Our View: Parties, stay out of nonpartisan races


The Minnesota GOP and DFL have been busy this spring, meeting virtually, considering candidates, and offering endorsements for the 2020 election. At least one local party nod was for a St. Louis County Board seat — and was just the latest in a years-long litany of inappropriate partisan picks in decidedly nonpartisan races.

Considering the growing political chasm across our nation — a divide reinforced and deepened at every turn by political parties that thrive by maintaining left-versus-right, conservative-versus-liberal, and us-versus-them narratives — 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 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 partisan political endorsements 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, school board members, or county commissioners beholden to a party platform or a DFL or Republican philosophy.

Disappointingly, partisan endorsements in nonpartisan races aren’t going away anytime soon in Minnesota, as both DFL Chairman Ken Martin and Republican Party of Minnesota Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan made clear in exclusive recent interviews with the News Tribune Opinion page.

“No race is really (nonpartisan),” Carnahan said by phone. “OK, yes, you could argue that municipal races and county commissioner races and things are nonpartisan, but they’re not really, right? Because everybody has a political leaning, no matter what they're running for. And then their leanings are manifested when those people are elected, once they get into positions and start acting.”

Politics plays an even larger role when politicians start seeking higher offices, Carnahan said. Lower, nonpartisan elected offices are often just a gateway. An early strong relationship with a party early can benefit candidates throughout their careers, she said.

“I don't necessarily agree that parties should stay out of it because parties are involved in every level of government, right? Each party is actively working to … build opportunities at these different levels of races. It’s just kind of a natural course.”

Martin agreed that local races, while technically nonpartisan, really aren’t.

“The idea that you’re going to bar politics from local government is sort of farcical,” Martin said in a seperate phone interview. “There’s no way, with a political body, that you’re going to avoid politics. (The DFL is) not just going to sort of take the high ground and say that because these are nonpartisan races the party shouldn’t be making endorsements. If the Republicans are doing it we’re going to do it. ...


“The reality is that people are bringing their own politics into these city council, school board, and other local races,” Martin further said. “The Republicans and conservatives in this country have been very deliberate about running candidates, recruiting and grooming and running candidates for local government offices, because they want to push their far-right agenda at those local government offices in really an unimpeded way. So for us as a Democratic Party, both nationally and in this state, we felt like we could not cede that ground anymore. We needed to be actively involved in recruiting and grooming and running candidates for local office.”

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 — don't take the time or do the work to consider the candidates, their stands, or their records. They rely instead, 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 News Tribune and many other newspapers also offer endorsements ahead of elections. But the goal is to better inform the electorate by sparking conversations about the issues. Space is provided for countering viewpoints.

Political parties, on the other hand, 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.

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