Into the Heart of the Beast

by Loren Martell

Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

I was in the middle of writing an article about Red Plan swimming pools, when I attended a Board meeting on 5/30/17. The meeting was so fraught with issues I decided to write about that and put the swimming pool story on hold. I was in the middle of the new article when I attended the DFL convention held at the Lincoln Park Middle School. As I headed to the convention, something told me I would be shelving two articles for later and instead writing about THIS. I started writing as soon as I arrived. 

As much as I’ve discussed the construction details of the copper-sided $50 million Lincoln Park school, I could never make myself actually drive up to the place. Traveling along Grand Avenue, I would always glance up at the glittering Taj Mahal on the hill, and keep on driving. 
When the DFLers procured the site for their candidate endorsing convention, I decided it was finally time to make myself step into one of the most debatable school sites of the hotly contested Red Plan, and simultaneously glimpse the internal world of the DFL wildebeest.
The first thing you discover, in the intriguing DFL world, is that the beast has a big heart. Braving a brisk, early-morning lake breeze, a delegation of citizens met me at the school’s entrance with the kindly offer of a donut. “I’ve always known DFLers were nice people.” I observed, when one of the smiley greeters opened the door for me. 

As for the big RED beast, Lincoln Park Middle School is the very embodiment of the building plan’s excess. Looking the place over explains in no uncertain terms why our school district is broke. The DFL convention was in the school cafeteria. While everyone around me chummed and chattered, I studied the room, my eyes taking in the expansive wall of angled windows, the tiered ceiling with its crisscross of wooden beams and the multi-colored terrazzo floor. I gawked with so much awe at the expense of it all, a nice DFL operative walked over and asked if she could assist me. 

“Just soaking this place in.” I replied. “I’ve been following district issues for a long time, but this is my first time in this particular building.” 
“Isn’t it beautiful!” She gushed. “You should take a tour. We’re so happy our kids are in here. They deserve a nice building like this.” 
I asked if she was an employee at the school, but she explained that she was just a concerned and involved citizen. “I don’t know how involved you are,” I replied, “but I have to tell you this building masks some serious issues.” 
I should have ended the conversation there, but the gracious DFLer actually nodded and agreed. She started to fret about some of the district’s problems. “How did we ever end up with 40 kids in a class?” She asked. “You should only have 25. You could maybe push it to 30, but 40? How did that happen?”

“Well,” I responded, gesturing around the opulent room. “You’re looking at how it happened. This building is impressive, but the financing around the project that built it was abominable.” I mentioned some of the plan’s flaws, like a bogus claim of $122 million of efficiency savings. I tried to let it go at that, but couldn’t help adding: “I’m sorry to be blunt in such a pretty setting, but when it comes to fiscal management the old axiom: garbage in, garbage out, applies here.” 

The poor DFLer had obviously offered help to the wrong person. A perennially upbeat attitude is mandatory for membership in the DFL Club. Her eyes darted away, growing tired of such pithy talk, but she remained very nice. “We have to focus on solutions for getting class sizes down.” She said, with just a hint of the preachy tone the DFL is famous for. I asked if she had any ideas, pointing out that the district sure could use some. She didn’t, but she smiled with admirable tolerance and lectured that we had to stay positive and work on it. 

Then she finally got the hell away from me. One more DFLer in my rearview mirror. I walked past her several more times throughout the day, but she made sure not to make eye contact again, and I didn’t blame her. 
 

Just a dab more of Debby Downer

While I waited for the DFLers to get the show rolling, I sat on the ledge in front of the wall of windows. Now and then I glanced back at the incredible view of the Duluth harbor, sparkling in the morning sunlight. Then I let my eyes roam over the crowd, milling before me. Most of Duluth’s movers and shakers were rubbing shoulders, chatting and smiling. Superintendent Gronseth was warmly working the room and the mayor, too. State and county representatives were present, as were city councilors, city councilor candidates, school board members, former Board members and school board candidates. 

This is the system, folks, and the way the political machine works: the want-to-be-powerful rubbing shoulders with the powerful--stroking feathers, making connections. 
Given the building we were congregated in, it was fair to ask: does this political machine lead to good governance? This is the very coalition of the town’s bigwigs that pushed through the Red Plan. Following this coterie of leaders, we dumped one school campus on top of a hill and built another one on top of another hill, with even worse access. The first campus has been sitting empty for six years, robbing precious resources from our broke school district; the second one cost more than $50 million and is just barely over half capacity full.

