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.
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 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.