Greg Laden: Lessons from the Minnesota Senate Race

January 9, 2009

You already know that the race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman for Senator in Minnesota has been vitriolic, close, and ultimately, required a recount that has only just ended. I experienced the Minnesota Senate Race firsthand, as a campaign volunteer, a recount volunteer, and as a member of an on the spot (if not always on the scene) cadre of dedicated bloggers and abloggers (See footnote). Comrade Physioprof has asked me to contribute to his Guest Blog Bacchanal by saying a few words about that experience.

Many lessons worthy of attention arose from this process, lessons that would be of value to anyone interested in American politics. These are lessons that go beyond the smaller ones such as what is the best way to carry five different kinds of literature printed on slippery paper, a couple of pens, a clipboard, and a stack of neighborhood maps while going door to door to convince people to vote for your guy, or how to get off the phone when calling prospective voters and you come across the occasional very, very lonely person who will just not let you go.

For instance, one learns that the degree of knowledge about a topic … such as the subtle and not so subtle legalities and procedural aspects of the recount process … is utterly unrelated to the selection process for political commentators at the national level. The usual panoply of pundits was tapped by Chris Matthews, Katie Couric, all of them, to discuss this rather complicated and important procedure, yet never once did I see even an inkling of evidence that these commentators knew even the smallest bit about the actual, on-the-ground situation.

One of the most important–and likely enduring–lessons, though, was just how similar Democrats and Republicans can be in their points of view, yet still remain so very, very far away from each other, mainly because of a small number of hot button issues, and how religion, in particular, fits (or does not fit) in their politics.

Our first real cold snap accompanied the first days of the physical recount process, and I had to park on the top floor of the Anoka County Courthouse Ramp (oh, in Minnesota, a multi-tiered parking garage is called a “ramp”) and suffer the gale force winds that always seem to be slipstreaming just overhead here in America’s Flatland. I ended up walking into the stairway at the same time as a very tense-looking woman who had parked nearby in the lonely ramp. Since I’m a big scary dude, and we were in the stairway that led to the jail, the courthouse, the county Drug Rehab Center and several other offices likely to attract dangerous people (such as lawyers, prison guards, and health care workers) she could not help but eye me suspiciously. So I told her right way, “Oh, hi. I’m a volunteer for the recount. Do you know where that is?”

And sure enough, for the next several rather confusing turns through gerbil tubes, additional stairways, and unmarked hallways, she was able to point me in the correct direction. I got the feeling she was following me, because she was always just behind me at every turn, yet every time I tried to converse politely she would half scowl and half turn away. Turns out, she was the election supervisor for the county’s second largest city, and was probably unsure whether it was OK to talk to one of the partisans.

The tension that accompanied that walk was to be found multiplied at the recount location. This was a courtroom separated from a gallery or lobby sort of room by a glass wall. The counting would be done in the courtroom, and access to that room was restricted. Everyone not allowed in the courtroom was to wait in the lobby. This meant that volunteers working for the Franken campaign and the Coleman campaign were to be rubbing elbows for several hours a day for the next several days.

So, I signed in, verified that I had undergone Recount Training, and got my creds. The rest of the day was spent waiting for the occasional chance to dive into action. Which, in turn, consisted of watching two election officials count ballots. Which is significantly less interesting than watching corn grow. Then you go back to waiting again.

As you can imagine, conversations happen. Like the “social bouquets” of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, clusters of Democrats and clusters of Republicans formed in the lobby, except in one area where there were extra chairs and extra donuts. That became a larger cluster of mixed breed.

So I recognized one guy, an older man who was on disability whom I’ll call Moe. Moe was a member of the Masons and the Shriners, a habitual volunteer for numerous causes, a socially moderate, fiscally conservative, union-supporting Democrat who lived not far from me, and whom I originally met to give him a ride to recount training. He was hanging out with another guy who was also a party activist. That was Larry. Both had run for and occasionally held minor offices, both were working class, both seemed like generally good guys, and we got talking. As we did so, we found ourselves including in the conversation a man standing near us, who eventually joined in.

At first, we were talking about the economy, and early in the conversation the fourth man’s credentials (the creds are all hanging around our respective necks) fell into view, and we suddenly realized that he was a Republican.

