a good guy who works well with others but that other than that, he didn't know much about any of them.

After I got home, I went looking for more information (I'll note that at that point, I didn't even have a list of who was running). I found a video of a candidate forum held on May 15, and watched it. On the budget question, T. Williams was a pessimistic realist, which I liked. (Everyone else had been listing things that were "untouchable" when cuts had to be made and it came around to T. and he said, "you know, when there's a big enough deficit, nothing's untouchable. It can't be. You've got to go where the money is.") Mohamud Noor's answer on the budget question was kind of content-free and I crossed him off for that. Shirlynn Lachapelle's opening statement was wall-to-wall buzzwords -- like, if you were playing a buzzword-based drinking game, she'd have had you wasted in a minute and a half, that's how much she liked buzzwords. So I crossed her off for that. Dick Mammen reminded me of Santa Claus, if Santa were running for school board. Rebecca Gagnon seemed a little out of her depth. David DeGrio and Marika Pfefferkorn liked buzzwords a little too much; also, Marika had no website, just a Facebook page. GUYS! HELLO! DO NOT DO THIS! If you are running for office, get a real campaign site. You can use a Facebook page for your campaign blog but you need an actual SITE and by the way do not make it javascript-dependent; those of us who run NoScript dislike enabling scripting for sites run by random volunteers.

The other bit of info I had: Dick Mammen and David DeGrio were endorsed by the teacher's union. The union is currently in contentious negotiations over a new contract.

Anyway, I turned up on Saturday with still only the vaguest idea of who I was supporting.

At the convention, I spotted a college friend who is a political insider and generally a fabulous source of political gossip. He didn't know much more than I did, but commented that although he liked Dick Mammen as a person, he was hesitant to go for someone with "too many strings" -- the thing about the union endorsement (and this was my hesitation, too) was that the school board should be focused on the needs of the kids, not the needs of the union. They're the ones negotiating with the union, and while it's nice to think that the needs of the kids and the needs of the teachers always coincide, the fact is that they do not.

He had watched the same forum I did (though I think he actually attended) and talked to a few of the candidates afterward. Like me, he loved T.'s response on the budget issue, and he also thought there was a virtue in keeping an incumbent in a year when so many dramatic changes were happening. For his second vote, he had really liked Marika after chatting with her, but didn't think she had much of a chance -- she got into the race really late. He also really liked Chanda, and said that although he'd heard the rumors about her being a voucher supporter, he didn't think they were true. She denies it. Also, she co-authored an editorial in the Star Tribune that attacked the union ("Education Minnesota's hollow defense of the status quo is a cynical, morally bankrupt agenda, which focuses more on protecting the adult members of teacher unions than protecting the interests of the state's most vulnerable children") so his theory was that people were attacking her because of this.

Chanda's children are also in charter schools. Which are public schools, but not under the control of the school board. (Apparently T.'s kids, or one of them, goes to school in Robbinsdale -- or so someone behind me at the convention was saying. I haven't confirmed that. Frankly, he looks way too old to have kids in the schools at all, but maybe the job has prematurely aged him.) I understand the argument here, especially with T. since he's already serving on the board. But they both live on the north side, and both Chanda and T. are black, and the achievement gap statistics are frankly unnerving (the achievement gap persists even if you control for income -- if you filter the data to look just at black kids who are NOT on free lunch, they do markedly worse in Minneapolis than the white kids overall and do markedly worse than the black kids in many suburban schools). The bottom line is, I want to see northside people on the board, but I don't think there's a northside school where I'd be willing to enroll my kids. I'm much less willing to judge the choices of Chanda and T. regarding their kids than I would judge the choices of, say, someone who mirrored me demographically.

Marika, incidentally, has no kids at all. This is unusual for a school board candidate, but she made a spirited case in her ads for everyone, not just parents, having a stake in the education of the community's children. I don't think her lack of kids hurt her; I think her main problem was how late she got into the race.

Since Samatar and Monserrate were running unopposed, they were endorsed on a voice vote. The District 1 candidates and the at-large candidates were each given a couple of minutes to speak, and balloting started just after noon. (This was amazingly efficient for a DFL convention, I have to say.)

I voted for T. and then mulled over my other vote. I wound up voting for Marika; I was expecting she'd be eliminated, but a strong show of support might encourage her to run again. Results were announced at 1:10. (Ballots get counted by hand, and the first count takes the longest because of the number of candidates.) Candidates need 60% of the vote to get endorsement.

On the first ballot, in district 1, one candidate had 56% -- she was six votes short of endorsement.

Of the at-large candidates, according to my notes:

Chanda Baker got 21%
David DeGrio got 38%
Rebecca Gagnon got such a small percent I didn't even write it down. Below 10%.
Dick Mammen got 56%
Muhammed Noor got 24%
Marika Pfefferkorn got 7%
Shirlynn Lachapelle got 8%
T. Williams got 29%

Marika, Rebecca, and Shirlynn were eliminated. Marika threw her support to Chanda Baker, Shirlynn threw hers to Dick Mammen, and if Rebecca Gagnon threw hers to anyone I missed it. A new set of ballots were passed out and I voted again. Despite my concerns about "strings," I did like Dick Mammen, but with 56% he was almost certainly going to get 60% in the next round without my help. I voted for T. and for Chanda.

