The Student Legislative Coalition is under fire for excluding several candidates from the gubernatorial debate to take place Wednesday.
The 90-minute forum in the Ted Mann Concert Hall will feature five candidates: DFL State Auditor Judi Dutcher; Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick; Sen. Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine; Rep. Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan; and Republican businessman Brian Sullivan.
At least six major-party candidates will be missing from the stage. Gov. Jesse Ventura was invited but declined because he has not yet declared his candidacy. None of the four Green Party candidates, as well as DFL office-seeker Ole Savior, were invited to participate in the forum.
At the recommendation of the group’s attorney, Student Legislative Coalition executive director David Boyd said Tuesday he could not divulge the details of SLC’s candidate selection process because Green Party members have threatened to sue the SLC over candidate exclusion.
“We’ve gone to hell and back trying to make sure we’re doing this right,” Boyd said. He said SLC contacted the attorney general’s office, the secretary of state’s office, the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, the Internal Revenue Service, Independent Sector, the Alliance for Justice and the SLC’s own attorney – all to ensure they were following regulation.
“We didn’t look at party affiliation for any of the criteria,” Boyd said. “We just felt that if we got up in the range of 10 candidates on stage, we just weren’t going to get a substantiative event, something that’s really educational.”
Green Party candidates and supporters have accused the SLC of making up arbitrary, subjective criteria for selecting candidates. Some have also suggested those criteria didn’t even exist until weeks after candidates were chosen.
After speaking with representatives of both the SLC and the Greens, University election law professor David Schultz said he has questions about the forum’s legality.
As a nonprofit organization, he said, SLC might have violated IRS rules by not adhering to clear criteria for choosing candidates.
“If they are acting as an agent of the University, they may be engaging in viewpoint discrimination,” Schultz said. “Under the Constitution, government entities can’t discriminate based on viewpoints.”
There’s also a question of whether Boyd or others violated the SLC’s own bylaws, which require “the affirmative vote of at least six of the directors Ö for any action.”
After separate requests by Green Party activists and The Minnesota Daily, Boyd provided a list of three criteria. He said candidates needed to meet one of the specifications to be included.
First, a candidate could have “the name recognition to be a serious candidate.” This was gauged through an informal poll of “a network of friends,” Boyd said.
The second criterion was “the ability to raise the funds to be a serious candidate.” Boyd couldn’t elaborate on how they measured a candidate’s ability to raise funds but said he guessed the amount needed would be between $2 million and $5 million.
“That one’s a little harder to quantify,” Boyd said. “We know that the candidates that we invited have the ability to do that.”
Finally, a candidate could be included in the forum if, in a previous election, he or she received at least 15 percent of the vote, regardless of the office sought.
Before the criteria were requested earlier this month, no written policy existed for selecting participants, Boyd said. Although he could provide no meeting notes, Boyd said the SLC board of directors did approve a set of criteria, which were later revised.
“It looks like they’re kind of doing things on the fly here,” said Ken Pentel, who won the Green Party’s gubernatorial endorsement in 1998 and is seeking it again this year.
Boyd said the SLC will consider new criteria for future candidate forums. The organization plans to hold four more this fall, one on each of the University’s campuses. He said the new criteria might draw from the League of Women Voters’ standards, which call for including the endorsed candidate from all major parties, as well as any candidates polling 5 percent in an independent, statewide poll.