Why were these DFL leaders smiling? In my opinion, in that particular building, they should have all been hanging their heads. 
    

The endorsement factory starts up

“Good morning! We’re now called to order!” The convention chairperson called out, and we were rolling. We started with the pledge of allegiance, then someone read a pledge from the DFL party to “disavow discrimination and bigotry in all its forms!” Then the mayor got up and said “Good morning!” again, in her bright voice. “Oh, my gosh!” She exclaimed when the congregation failed to exhibit enough enthusiasm. “Good Morning!!!!?”

The crowd woke up from its stupor and responded in kind. The mayor remarked about what a lovely day it was, but said the event’s good attendance “means this room is even more powerful than what’s happening outside!” She said the convention of DFL disciples was a chance for a “heart-to-heart, gut-to-gut” discussion about what’s important in Duluth. She said she wanted the DFL army to march out of the room together, because “we have so much work to do.”

Another convention organizer stepped up to the microphone after the mayor and tried to warm the convention crowd up further by cracking a few self-deprecating jokes. His best joke was the recitation of a famous quote from Will Rogers: “I was not a member of any organized political party; I was a Democrat.”

Looking around the room, I thought those words were very apt and funny. One thing I do like about political lefties is their ability to sometimes be self-reflective about what a herd of silly cats they can resemble. 
Several State representatives next addressed the assembly, with a lot of red meat party dogma and self promotion. We were told our DFL delegation “brought home almost $100 million” of State bond money from the last legislative session. We were told the nasty Republicans “did not want to spend money; they wanted to embarrass the Governor and give the money to the rich.” We were urged to support the DFL ticket on the local level and “make the right choices again, for your city and for your school district!”

We heard a lot about how budgets reflect “values” and a fair amount of “optimism” was expressed “for the future.” We were told it was time to “fight for progressive change,” because the “tools of our democracy were under attack!” The national political debate was a constant subtext, with some speakers vowing “to fight the Trump administration.” We were also told that party faithful should be out searching for new blood, “to keep our bench strong…who are our future leaders?” We were asked. 

The bonding of kindred spirits was almost palpable at times. “There’s no place I’d rather be than here, today.” Representative Jen Schultz exclaimed. “We’re strong, we have heart and we have brains!…I’m looking forward to being in the majority (of the State legislature) soon…We care about people! And that’s why I’m proud of being in the DFL!” Ms. Schultz warned the crowd that they had to make certain the Governor’s seat remained in DFL hands, because (alluding to Wisconsin’s Governor, Scott Walker,) “I don’t want to live in Wisconsin!” She laid out a botanical metaphor, when describing her vision for the growth of her party’s influence in the lives of us all: “We need to be like dandelions…We need to spread!”

I can easily envision the GOP all running to Menards now, to pick up some more dandelion herbicide. One hindrance to the functionality of this DFL love fest was the PA system. I don’t know where the DFLers rented it, or if the organization owns it, but someone clearly failed to test it beforehand. The muffled PA system especially prevented the candidates who weren’t inside players from making a good, first impression. 

Because the audible was so bad, I didn’t initially pick up that one school board candidate, Sally Trnka, wasn’t the person actually speaking to the delegates. I didn’t catch on until the woman who spoke for Ms. Trnka, Kathleen Adee, came back to the podium to accept the DFL’s endorsement on her behalf. 

On his blog, Board member Welty, who was vying for the same endorsement, wrote: “(DFL-endorsed Board members) Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Annie Harala recruited all the candidates that won. The DFL screening committee recommended every one of them to the convention beforehand. Even the candidate who didn’t show up to speak to the convention (usually a big NO NO,) barely lost out on (winning) first place. I’d never heard of her and I doubt many people voting for her had, either.” 

The spectacle was largely about party loyalty, and felt oiled and engineered to a pre-decided outcome. Having a surrogate stand in for Ms. Trnka was like a job applicant getting the green light from a vetting committee in a two-tiered interview process, and sending a friend to cover the second part: “My friend, Bonnie, is kind of busy, today. But you can all hear that I speak pretty well, so you should hire her.”

