The expert versus the populist

The Minneapolis DFL primary for the U.S. House showcases a familiar political story line.

by Jason Stahl

Did you know that there is a political primary fast approaching?

There is a good chance you didn’t. Most returning students have so much going on at the beginning of the semester that a political primary usually does not take precedent in their schedules. I fell into this camp as an undergraduate, so I certainly cannot blame those of you not planning on voting in the primary Sept. 12.

Besides, students aren’t the only ones who tend to blow off primaries. Nationwide, turnout for primaries notoriously and consistently low.

There are a number of reasons for low turnout, but quite a lot of the time it can be attributed to the fact that primaries often are mere formalities with no significant contested races on the ballot.

However, the upcoming primary cannot be described as a mere formality. Rather, if you live in Minneapolis, you have an opportunity that comes around about once every 20 years – an opportunity to elect a new U.S. representative.

The seat is so reliably Democratic that incumbents tend to make a career out of the office – getting re-elected handily for as long as they choose to stick around. Since 1963, only two Democratic representatives have held the U.S. House position representing Minneapolis (and a few surrounding suburbs).

With the current representative (Martin Sabo) retiring this year after 28 years in office, the election for the seat matters for the first time since 1979. The seat is essentially a “lifer” position for whoever wins the Democratic primary, which means that the primary – not the general election – is the contest that really matters. If this is not enough to interest you in the upcoming primary, you should also know that the race is an intensely hard-fought one which showcases a Minnesota Democratic tradition – the expert versus the populist.

Since as far back as the 1944 merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties (this is why the Democratic party in Minnesota is called the DFL), Minnesota liberals always have had a tough time deciding whether they want to elect studious (if boring) liberal technocrats or fiery populists who may not be versed in the finer points of policy but who have a visceral connection with their constituents.

Representing the first camp in the House race are Ember Reichgott Junge and, in particular, Mike Erlandson. Retiring Rep. Martin Sabo endorsed Erlandson early on in the campaign. This is not surprising given that Erlandson worked for Sabo for 19 years.

More than likely, however, Sabo saw in Erlandson a politician much like himself. They both have made careers in politics, entrenching themselves in policy and the innerworkings of government. But, neither is known for issuing fiery speeches or loudly speaking truths which many may not want to hear. In other words, they’re technocrats.

On the populist side, the Minneapolis DFL chose to endorse Keith Ellison – a fiery orator with four years of legislative experience in the Minnesota State House.

Granted, Ellison was a lawyer with experience in grassroots political organizing before he was elected to this position and has been very active in the House fighting Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s conservative agenda, so to say he is not versed in policy is simply wrong.

But, his experience with the levers of government falls short of Erlandson’s. In his speeches and connections with the grassroots, however, Ellison clearly trumps Erlandson.

So who to vote for – the expert or the populist?

Such a question ultimately depends on what Democrats think we need at this point in time in our nation’s history.

Right now, we live in a nation which is engaged in a disastrous war, which tortures people as a matter of policy, and one in which the chief executive has stated that he can ignore the will of the legislative branch of government, among other affronts to our democracy.

Now is not the time to elect another polite career politician who passively participates in the political process.Instead, I think the fiery orator with a strong connection to all of his constituents is precisely what we need. I’ll be voting for the populist on Sept. 13. I hope you will too.

For more information about voting in the primary including Election Day registration, visit:


Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].