He was smaller than the rest of us, spritely and shiny of completion, almost elven. I imagined him a middle school social studies teacher or perhaps a salesman in the Sears furniture section. His name was Rex.

“Oh, isn’t that interesting that we are all kind of agreeing on this issue, yet we represent both parties,” someone noted.

Hmm….

So we went on to the next topic, which was transportation. Everybody liked more public transit.

“Hey, Republican guy,” Moe said, “how come your governor (Republican Tim Pawlenty) does not like public transit? You gotta fix that.”

“Well, not all Republicans are the same you know…,” was his ingenuous response, but he smiled as he said it, so we let it pass.

Then we went on to the next topic: energy. Here we had a diversity of opinions regarding alternative energy development, drilling for oil, and so on. But the breakdown of opinions was nothing like one would expect, and once again, we marveled at the overlap and interconnectedness of opinions held by Republicans vs. Democrats.

“Hey, why are you are Republican anyway? We’re all agreeing more or less on all these topics; you should just join us,” one of my fellow Democrats said.

And then the next topic, and more agreement. And so on and so forth for a total of about forty-five minutes, during which time we chatted, always half watching the counters counting the ballots beyond the glass wall, always ready for a signal that it was time to get off the bench and go in to observe, and so on and so forth.

And then the other shoe dropped.

“Well, there is one thing that I can’t go along with, and this is probably why I’m a Republican. Abortion. It’s murder. It’s murdering children. I don’t like that.”

“OK, I don’t like it either” Larry immediately intoned. “But I lean pro-choice anyway. We should be able to work together to limit the number of abortions without being morons about it politically.”

Our Republican friend winced noticeably.

“Right. Like healthy, progressive sex education in grade schools,” I said. Foot in mouth.

I had already noted that Rex had taken a step backwards as he intoned his opinion about abortion. With this new comment, he took a more decisive step away from us, and turned a bit. Turned a bit red, actually.

“Being a Democrat does not mean pro- vs. anti-choice. We’re diverse,” noted Moe, helpfully, hopefully.

“It’s murder…,” noted Rex again, mumbling, a half step father away. “You can’t be a man of Christ and support it or anything having to do with it. We’re a Christian society and should act that way.”

“Well, I’m a religious man,” proudly stated Moe, “but we can have differences and still deal with this issue. And not everybody is a Christian, you know.”

“I’m not” stated Larry, plainly.

“Not what?”

“Not religious. I’m a godless atheist!” Larry smiled, literally sticking his thumbs in his suspenders (oh, he was wearing suspenders and a red flannel shirt) and rocking a bit back on his heels. “Total godless atheist.”

Rex was another step away, looking at the floor. His bright and shiny face was no longer as shiny. His boyish camaraderie slipped away from his countenance.

“Me too,” I helpfully added. “A moral, ethical atheist with no need for pink unicorns!” reaching for my suspenders with my thumbs but finding none there….

With this, Rex was now standing decidedly away from us, but not away enough to be not part of the conversation. He had floated over to the big window and was looking at the vote counting. I thought I saw a tear in his eye but then realized it was just the reflection of Secretary of State Ritchie who was just passing through to check on things.

“Yeah, I’ve had enough religion to fill a lifetime,” noted Larry. “Catholic. Ex-Catholic, actually.”

I could see the “Oh, boy” look on Rex’s face, visible to me now as a reflection in the courtroom window, as he was now a full eight feet off to the side. I had not seen him make that last move.

And of course, only one thing could follow Larry’s comment, as Rex squared off with his shoulders now perpendicular to the direction of the sound waves coming from our social bouquet. Only one thing … the telling of the Catholic priest jokes (by Larry).

The one that starts, “This priest and a nun were traveling in the middle of the desert and all of a sudden the camel died….”

Rex was a couple of more feet away.

The one that ends “…the priest hands the lady $1 and says, ‘Lady, take this money, and for God’s sake, go buy yourself a razor!'”

Rex was now sitting in an isolated chair near the donuts.

The one where when the substitute priest asks, “‘What does the priest give you boys for blowjobs?’ and the altar boy replies….”

Rex was now praying, silently, for our souls.