Most DFL delegates dutifully went along with the proscribed program and endorsed the invisible Ms. Trnka and another at-large school district candidate recommended by the selection committee. Both of these insiders received well over two hundred votes apiece. The two outsider candidates received 34 and 39. Nothing seemed to stop the assembly line from punching out its pre-ordained endorsees, intended to sit on the thrones of power in our town. 

   

A nod to the Duluth News Tribune

On the day of the DFL convention, the News Tribune ran an editorial about the influence of political party machines on supposedly nonpartisan local elective offices. My praise might make the paper’s editor wonder if he goofed up, but for the editorial page of the Duluth News Tribune the article was pretty good. The only part I would deign to question was the paper’s portrayal of itself as a paragon of proper candidate vetting. Relatively speaking, however, the paper’s argument was valid and its criticism of party politics warping local government was spot-on. 

“There’s little secret why Duluth-area and Northland candidates seek relations with the DFL.” The paper pointed out the obvious. “They want to win. And the reality is that many voters--far too many voters--don’t take the time or do the work to consider the candidates, their stands and their records. They rely instead, far to often, on what’s fed to them by whichever party vaguely aligns with their view of the world…”

The paper warned about the downside of “partisan intrusion into nonpartisan local races,” and called for the party machines to “step back from where they don’t appropriately belong.” 
Nowhere in Duluth does that warning need to be heeded more than in the boardroom of ISD 709. Our public school district has become too politicized. There are power players who would like to have the election held within the district itself, and just cut the public out completely. The DFL/DFT (democrat/union) coalition has had an iron grip on the district for years, and that grip on power has led to a presumption of privilege. It was completely improper for Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, and intense union activist, to waltz into a Quality Steering Committee meeting (a “labor/management committee” as she described it in her DFL screening questionnaire) and announce herself as the Board’s representative on the committee before she was even formally seated. 

Another important point of undue influence, missed by the paper, is the increasing meddling by State union organizations in local elections. The teachers’ union umbrella group, Education Minnesota, is increasingly funneling resources into local races with the express purpose of stacking school boards with union people. 

While I waited to see what the delegate counts would be for school board candidates during the convention, I listened to some of the candidates for city council. One candidate, Rich Updegrove, disagreed with the News Tribune article. He told the crowd that DFL endorsement reflected candidates’ values and that everyone should be unafraid to hang his or her values out there for the public to see. Following through on this statement, he voiced full-throated support for the unions. He said that the DFL is “not just sympathetic to the unions. That’s a given! We want someone who IS the union!” 

Do you want that, Duluth? Do you want the city council chamber and the boardroom of Old Central to turn into union halls, even more than they already are? 
I wish I could take bets on events like the DFL convention. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the most consummate party machine candidate I’ve ever seen on a local level, would have been so easy to win a bet on. I knew she would overwhelmingly win her party’s endorsement against a relative unknown citizen: Kurt Kuehn. Mr. Kuehn was winningly intelligent and likeable, and may yet do well collecting votes from the rest of our community, but in the world of the DFL wildebeest, against a slick party apparatchik like Loeffler-Kemp, he was road kill. 

Harry Welty and Bogdana Krivorsky were also beaten quite soundly by the two candidates recommended for endorsement by the DFL screening committee: Josh Gorham and Sally Trnka. 
Art Johnston fought the best fight of all the long-shot players, but in the end also failed to garner enough delegate votes to win, or even prevent his opponent, Jill Lofald, from winning the coveted DFL endorsement. . 
Of all the candidates, Mr. Up., the city council candidate, was the most dynamic speaker of the day. Young and idealistic, filled with zeal and civic mindedness, he garnered enthusiastic DFL applause. I suspect the GOP camp will be inclined to write him off as another liberal dreamer or upbeat version of Fabio, with his long, shiny mane of reddish-blond hair. I couldn’t get past his statements about the unions. 

I’ve held union cards and am a working man. I support working men and woman, but I want representatives in local government who support the general public and the general public’s interest, not the unions. 
Focusing on the school board races, just to be clear: The DFL-endorsed candidate for the 1st district race is Rosie Loeffler-Kemp; for the 4th district: Jill Lofald; the two at-large DFL-endorsed candidates are: Josh Gorham and Sally Trnka. (Sally’s last name is spelled correctly, with no vowel in the first syllable.) 
Cut and save this list of names for election day. If you want the DFL and the unions to retain and expand their control over the boardroom in Old Central, vote for this list. If you don’t, vote against these names.