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8th District DFLers will meet in forum

Clockwise from upper left: Joe Radinovich, Michelle Lee, Leah Phifer, Jason Metsa

Five weeks from its convention, the 8th Congressional District DFL party endorsement process is stirring.

The five candidates in the running to replace retiring incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan — both as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party nominee and possibly in Congress — have agreed to meet each other at a forum in early April.

The candidates will convene at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet on April 4 from 6-9 p.m. The event is sponsored by House District 11A DFLers and the district party.

"It's a done deal," said 11A chair Dan Reed, whose district encompasses Carlton County and parts of northern Pine and southern St. Louis counties.

The event is being billed as a "meet the candidates"-style forum. More details about the mechanics of the event are still being worked out.

"All candidates are on board," Reed added.

Leah Phifer of Isanti, Kirsten Hagen Kennedy of North Branch, Joe Radinovich of Crosby, Michelle Lee of Moose Lake and Jason Metsa of Virginia will be vying for the 8th District DFL endorsement at the convention in Duluth on April 14.

Most see the path to endorsement as a five-week race to convince and win over delegates. The candidates are all busy attending county and house district conventions, which are currently unfolding in rapid succession across the district's 18 counties. Everything unfolding smoothly and yielding a clear-cut DFL candidate would uphold the sanctity of the party endorsement process, sources said.

"There are many in the party that believe in the endorsement as an important part of being a DFLer," Reed said — a sentiment later echoed by some of the DFL candidates.

Others surveyed by the News Tribune wondered aloud if a primary was in the offing. Such could be the case if none of the five candidate reaches a majority-plus consensus at convention. Officially, a rules committee at the event will firm up what it will take precisely to reach consensus. In the past the requirement has been 60 percent.

"Will the DFL endorsement process end up endorsing anyone with five good candidates?" Lee asked.

The state's primary elections have been pre-scheduled for August 14. A stalemate at convention, or any of the candidates themselves, could trigger a primary in the 8th DFL race.

Phifer cautioned against any DFL candidates denying the endorsement and inciting a primary. She cited Republican challenger Pete Stauber of Hermantown as requiring the DFL's full attention.

"It's a great race with a lot of good candidates," she said of the DFL field. "I really sincerely hope that all candidates weigh heavily whether to go to a primary or not, because it will leave us weaker in the face of who the GOP candidate is — Pete Stauber."

Metsa believed a primary was less in the hands of candidates than delegates.

"The delegates are going to have to decide if they want to make an endorsement, or let it go to the primary," Metsa said. "Our campaign and supporters believe there is a path to an endorsement and it is why we are seeking it. Our folks are connecting with delegates every day and we believe our message is resonating. This seat is too important to lose and we must ensure that we are putting the strongest candidate forward to hold the seat, whether that is through the endorsement process or a primary."

Radinovich refrained from commenting on the process, while Kennedy said she would abide the party's endorsement.

"A primary is not in the best interest of anybody as far as I'm concerned," Kennedy said.

Primary critics say it draws important resources in order to pit DFLers against one another. Meanwhile, it allows other 8th candidates such as Stauber and Independence Party candidate Ray "Skip" Sandman of Duluth to campaign unfettered for the general midterm election in November.

But Lee argued that Nolan's retirement announcement in early February left newer candidates like herself a shorter time to prepare for the convention.

"Whether I receive the endorsement or not, we're looking at all options," she said.

Lee stopped short of insisting on a primary — "It's too early to make that decision," she said.

She added she thought the DFL party would come together just as well in August as it might in April.

"We would rally around the best candidate after primary is done," Lee said. "There is too much to lose."

Only Phifer among the DFLers brought a campaign into the new year. She launched hers last October.

She sounded eager to get on to the work of preparing for the November midterm.

She said of Stauber, who started campaigning last summer, "He has had several months now to build up strength and name recognition and if we're going to beat him we need to coalesce around our endorsed candidate in April."

Important Campaign 2018 dates

April 4 — 8th District DFL candidate forum, 6-9 p.m. at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet

April 14 — 8th Congressional District DFL convention, Holiday Inn in downtown Duluth

May 5 — 8th District GOP convention, Park Rapids High School

June 1-2 — State GOP convention, Duluth Entertainment Convention Center

June 1-3 — State DFL convention, Mayo Civic Center, Rochester

August 14 — Primary Election Day

Nov. 6 — General Election Day