Tom West: Loyalty at issue in DFL primary battle

Is the Minnesota DFL about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? So far, the party has been downplaying the primary contest under way between Attorney General Mike Hatch, a Duluth native, and state Sen. Becky Lourey, well known in this area ...

Is the Minnesota DFL about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? So far, the party has been downplaying the primary contest under way between Attorney General Mike Hatch, a Duluth native, and state Sen. Becky Lourey, well known in this area because she lives in nearby Kerrick.

The contest is a classic one in which the practical wing of the party surrenders some of its fervor for a candidate in favor of electability, while the ideological wing holds true to its passions.

Hatch is thought to be the practical candidate. Indeed, he is the only statewide officeholder that the DFL has today.

However, his support within the DFL is hardly universal. Even though he now has the gubernatorial endorsement and has been leading in some polls against incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Hatch burned a number of bridges when he left his position as Department of Commerce commissioner in 1990 to challenge the man who appointed him, DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich. Perpich was attempting re-election to a third term.

The charges of disloyalty were profound, and Hatch has been held at arm's length ever since in heavily-DFL northeastern Minnesota. He may have grown up in Duluth, but he turned on the only governor the Iron Range has ever produced -- and acknowledging that only worsens the eternal tension between Duluth and the Range.


While Lourey isn't from the Range, she's still from further north than any governor this state has had except Perpich. Hatch lives in the Twin Cities and in his adult years has had about as much connection to Duluth as Bob Dylan.

In addition, Lourey is thought to be one of the most liberal members of the Minnesota Senate, and the liberal wing of the party is still supporting her. An announcement was sent out this week that a fund-raiser would be held for her July 29 at Chester Creek Cafe. A dozen well-known liberal activists including St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O'Neil, Deb Ortman, Gary Kohls, Will Rhodes and Pat McNulty were listed in the press release as supporting Lourey.

So, as rank-and-file party members weigh this race, loyalty in a sense becomes key. Is it more loyal to support the endorsed candidate who once was disloyal or to support the challenger who is more loyal to the party's liberal principles?

Part of the equation for DFLers also includes the others in the race. Three months ago, with President Bush's approval ratings sinking fast, it looked like a DFL landslide was in the offing. Many Minnesotans continue to question the game plan for the Iraq War. Corruption scandals in Washington, hurricane relief and other issues made the Democrats look like sure winners this fall.

Now, however, Bush has stabilized. He's being helped along by a roaring economy that not even higher interest rates seem to dampen. Pawlenty, cut from the same economic cloth as Bush, held the line against tax increases when the state faced a $4.5 billion deficit when he took office in 2003. The dividend from that approach is paying off now as tax revenues are surging. Thus, even if it will be a Democratic year, nothing is going to come easily.

Meanwhile, for the third gubernatorial election in a row, the Independence Party has put forth a qualified candidate, Peter Hutchinson. Hutchinson may not be as well known as Jesse Ventura or Tim Penny, but in public policy circles he is considered a bright, creative guy.

The Independence Party continues to seek the voting center. The party believes that most voters are less ideological than the conservative and liberal extremes of the two major parties. To them, the eight-day government shutdown a year ago revealed the stubborn extremism of the Democrats and Republicans. Good government it was not.

And that takes us back to the Democrats. Do DFLers hang with Hatch in hopes of capturing more of the center? Or do they follow Lourey's lead, hoping that the liberals' enthusiasm for her will carry the day?


Many Hatch supporters say Lourey "can't win" statewide, but that tag is also Hutchinson's anchor. He has to shed it, and that opportunity can only come if Pawlenty plays to his conservative base and the DFL swings to Lourey, opening up the moderate middle.

If Lourey begins to make headway, even if Hatch survives the primary, he will have spent some of his precious time, money and energy on fending her off. While most Lourey supporters would then go to Hatch by default, the passion for Hatch would not be there.

If history is any guide, the DFL should win this election, but the way the gubernatorial race is shaping up, nothing is guaranteed.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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