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Our View: Keep parties out of nonpartisan races

They're gathering this morning in Duluth, political hopefuls and those up for re-election, all of them angling to win DFL Party endorsements.

The problem is that these candidates and incumbents attending a DFL convention inside Lincoln Park Middle School are running for nonpartisan positions on the Duluth City Council and Duluth School Board.

And with the growing chasm across our nation — a divide reinforced and deepened at every turn by political parties that thrive from maintaining a left-vs.-right, conservative-vs.-liberal, us-vs.-them narrative — partisan intrusion into nonpartisan local races can be soundly rejected.

We can call on the DFL and Minnesota Republicans to step back from where they don't appropriately belong, even if the First Amendment protects their right to be there. And we can call on the candidates to resist even the semblance of a desire for party support for positions outside of party affiliation. Such political nods separate rather than in any way unify; they muddy rather than offer clarity.

We can do so because, as Orange County, Calif., activist Shirley Grindle argued in 2001 in the Los Angeles Times, "There is no Democrat or Republican way to build a park, fill a pothole or rezone property. Partisan politics obscures the issues that every city council member and county supervisor must wrestle with. ... Solutions to (local) issues are not found in the platforms of political parties, for these are issues that cut across all party lines and are primarily outside the purview of political philosophy.

"We cannot afford to let local issues be decided on the basis of partisan politics, partisan fundraising and party registration."

In other words, voters casting ballots in nonpartisan races ought to be able to expect nonpartisan elected officials, not councilors and school board members beholden to a party platform or a DFL or Republican philosophy.

Is it appropriate for political parties to endorse in nonpartisan races? The News Tribune Opinion page this week put that question to up-for-re-election City Councilor Zack Filipovich, who plans to make his pitch at the DFL convention this morning.

"I'm not sure if I'm going to answer that," he replied. "That could be easily twisted to be one way or the other."

Winning the DFL Party endorsement, Filipovich said, even though the Duluth City Council is a nonpartisan elected body, "is about making sure folks know, just by three letters, DFL, by that endorsement, that this is where some of my values are. It's kind of that recognition, if you will, of where those DFL values are. I see endorsements as relationships, whether the beginning or continuation of relationships."

There's little secret why Duluth-area and Northland candidates seek relations with the DFL. They do so for the same reason Republican endorsements are sought in conservative strongholds: 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, and far too often, on what's fed to them by whichever party vaguely aligns with their view of the world — or with their parents' view.

The timing of today's DFL Duluth endorsement convention is curious. The filing period for candidates doesn't even close for another 80 days, on Aug. 22. What if a better candidate emerges between now and then?

"That does happen," Kelli Latuska, chairwoman of the Duluth DFL, told the Opinion page this week. But the endorsement timing is specified in her organization's constitution.

As for endorsing in nonpartisan races, "The party decides to do that based on its platform and its values and the issues it wants to support in order to remain viable in the community," Latuska said. "I personally think it's appropriate because other groups, special-interest groups, endorse in those races. In order to maintain our viability as a party, we need to keep our fingers on the pulses of those races. ... This area's DFL members tend to think of ourselves as a grassroots system. We have an interest, no matter how small the race is."

The News Tribune, of course, also offers endorsements in elections, especially local races. But the newspaper isn't partisan and consistently has endorsed Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The support goes to the candidate best for the position and is made only after extensive research and interviewing, whether that's conducted one-on-one or via a public candidate forum.

Newspaper endorsements are a proud tradition and a longstanding public service. They're intended to spark conversations about candidates and the issues.

Rather than telling anyone who to vote for, the News Tribune's endorsements, determined by the editorial board, provide information and offer an opinion. The newspaper then provides space for others to offer their own views on the races, the candidates, and how best to run our communities' governing bodies. The goal is a better-informed electorate.

Political parties, by simply attaching their letter to a candidate's name — R or D (or, in Minnesota, DFL) — and then expecting their members to rubberstamp the pick, can't say the same. In local races, the parties only make partisan what are and what need to remain nonpartisan elections. The parties can stay out.