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DFL Party Considers a Change
By Laura McCallum
January 14, 1999
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The state chair of the Minnesota Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party is calling for a major party overhaul in the wake of November election losses. Dick Senese's plan would streamline the caucus system, gut the party endorsement, and even change the party's name. Some party activists are already raising objections over the proposal.

IN LAST NOVEMBER'S ELECTION, Democrats lost the Governor's race and control of the Minnesota House, and not one endorsed candidate for statewide office won. Party Chair Dick Senese says the DFL has alienated Minnesotans through its cumbersome caucus system, which requires people who want to be delegates to the state convention to attend three or four caucus meetings. Over the next few weeks, members of the DFL will debate the future of their party.

Senese: We have a database at the DFL that has at least 75,000 names of people who've attended a precinct caucus over the last ten years at least one time. 17,000 of those folks decided to show up last year. So if I'm running a business, I got 75,000 people who've bought my product once; 58,000 of them didn't buy it last year. I've got a problem.
Senese says the problem is so severe, just tweaking the system won't do. He proposes replacing small precinct caucuses with a larger organizing convention at the county or senate district level. The move would make it easier for average voters to participate, and less likely that single-issue party insiders would control the process. Senese says the primary should be moved from September to June, and the DFL should dump the endorsement process . Candidates could earn a spot on the party's primary ballot by getting 15% of the vote at the organizing convention, or by collecting signatures. Senese says the DFL State Convention should be held the week after the primary, so it wouldn't be a "bloodbath" over who has better DFL credentials.
Senese: And we need to acknowledge that the true and final goal must be the general election victories.
Last year, the party was embroiled in a divisive five-way gubernatorial primary, which left Democrats with only two months to rally behind Skip Humphrey against Norm Coleman and Jesse Ventura. Senese's plan wouldn't eliminate primary battles, but would give the party more time to campaign for its general election candidate. Senese also recommends the DFL drop "Farmer-Labor" from its name to send a message to the public that it's serious about change. There's widespread agreement among Democrats that party reform is needed, but less consensus that Senese's plan is the way to go. State Senator Ember Reichgott-Junge, the party's endorsed candidate for Attorney General last year, is skeptical of scrapping the party endorsement.
Reichgott-Junge: If we have wide-open primaries, does that give advantage to candidates with a great deal of money, candidates who have run many times, and candidates with celebrity status, and does it work to the disadvantage of first-time candidates many of whom are women and candidates of color?
The party's 625 member central committee will debate Senese's ideas and other reform proposals this weekend, although if Senese has his way, that body will be chopped to about 200 people. Central committee member Betsy O'Berry , who was the DFL endorsee for state treasurer, stressed that the Senese proposal is only one person's ideas. She's disturbed that he went public before presenting it to party activists. But former state chair Ruth Stanoch gives Senese credit for proposing such radical reform.
Stanoch: These are fairly sweeping changes. And ones that I think are pretty bold for someone to be in that position to make . As I always say: it's always hard to tell people who are in power to vote themselves out. In a sense that's what he's doing.
Stanoch predicts the name change idea, although it's not the most substantive, might be the most contentious proposal, given the long history of the name. But DFL House minority leader Tom Pugh thinks it has merit.
Pugh: As I talk to my friends around the country, they don't know what DFL stands for and Democratic might be more universal; sometimes the change of name gives kind of a shot in the arm for reform.
Pugh is careful to stress that a name change wouldn't minimize the party's commitment to farming and labor issues. Regardless of what the DFL central committee decides this weekend, most of the reform ideas would need to pass other hurdles. Moving the primary requires legislative action, and even the name change would need to be approved at the state convention in the year 2000.

Laura McCallum covers the Minnesota Legislature for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach her at