Campaign journal from auditor's race
The Carletonian, April 24, 1982
by Sam Delson
Saturday, April 24. 8:30 a.m.
The campaign station wagon pulls up in front of Sayles-Hill and the candidate emerges. Short and solidly built, he wears a heavy wool sport jacket, yellow turtleneck, faded corduroy pants, and scuffed tan leather shoes. The temperature will approach 80 degrees today, but he wears the heavy jacket because he has no other formal clothing. In fact, the jacket is the only one he has owned since his marriage began 18 years ago. He does not own a tie, and he has no plans to buy one. If his appearance is unorthodox, his politics are even more so. He teaches American politics at Carleton, but his classes discuss neither the electoral system nor the workings of congress and the presidency. He's always believed that organizations and movements are more effective than elections of governmental institutions. He freely admits, "I've always been slightly suspicious of people who run for office." But at age 37, Paul Wellstone has become one of the people he used to warn students against. He's thrown his hat into the political ring, and he's deadly serious. "I'm going to win this thing," he says. "I really believe I'm the front runner." He's running for Minnesota State Auditor, a position that many people consider apolitical. Yet his speeches and campaign literature deal with nuclear war, James Watt, and Reaganomics. Dave Farmer, one of his opponents, says the auditor must "approach all his duties in a calm, deliberate manner, rather than using the position as a forum for political grandstanding." But Wellstone feels the auditor should be a policymaker rather than an accountant. He picks up his passengers-a reporter and a student who needs a ride to the University of Minnesota-and sets off for the Cities. He has already gone to see his mother this morning, because "she always brings me back down to earth."
State Auditor is one of six statewide offices. The Auditor earns $36,000 dollars a year for four years and directs a staff of over 100. While the other candidates see the Auditor's chief function as evaluating the finances of local governments, Wellstone sees his role on the state board of investors as more important. The board controls approximately $5 billion in state pension funds and has been receiving an extremely low rate of return-less than five percent-on its investments in recent years. The Auditor also sits on the land exchange board, which controls access to state property, and on the executive council, which acts in economic emergencies. Wellstone is trying to juggle a busy schedule of campaign appearances with teaching a full load at Carleton this term. On Wednesday he spoke in Duluth on the economic impact of the arms race. On Monday he will visit farmers who are sitting in at FHA offices to protest the rising number of farm foreclosures. On Tuesday he will hold separate meetings with the leaders of the state teachers, electoral workers, and autoworkers unions and meet with one of the leaders of the State DFL. But the highlight of the campaigns thus far will come on the weekend of May 1-2 when they will take off in his private campaign plane and fly to seven of the eight Minnesota congressional district conventions-five on Saturday and two on Sunday. The odyssey will take him around the state, from Willmar to Bemidji to Thief River Falls and points unknown, landing in each city just long enough to deliver a two-minute speech and pass out his campaign literature. Wellstone has raised only $1,500 thus far-barely enough for the 5,000 flyers he's printed and the phone calls he expects to make to each of the 1,100 delegates to the state DFL convention. But the campaign has a number of friends who are generous with their time, if not their money. He had two offers for free planes; the pilot and owner of the one he will use is a fired air traffic controller. Carleton students are helping the campaign in a number of ways, including helping to formulate policies and write statements. The campaign can run such a low budget because it's not geared to an election yet. Wellstone and the other candidates have each agreed to drop out of the race if one of their opponents is endorsed by the party at the state convention in Duluth June 4-6. Only if no candidate receives 60 percent will there be a race in the September 14 primary.
Everything is running behind schedule and to top it all off the car is slightly lost. Wellstone talks about a student who was stricken with cancer at the end of the last term, his concern for his son's safety after the high school prom tonight, and then, almost reluctantly, about his background. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in only two and one-half years, Phi Beta Kappa. He was also a star wrestler for two years, an undefeated champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Married at 19, he came to Carleton at the age of 24 in 1969. His career at Carleton has been controversial. In 1973 he was briefly fired, then granted tenure early. In 1977 and 1981 he published books about Minnesota politics. This year he was promoted to full professor and named the new wrestling coach. He says his classes haven't complained about his lack of availability this term. "My strength as a teacher comes from my outside experiences. This campaign will make me better in the classroom." While on leave last fall, he spoke to a number of groups around the state. His experiences convinced him that the time is ripe for building political coalitions. He hopes his campaign will help him to bring labor and farm groups together. "We're living in a different era now; the boom is over and the squeeze is on. It's a time of sharp changes and that's when movements develop." At the same time, he believes the party leaders are taking his campaign seriously. He's taking his campaign seriously. He's talked with Mark Dayton and Warren Spannaus and the other DFL frontrunners and tried to convince them that he can help the party as an exciting speaker who is strong in the state's rural areas.
