Students will be the driving force as Democrats try to replace U.S. Sen. Rod Grams next year, DFL candidates said Saturday at the annual College Democrats of Minnesota convention.
DFL candidates for the U.S. Senate told about 50 students from more than 10 colleges that their support is vital in the topsy-turvy world of Minnesota politics.
“Who would have thought that a Humphrey would lose in Minnesota,” said Ken Martin, campaign manager for former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug. Lillehaug is vacationing and could not attend the convention at Coffman Union.
“If anybody can tell me they’ve got Minnesota politics figured out, tell me in a hurry,” said state DFL chairman Mike Erlandson, the youngest state chairman in recent history. Erlandson, casually dressed in jeans and colorful high-top sneakers, stressed the importance of getting youth more involved in Minnesota politics.
State Sen. Jerry Janezich, DFL-Chisholm, who is considering a run for the Senate seat, said student’s support for Jesse Ventura in 1998 made the difference in the gubernatorial election.
“What we should have learned last time is that we weren’t listening to you,” Janezich told the students.
University physician and associate professor Steve Miles agreed.
“I don’t think it was so much a vote for Jesse as a vote for ‘none of the above,'” he said. “They didn’t speak to you with their tobacco smoke and stadiums.”
Most students attending the college DFL convention wore buttons and stickers for Senate candidates David Lillehaug or Steve Miles. But this didn’t necessarily indicate unwavering support.
Miles said he had recruited many students wearing Lillehaug stickers to his campaign.
Outgoing College Democrats of Minnesota Chairwoman Amber Wobschall said she and many other students weren’t yet ready to make up their minds. Others wanted to learn more about state Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, who announced his candidacy Wednesday.
Kelley, along with Minneapolis trial lawyer Michael Ciresi and frequent candidate Dick Franson, did not attend Saturday’s forum.
But winning students over could be the key to winning DFL endorsement and the state primary, DFL officials said.
“Candidates need to appeal to the young demographic,” said Kevin Nicholson, a junior in political science who is taking a semester off college to chair the College Democrats of America in Washington, D.C.
Courting the youth vote has two steps, Nicholson said. Candidates must campaign using the Internet and other technology more popular with students, he said. They also must address issues more relevant to younger voters.
“This is really about getting youth involved and keeping them involved,” Wobschall said.
All candidates stressed that campaign finance reform is critical to democracy.
“It’s very sick that David (Lillehaug) has to come into the office every day and rattle his tin cup,” Martin said. “We can’t have him out talking to people because he has to raise money.”
Janezich said the estimated $3 million required to be competitive for a Senate seat is preventing quality candidates from running.
When he asked how many students were considering a future run for public office, about 10 students raised their hands. But when asked how many planned to be millionaires, none did.
“All they ask me is, ‘Can you raise the money?'” Janezich said. “Don’t let them take that opportunity away from you.”
But while Miles supports campaign finance reform, he said money doesn’t rule Minnesota politics. Ventura and U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone both won campaigns in which they were vastly outspent, Miles said.
Other issues, including health insurance and lifelong education, are priorities for Miles.
“All of our systems were designed for Archie Bunker,” Miles said, referring to an insurance program based on the traditional nuclear family.
In addition to vowing to change the health insurance system by introducing comprehensive health coverage for every American, Miles also said he supports lifelong learning.
“You are all getting a great education — those of you who go to class,” he said. “But the education you get today you will have to get again in 15 years.”
Janezich, a northern Minnesota bar owner, would also support lowering the drinking age to 19 years old. The current drinking age of 21 is a joke, he said.
“Unless we’re all living in a closet, if you want it, you get it, you do it,” Janezich said.
Tammy J. Oseid welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3218.