On the next ballot, District Jenny was endorsed in District 1 and the District 1 convention was officially adjourned though the main convention continued. (The whole thing is run by parliamentary procedure and it is AMAZING the sort of crap you can pull if you know parliamentary procedure well. However, you absolutely need to know what you're doing; more on that shortly.)

On ballot two:

Chanda had 27%
DiGrio had 41%
Mammen had 63%, giving him the first at-large endorsement.
Noor had 26%
T. had 29%.

So Mammen was endorsed. We'd been getting two votes per ballot, but next round we'd have only one.

I'd been wandering in and out between ballots and stopped to chat with the Chanda supporters at her table in the hallway outside the gym. When I took a sticker, they told me where to find their hospitality room, which had coffee and fresh fruit and nice muffins and other excellent goodies.

On ballot three, I had to pick, and voted for T., because I still preferred his experience. They'd both held steady with numbers, so it wasn't like the numbers were strongly moving one way or the other.

The ballot three results:

Chanda 23%
DeGrio 35%
Noor 17%
T. 23%

Noor was eliminated. The next round of balloting was about to start.

Right around then, a breathless woman with a Chanda shirt came running past my seat. "OH you're a Chanda/T. supporter," she said, "We're all going to leave and then call the quorum, to block endorsement."

I said, OK, picked up my notebook, and walked out into the hallway.

As SOON as I got out there, I knew they'd made a mistake. Nowhere near enough people were in the hallway for this maneuver to work. I started to go back in, but the floor had frozen; no one could go back. I shrugged and spent the next half hour chatting with a friend who was also out in the hall; eventually the floor unfroze and we went back in.

So, let me step back slightly and explain both what they were trying to do, why they thought it would work, and why I went along with it without question. This was an example of using parliamentary procedure in a way that is maybe not quite what Robert intended when he wrote his Rules. In order to conduct business, you have to have a quorum. A quorum is half the people you started with. There were 500 and some delegates at the beginning of the day; in order for the convention to conduct business, they needed about 280 people to still be present and participating.

If someone calls the quorum, and you count, and there is fewer than 280 people, no further business can take place; the meeting is adjourned. Now, if there are only a dozen people still there and no one present calls the quorum, you can keep right on with whatever you're doing. But if someone calls the quorum, you're supposed to count, and take action.

All eight of these people had promised to abide by endorsement; that meant, if David DeGrio got endorsed, T. Williams and Chanda Baker had promised to drop out of the race and not run in the primary. However, if there was only one endorsed candidate, all bets were off.

Now, really, on looking at the numbers, I am not sure what the two campaigns were thinking. DeGrio was not going to go from 35 to 60 on one ballot; even if every Noor supporter in the building switched to him (unlikely) that wasn't going to put him over the top. However, I've been at conventions where this sort of parliamentary gamesmanship was CRITICAL and since I am not a parliamentarian, I rely on the campaigns of the people I'm there supporting to tell me what to do. Communicating in a convention hall can be tricky: it's loud, confusing, and the people who are on your side right now might shift to the other if you piss them off. At a number of conventions, anytime there's a vote, no matter how minor, I look at the guy with the t-shirt, headphones, and clipboard who's standing by my section and watch for a thumbs up / thumbs down, and I vote the way they tell me. This probably sounds TOTALLY AWFUL, but getting your supporters to be disciplined about this stuff can make a huge difference in a close race.

Anyway, like I said: this time, the maneuver totally DID NOT WORK. They didn't plan far enough in advance; they didn't count their visible supporters; they didn't communicate well. Moreover, they overlooked a key rule, which is that when the convention adjourns before the 5th ballot with no endorsement, the City Central Committee can make an endorsement. However, when I took my seat and the woman behind me asked if I thought I did the right thing, I shrugged and said, "Sure. I followed the directions of the campaign for the candidates I'm supporting. It was their screwup, not mine."

When they unfroze the floor, someone was making a brief, impassioned speech in favor of a resolution (or a rules change? I can't remember) that would direct the City Central Committee to make no endorsement. Now: the quorum had been called, and the convention had agreed to use the balloting process as the quorum call. If not enough ballots had been turned in, that would be it: that round of voting wouldn't count, and neither would the vote for the resolution directing the City Central Committee not to make the endorsement since that would've been business transacted AFTER the quorum call. (The Central Committee does not have to do endorsements, though, so they might have respected it as the will of the convention.)

Anyway, the resolution carried and in fact a quorum was still present (by a generous margin, even). The fourth round of balloting had the following results:

Chanda had 71 votes, or 22.5%
DeGrio had 160 votes, or 51%
T. had 74 votes, or 23%

Under the rules, Chanda was dropped; she threw support to T. The fifth round looked like this:

T.: 175 votes, 47.9%
DeGrio: 173 votes, 47.4%
No Endorsement: 17 votes, 4.7%

A motion was made to adjourn and it carried. The convention was over. So now it will go to a primary. My guess is that Chanda, T., and DeGrio will run (and Mammen, of course). It's possible Noor might. I bet the others will drop out. We'll see, I guess.



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