Now, I have to admit that I found Larry to be a bit too crude, and I found Moe to be a bit too conservative, and I agreed with Rex on as many major issues as I did with the others. The lesson I learned was that Democrats are incredibly diverse. This was not the only conversation I had with fellow Democrats during this process, but one of dozens, and it was not really a new lesson for me, as I’ve been having these conversations since I was a lad in a politically active family of Democrats. But it is a lesson one always wants to review.

The other lesson is this: Republicans who are not Republicans merely because they are wealthy are often locked into a very narrow range of issues, which in turn are very often linked to a religious justification. By having these issues linked to religion, political views more generally may be so linked for these individuals. Which is why, so often in the early days of the 2008 campaign when I was making cold calls … phone calls to people who might or might not be sympathetic to a non-white upstart Democrat running for Congress in a middle to upper privileged suburb (these calls were for candidate Ash Madia), I had so many nasty experiences.

The outcome of the recount will probably be this: Franken will be seated as senator, people will be mad at Coleman and somewhat less mad at Franken for drawing the process out, and Minnesota will be placed on the Political Punditry Trophy Shelf along side Florida for its lousy voting system. The truth, as such, will be disregarded. Minnesota has an excellent voting system, and we did not fuck up the recount. But at a much more local lesson … local, like in houses and parks and grocery stores and such in small towns like the one I live in and even the big city that I wish I lived in … there was this interesting experience of thousands of party activists being stuck in bipartisan herds for hours and hours and days and days at a time, where every individual wore a badge indicating their party affiliation.

This does not happen every day.

__________________

Footnote 1: The blogging team to which I refer consists of Stephanie Zvan, who blogs at Almost Diamonds, is versed economics and finance and is a science fiction writer. Thanks Stephanie for looking over this post. Mike Haubrich, who blogs at Tangled Up in Blue Guy and Clashing Cultures, and who is is an activist atheist. Stephanie and Mike share duties as the Voice of the Minnesota Atheists Talk radio show. A third person, my long-time friend and confidant, Analiese Miller, was directly involved in the recount in several different ways and has always been a local activist. Ana has been feeding me information about this process from the beginning.

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12 Responses to “Greg Laden: Lessons from the Minnesota Senate Race”


  1. […] Laden of Greg Laden’s Blog posts on Lessons From The Minnesota Senate Race. Greg has been the go-to guy on the continuing saga of the Franken-Coleman recount, and we are […]

  2. emerich Says:

    You said: “The other lesson is this: Republicans who are not Republicans merely because they are wealthy are often locked into a very narrow range of issues, which in turn are very often linked to a religious justification.” I think you are profoundly wrong about that. Many, perhaps most, republicans are republican because they believe that human beings have their best shot at being happy and productive if they have a maximum of freedom, subject to laws protecting life and property–the product of their labor. Further, they tend to believe that power tends to corrupt, and that as government grows more people spend more time trying to manipulate government than in doing productive things. As a result, society becomes politicized, less innovative, more wasteful, and its citizens less self-reliant and independent. They believe that if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul, but society isn’t necessarily made better. I would suggest that the history of the 20th century, among other things, strongly bears out the truth of these principles and beliefs. (U.S. vs. Soviet Union, North & South Korea, National Socialism (and other fascism of all stripes), Hong Kong & Taiwan vs. China, the culture of dependency in welfare states, etc. etc.) I might add that good science is far more likely to flourish in an environment of freedom, especially from political interference, than in an environment where projects are approved and funded by the government. And here I would concede that both republicans and democrats have politicized science.

  3. Greg Laden Says:

    emerich: You are not operating in the same universe I’m in, clearly. There is not even a tiny fragment of your description of Republicans that applies to real life. You must be thinking of something else.


  4. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!! Yeah, what Greg said. I mean seriously, Emerich, have you tried reading what you wrote and applying to, like, the *actual* deployment of Republican political power in the *actual* United States of America? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  5. So what constitutes “Recount Training”. Do you have to prove that you can count higher than 10 more than once without missing a number?

  6. Greg Laden Says:

    PIT: Good question. There are two main over factors and one covert factor.

    Overt factor 1: You need to know the lay of the land so that you will be familiar and not at sea when you show up, so you are briefed on the physical layout, the overall procedure, and the rules of behavior.

    Overt factor 2: You need to know how to make a challenge, and what challenges to make and not make, and how to fill out the attending paperwork.

