June 4, 2018 — By JT Haines
As expected, most clean water delegates entered the 2018 DFL State Convention supporting Rebecca Otto. This was certainly true of the Duluth delegation, with whom I work most closely. Clean water advocates have appreciated Rebecca Otto’s important defense of our watersheds and Minnesota’s taxpayers, and she has helped elevate the critical Glencore/PolyMet issue statewide. As far as I can tell, the majority of statewide Democrats actually agree with the outgoing Auditor on her underlying position on copper sulfide mining. Where we sometimes disagree is how, when, and whether to emphasize the issue politically. Clean water advocates, especially those downstream, say now, of course, and Rebecca Otto has helped with that.
After three short rounds of voting at the convention, though, and with the Otto campaign placing third and dropping from balloting, most clean water delegates were quickly considering Erin Murphy for governor, and almost all did vote to endorse her. How did this happen? And what should clean water voters around the state think about this turn?
Well firstly, Rebecca Otto entering the convention floor hand in hand with Tim Walz, right in front of a core of CD8 supporters, did not serve the purpose either campaign had hoped. It was a shocking move, with a truly unfortunate visual, and it certainly truncated people’s grieving period. For most outside the campaign, we wanted to see Team Otto marshall her moment in a more productive manner for the issues we care about. (Those inside the campaign have a different set of considerations, of course.)
But let’s talk about the now DFL-endorsed candidate for governor, Erin Murphy. There is a lot to like about Rep. Murphy and her running mate Rep. Erin Maye Quade. I’ll let friends who know them both better speak to the wide range of important issues the campaign stands for, but one can at least immediately say that they are progressive women who are energizing a diverse coalition. The ground game Saturday was stellar, a reflection of Rep. Murphy herself who has appeared confident, competent, and charismatic.
In terms of issues, health care is one of the most important of our time, and Rep. Murphy is a supporter of Senator John Marty’s Minnesota Health Plan, the strongest position among the DFL candidates on that issue. Yes, dozens of Minnesota legislators did support the MHP before Rep. Murphy did — a point that could legitimately be made by earlier adopters like Rep. Tina Liebling if they were so inclined.
But with that said, we are where we are, and Rep. Murphy supports the MHP now. The Minnesota Nurses’ Association, one of Rep. Murphy’s most important sources of support, is leading the way with Sen. Marty on single-payer health care, including in the streets, and they will have plenty to say about how a Murphy administration approaches the issue. If explained correctly, this position should help Team Murphy reach farmers, business owners, young people, and union members across greater Minnesota.
And, not for nothing, when Erin Murphy dances on stage it feels real, not forced or self-involved. I’ll be honest, that’s a refreshing look from a politician. Her speaking style on the radio I find effective and accessible as well.
All of these things will help Democrats in August and November.
The reservation about Representative Murphy among clean water advocates is that, in our minds, there are Democrats who address the Glencore/PolyMet threat directly, and there are Democrats who have sought to avoid and suppress it as a legitimate political priority. Rep. Murphy has, in the not distant past, seemed to be in the latter camp. Campaign volunteers have at times been dismissive of the issue on the phone, and the official line from the campaign is the “process” response, which advocates recognize as a means to say as little as possible on the issue, whatever its level of importance.
While we don’t agree with that strategy, of course, we can at least understand why it appears attractive in the short term. Choosing between a difficult political choice, and a catastrophic issue position, is a terrible place to be, and it is for that reason that I do have sympathy for people like State Chair Ken Martin (who should also be congratulated along with many others on a superbly run convention). The problem with the “process” approach, though, at least for the increasing number of voters who prioritize this issue, is that it does not address the legitimate concerns people have with the process itself, how it has failed, and how it will likely fail again. Plenty more to say about that, to be sure.
To their credit, though, Team Murphy started having this conversation with clean water advocates before the convention, and a commitment to continuing the conversation was made, making her a much easier second choice for delegates and someone we can hope to work with. There are, it should also be said, highly committed members of Team Murphy who are also highly fluent on Glencore/PolyMet and the threat those foreign billionaires pose, which gives me some comfort.