Wellstone finally arrives at Spring Lake Park High School, the site of the sixth congressional district DFL convention. He is late, and this means he may have to wait several hours before speaking. As he looks for the proper officials to talk to, he runs into Dave Farmer, the most active of the other three DFL candidates for Auditor. Farmer is a dour-looking man with a stern countenance and a quiet demeanor. The two candidates exchange campaign literature. Farmer's flyer cites his 20 years of work for the party and his experience as a computer analyst for the Twin Cities public schools. His slogan is "Dave Farmer is part of the team," and he talks of his desire to "return professionalism to state government." In contrast, Wellstone's literature declares "Minnesota needs an active state auditor." The cover bears the slogan "Invest Minnesota's money in Minnesota," and the text calls for citizen participation in decision making and cites the need to demystify the state's finances. Farmer ran for Auditor in 1978 and finished second in the DFL primary. He also plans to fly to all seven of the conventions next weekend, and he plans to spend $50,000 on his campaign, the legal maximum. The other candidates are not as active. Jerry Coughlin, the Minnesota State Boxing Commissioner during the 1970s, has won the DFL nominations for congress and the state legislature in the past, but he has published no campaign literature and plans to appear at only a few of the conventions this weekend. He wants to combine the offices of Auditor and Treasurer into a new post of state Comptroller. He says Wellstone is "an excellent speaker," but he also notes that "I don't think you can make political hay out of an office like this." When asked why delegates should vote for him, Coughlin replies, "I've been more active in the party than these other fellows." While waiting to speak Wellstone greets a number of former students, including Mary Stucky '77, a TV news reporter, and Bob Ellington '71, a state representative. Dayton and Spannaus have already delivered their speeches and left, but Wellstone talks with a number of the leading candidates for other offices, including Secretary of State Joan Growe.
The Sixth District DFL convention is pure American. The walls of Spring Lake Park High School are plastered with posters and banners. Most of them focus on the showdown between state senators Gerry Sikoski and Bill Luther for the party's endorsement for the U.S. Congress. Sikorski and Luther are considered dead even as the convention begins. Judging from their campaign paraphernalia, Luther has the edge in both size and quantity of signs, while Sikorski's read and white balloons make him a the clear winner in that department. Three ballots later, the balloons emerge victorious over the signs, 85.5 to 42.
The convention has its humorous moments. Gadfly congressional candidate Phil Ratte has difficulty finding a second for his nomination. When someone finally agrees to nominate him and thus allow him to speak, Ratte shouts, "Praise the Lord!" Midway through his speech, he sense that things are going poorly and asks the delegation, "Is anybody listening?" There is silence for a few seconds, and then a lone voice from the back of the hall says, "You Bet." Heartened, Ratte shouts back, "Amen, brother!" A woman in the back replies, "Who cares?" For the most part, the candidates are a quiet bunch. Far from the stereotype of garrulous baby kissers who like nothing more than to press the flesh of anyone within 100 feet, they more closely resemble a group of men awaiting an army physical.
