In the Spotlight

News & Features
Too Many Democrats?
By Martin Kaste
December 8, 1999
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DFL State Senator Jerry Janezich is formally entering the race for U.S. Senate today. Janezich plans to make the announcement in his home town of Chisholm, emphasizing his strong base among organized labor and especially steelworkers. The Iron Ranger's entry brings the number of Democrats in the race to six, with two more likely to join them in January. Some Democratic strategists think that's too many, and there's already talk of another divisive, expensive primary fight.
Campaign 2000
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CHISHOLM NATIVE Jerry Janezich enters this race with a reliable base of supporters on the Iron Range, especially among unionized steelworkers. His steering committee is made up of old friends like Stan Daniels, an organizer for the United Steelworkers. Daniels says he's been pushing Janezich to enter the race for some time:
Daniels: I don't think he had any plans on running until he seen who else was running, and he seen that he was a better candidate and that he could win.
If that's the case, Janezich thinks he's a better candidate than a lot of people -- six Democrats so far, with the possible entry of another two, including former Congressman Tim Penny. Daniels seems especially certain of Janezich's ability to beat one candidate in particular: Mike Ciresi, the private attorney who represented the state in the 1998 tobacco trial.
Daniels: He's not been a politician, just because he's a high-priced lawyer, and won a lot of money on tobacco and has a lot of money to spend, that doesn't mean he can get elected on the Range or in the state.
That's becoming a common theme among the Democrats in this race: "We're not Mike Ciresi and we don't have his money." Candidates, like former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, are trying to turn their relative poverty into a political strength.
Lillehaug: There is certainly one candidate for the primary who can write one $5 million check and be done with fund-raising. But I've always believed that grassroots organizing can beat any amount of money, and that's going to be our approach in this campaign.
Even the Republicans are starting in early on Ciresi. After Ciresi bought ads on Iron Range radio stations to introduce himself to local Democrats, Republicans countered with this message.
GOP AD: Despite his $440 million fee to represent the state of Minnesota, Mike Ciresi says it was public service. He even says it makes him qualified to be a senator. He's already spending this money on political ads to convince us.
Ciresi has been the ideal foil for Republicans and the other Democrats: he's rich, he's a lawyer, and right now he can't defend himself, as he's put his campaign on hold while he finishes one last trial. He didn't return calls for this report, and even his campaign Web page -- that 1990's measure of political seriousness -- is practically non-existent.

Still, Cirisi may soon get a break from being top dog. That distinction could shift to former Congressman Tim Penny, if he joins the race in January. Penny has extensive, bipartisan connections in Washington, and would likely be able to build up enough of a war chest to challenge Ciresi's spending.

Democratic strategists are uneasy about this big, contentious field of candidates. Some are already worried about a replay of 1998, when five DFLers slugged it out in the gubernatorial primary.

New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says he wishes there weren't quite so many Democrats running in 2000.
Torricelli: I would like to see less candidates, because I would like us to be working on the general election. But that just isn't possible, given the situation.
Torricelli says because Democrats see the incumbent Rod Grams as vulnerable, a big Democratic field is inevitable. He says Grams' perceived vulnerability means the race is going to be especially expensive for everybody involved.
Torricelli: Minnesota is going to be an ideological, partisan...
MPR: Expensive?
Torricelli: ... expensive battleground. And not simply between Democrats and Republicans. As our candidate is likely to be for a minimum wage, which labor will support, there are some far-right business groups that will come here to defend his vote against the minimum wage. So it's not going to be just Republicans and Democrats, it's going to be many of these independent organizations.
Torricelli says national Democratic organizations will match what Republicans spend to defend Grams' seat. That could lead to new spending records for a statewide campaign in Minnesota. But for the time being, it appears most of the primary-election spending will be on the DFL side. So far, Grams' main strategic advantage -- party unity -- seems to be holding, as no other Republicans have stepped forward to challenge him.