Does any of this guarantee that Rep. Murphy will be a friend of Lake Superior as Governor? Of course not — but we know enough to know that’s not how politics works. Issue advocacy is accomplished through good work on deeply felt positions. Political advocacy is accomplished through evolving power and relationships. My view is that based on what we know today there is room to work with the Murphy campaign, and I for one am encouraged by that.
I think it’s okay to be encouraged once in a while.
Speaking of which, all of our Duluth Mayor and legislators have endorsed Team Murphy, as have AFSCME, MNA, TakeAction, and many other organizations who are prominent in Duluth and statewide politics. These players don’t always prioritize our watershed the way we do, and that has been frequently disappointing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a priority for them at all. Perhaps I’m suffering from a moment of giddiness in the wake of an extremely active convention that will have me looking foolish sometime in the future, but for now it is a pleasure and frankly relief to be sharing a direct commonality of electoral interest with these folks. I hope that proves to be more than a blip.
All of this is to say, I think the meaningful support of Team Murphy shown by clean water advocates at the convention should be considered by my clean water friends for the longer term as well. Firm commitments on an issue that we consider an existential threat to our communities are desired, understandably, but we should also consider the advantages that that an energized Murphy campaign — which can progress on the water issue — may offer.
In any case, that’s where we’re at. The Erins are endorsed by the body, and the clean water delegates helped accomplish that. Glencore/PolyMet is an unacceptable threat to our precious water, and no political convention or alliance is going to change that core position. The best first option moving forward is to find ways to work together with Team Murphy while we continue our staunch issue organizing in parallel.
A note about the Walz/Flanagan campaign. For the good things that may be said about Tim Walz, he has adopted — many assume directly — Rick Nolan’s approach to the Glencore/PolyMet issue, which regrettably has rendered his campaign facially unacceptable to most clean water voters. His convention strategy in Rochester reflected one of noise and brute force — a notable contrast with the positivity of the Murphy campaign — alienating many who were not wearing yellow. The core union support for the Walz campaign, in contrast to that of Rep. Murphy, tends to be from those who are the most vocally in support of the dangerous Glencore/PolyMet proposal — and that proposal, it should be said, in its best incarnation would tear up thousands of acres of critical habitat and of wetlands which currently serve as a carbon sink. (PolyMet’s proposal is not, as Rick Nolan has unbelievably suggested, a “climate solution,” it’s a climate catastrophe, and that’s the best case scenario.) US Senate candidate Richard Painter has it right. Glencore cannot be trusted under any circumstance. If they are given a foothold here, it will be “all bottled water and chain link fence” in Northern Minnesota. Tim Walz needs to abandon this marriage to have any hope of earning the enthusiastic support of clean water Democrats, and, more and more every day, Minnesota Democrats in general.
The unity path forward is to respect all communities, including those downstream, and the promise there is in the Flanagan portion of the ticket. Peggy Flanagan is a popular and progressive state representative, remarkably positive, and a staunch defender of wild rice and the sulfate standard which Glencore/PolyMet seeks to weaken — a matter to which she brings particular credibility as a woman of indigenous heritage. At this point I see her presence on the ticket as something to celebrate. In the event Walz does manage a primary victory in August, I suggest clean water folks will want to champion and promote Rep. Flanagan as co-governor.
[Update: Lori Swanson and Rick Nolan filed as well. To be clear, they may be able to buy some votes with TV money, but they are also an absolute non-starter for clean water voters and others. It will be a disaster for the DFL if that ticket succeeds in August.]
JT Haines is a lawyer, labor supporter, and clean water advocate in Duluth. A former union representative with AFSCME Council 65, JT is a volunteer organizer with Duluth for Clean Water and a member of its active committees. He has been writing about the PolyMet issue in Minnpost, the Duluth News Tribune, and on this blog since 2013.