The congressional battle is still raging. Ellingson greets Wellstone and they start to reminisce about Carleton in the late 60's early '70's. Their conversation continues in the boys' bathroom, an absurd looking place with and eight foot high painting of Sesame Street's Big Bird next to the door. They have barely completed their business when they hear that Wellstone has finally been called to speak. This news comes to them a bit late, and Wellstone will miss his chance to address the convention unless he miraculously appears behind the podium in the next few seconds. He sprints down the stairs of the auditorium, reaches the microphone, begins to speak and then stops. He stands there panting for a few seconds, then begins his speech hesitantly with at story about his daughter's campaign for president of the 7th grade class at Northfield Junior High. The audience is numb and weary from listening to speeches for almost five hours. They've heard barnburners from Sikorski and Luther, but for the most part the speeches have been dull recitations of platitudes and clichés. They are in no mood to listen to more, and Wellstone faces an uphill battle for their attention. As he regains his breath, he gradually builds up momentum. "I announced my candidacy for the DFL endorsement because many of the people that I have been working with for many years in this state-low and moderate income people, farmers, laborers, students, senior citizens and teachers-are in a fight for their economic survival. I've met hundreds of Minnesotans who are struggling to keep their jobs, struggling to keep their family farms, struggling to keep their small businesses. And I believe that the Republican Party in this state is trying to tell these people that the most pressing issues of their lives have nothing to do with politics, that the economic pain that people feel and the issues that they're concerned about are beyond the realm of government, and beyond the reach of the state." The delegates are beginning to warm up to the speech, but many are wondering exactly what all of this has to do with the State Auditor's job. He continues, "As State Auditor I will advocate a program of strategic investment of Minnesota's capital under democratic control. By that I mean: a) the state and local employees who make this money must have representatives on that board and I will sit on that board." He is interrupted by applause; it is the first of four times that this will happen. "And I mean: b) that while I insist that I will not retreat one inch from this, that we must also have a high rate of return for the people who will be pensioners. There's nothing that says that New York banks can invest money better than Minnesota banks. We can and we should and we must take part of that pension money under democratic control and reinvest it in community building programs in our state..." The applause begins again, but he continues speaking above the noise from the delegates. "....We must support small farms, small businesses, education and alternative energy to generate jobs in Minnesota." "I support plant closings legislation, I support a state unemployment compensation program, and in these times of record high unemployment and rock-bottom parity levels, I run proudly on a program that there must be a moratorium on all foreclosures, farm and non-farm. Farmers should not be thrown off the land. That's where I come from-the rural areas. I've seen it, I know what's happening, and farmers should not be thrown out of work. Their loss will be our common loss." "As State Auditor, sitting on the land exchange board, I will defend the land and the environment of this state. It is a sacred trust, and I will fight any program that destroys our land-including a program by Mr. Watt and this administration in Washington D.C. We're all strangers and guests on this planet. If we're not here to make it a better land for the people that follow, then I don't know why we're here." "As a candidate for state office I condemn the nuclear arms race. It drains our economy, it distorts our pattern of investment, and it makes the world unsafe for all of God's children... "...I insist that the national security of the country is the security of local communities where people have jobs, where people have adequate housing, and yes, where our children have not just and adequate, but a solid education. Where rural children learn about the diversity of city life, where city children learn about the diversity of rural life, and most importantly of all, where every girl can grow up dreaming to be president of the United States." The speech is interrupted a final time, and Wellstone pauses for a few seconds until the audience becomes quiet. He concludes with a call for "less victimization by race, less victimization by sex, less victimization by age, and less victimization by the geographical region of our stat that people live in. Not heaven on earth, but better earth on earth." He thanks the delegates for their support, but his final words are drowned out by an ovation. When the quiet finally returns, the chairwoman reminds the candidates of the time limit and Wellstone meekly replies, "I'm sorry, I just get a little emotional sometimes." As Wellstone leaves the auditorium, he is greeted by several delegates. Former congressional aide Shirley Bonine says "That was just excellent! I loved it and I will support you." Other delegates give similar pledges of support. But some of their statements subtly reflect the doubts that plague the campaign. Delegate John Meiners says, "I liked your speech a lot, but you really ought to run for President instead." Another delegate tells him, "I don't even know what the State Auditor does, but I loved your speech." The impression that Wellstone is unconcerned with the duties of the State Auditor troubles him. He is working hard to counter the suggestion that he is a demagogue seeking a platform from which he can get personal publicity. Yet despite these problems, the speech's enthusiastic reception is encouraging. As Wellstone is greeted by various delegates, I see Tim Lovaasen, a member of the Communications Workers union, buttonholing other delegates and telling them to vote for Wellstone. His jacket still bears a "Farmer for Auditor" sticker, but it is clear that Lovaasen has become a convert.
Only 50 people are in Sayles-Hill when Carrie Gerendasy begins to perform. Wellstone is disappointed by the size of the crowd, but he is heartened by its loyalty. It includes friends and alumni who have come from out of town to attend the campaign fundraiser. As the evening continues, the crowd grows, eventually reaching almost 200. A student contributes some money, then adds more in the name of his sister, a Carleton graduate who is now a teacher in Chicago. Over $130 is raised for the campaign. Wellstone takes the stage for a brief speech. He jokes about his new public activity, saying, "I've already forgotten my origins," but he quickly adds, "I really appreciate your support. I'm sentimental about these things and I can assure you that I'll never forget it. This is the biggest fight of my life." The crowd begins chanting "Wellstone! Wellstone!" and the candidate bursts out laughing. He is serious about the campaign, but he's also having the time of his life.