    The first part of training involved a pep talk in a big room with Al Franken as well as Josh from the West Wing (well, the actor) and some other famous guy that I did not know. The second part of training involved smaller breakout groups in which people asked questions, posed scenarios, and practiced with dummy ballots.

    The covert part: We were selected from a carefully culled list. In fact, one of the professional Party Staffers who had been sent here to work on one of the congressional campaigns was put in charge of this part. You don’t want people sneaking in from the other side, so we volunteers were essentially invited to be volunteers. Most of us (all of us)? Had given money to a campaign, had been to a fund raiser or two, had spent several hours volunteering for a campaign (no necessarily Frankens, but a Democrat) and perhaps there was even more of a filtering process than that. In any event, we were skimmed off a list of activist volunteers currently working for Obama/Franken/Congressional and State candidates.

  7. Miss Outlier Says:

    I agree with emerich – I am Republican because I believe nearly exactly as he wrote. However I agree that the application of those principles by the Republican party has sadly failed of late.

    One of my labmates was involved in the Obama campaign in New Hampshire, and it was interesting to hear his experiences as well. Thanks for sharing yours!

    Does the covert part bother you,?


  8. I agree with emerich – I am Republican because I believe nearly exactly as he wrote. However I agree that the application of those principles by the Republican party has sadly failed of late.

    OF LATE!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?!?!? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You mean “since infinity”????????!!!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAAHAHAHHAAHHAHHHHHHHHHHHAHAHAHAHAH!

  9. Stephanie Z Says:

    Miss Outlier, why would the vetting be a problem? Both campaigns needed to make sure that they had representation at the recount that would show up and not be working for the other guy. Someone with a history of volunteering had demonstrated both.

    Objectivity in a recount is guaranteed by a balance of partisanship, not by trying to find nonpartisans to do the work. Each ballot was reviewed by an election judge, a Coleman representative and a Franken representative. Where they didn’t all agree, the ballot was then reviewed by a commission of people elected with the endorsement of or appointed by representatives of three parties.

    So why covert? Greg may have more insight, but really, do you want to be telling someone, “I’m sorry, but it’s a bit late in this election cycle to get involved in the process”? You never discourage participation.

  10. Greg Laden Says:

    Does the covert part bother you,?

    Yes it bothers me a lot that there was a real threat that Republicans would try to sneak in and mess up the process.

    BTW, covert is probably not the best word (though it did rhyme with “overt” … I’m just saying that being in the right camp was a factor and there was a way to deal with it.

    That was also setup for something else that I did not say because the post was getting too long: Even though Franken and Coleman got almost exactly the same number of votes, Franken has about 400% more volunteers than Coleman did and a higher percentage of the professional operatives (I’ve heard) for Coleman were from out of state than for Franken.

    How do get the same number of votes but have only a fourth of the number of voluteers on the rouster? Being more selective as to who can volunteer? (more “covert” in the sense above? Maybe those votes were not as real and the whole election was faked? Maybe your grass roots are dried up and shriveled? (That being the most likely explanation.)

  11. DFW inna howz!!! Says:

    Where’s DMI? Where’s CapnMod? This partay is not complete!!

  12. JLK Says:

    It’s like I’ve returned to the party too late, only to find that everyone had already had more than their fair share of some motherfucking Jameson, and are all passed out on couches and floorspace.

    I read Emerich’s comment yesterday, but didn’t want to be the first person to call him out on the carpet for his bullshit. So now I’m like the pipsqueak kid in a pack of bullies shrieking “Yeah! What THEY said!” from behind the group.

    Emerich said: “Many, perhaps most, republicans are republican because they believe that human beings have their best shot at being happy and productive if they have a maximum of freedom, subject to laws protecting life and property–the product of their labor.”

    The problem is that there is a consistent undertone of Social Darwinism in Republican thought. A belief that the problems in this country are always the fault of the people who suffer from those problems. The belief that the homeless are homeless because they’re “too fucking lazy to get a job” rather than the fact that it was the idea of limited government that closed mental health facilities, forcing people out on to the streets where they had to fend for themselves. It is their idea of limited government and fiscal conservativism that allows veterans of war to live under bridges in the freezing mid-winter.

    Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you will, but the idea of “every man for himself” has never resulted in long-term prosperity for any society.


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