Republicans in Minnesota Try a New Line of Attack on a Socialist Candidate: She’s Not a Democrat!

A Minneapolis business group is trying to sink a socialist bid for city council by complaining she's not a Democrat. There's just one problem.

A portrait of Ginger Jentzen while she was out canvasing a neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesotaon October 20, 2017 . Jentzen, former director of 15 Now, a successful campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour in Minneapolis, is running for Minneapolis City Council Ward 3 as a member of Socialist Alternative. Photo by Jenn Ackerman@ackermangruber
A portrait of Ginger Jentzen while she was out canvasing a neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesotaon October 20, 2017 . Photo: Ackerman + Gruber for The Intercept

As voters go to the polls today in Minneapolis for a municipal election, the city could be poised to elect its first socialist candidate in nearly a century, as Ward’s 3 Socialist Alternative city council candidate Ginger Jentzen has run a robust and well-funded campaign.

Her campaign has brought the ire of Minneapolis’s big developers and wider business community, who have barraged the district with mailers attacking her as “nutty“; the business PAC Minneapolis Works! late last week started running ads featuring a baby with a set of matches, calling Jentzen “dangerous”:

Although Minneapolis City Council elections are technically nonpartisan, candidates are allowed to declare a party on the ballot. The mailer focuses heavily on the fact that Jentzen is running as a Socialist Alternative ticket candidate; two of her three opponents are running as Democrats. It notes that she has “rejected the DFL” (the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the state’s Democratic Party) and is not planning to caucus with them. The intent is clear: This is a Democratic ward, so why vote for someone who isn’t a Democrat?

The irony is, while the newly formed group is backing a number of conservative DFL candidates this election to try and prevent the city council from moving left, it has ties to the GOP.

Disclosures released last week show that the group paid $26,518 to the 1858 Group for “Polling/Consulting/Research.” Although the firm has virtually no web presence, Minnesota’s database of business disclosures reveal that it is headed by Mark H. Drake.

Drake is a long-time GOP-aligned operative who was previously the president of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition. MJC is credited as one of the groups that helped flip control of the state house from Democrats to Republicans. Drake formerly worked for a slew of high-level Minnesota Republicans, ranging from Tim Pawlenty to Norm Coleman. His Twitter page is replete with digs at DFL candidates.

Multiple requests for comment given to Drake were not returned at the time of publication.

Fundraising emails sent out before the election by local business figures asked donors to give to both Minneapolis Works! and the MJC; Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jonathan Weinhagen and developer Steve Minn cited both groups as worthy of their donors’ support. As local reporter Peter Callaghan notes, the latest disclosures do not show MJC transferring any funds to Minneapolis Works!, but they do not cover last-minute donations that will not be disclosed until after the election.

The candidate Minneapolis Works! is backing in Jentzen’s Ward, Tim Bildsoe, served as a nonpartisan city council member in Plymouth, Minnesota, but has faced accusations from Democrats of being sympathetic to the Republican Party. Although he is running as a Democrat in Tuesday’s election, in 2005, he served as the campaign chair for Republican Judy Johnson’s campaign for state Senate.

“I served for 16-years as a council member in a large suburban Minnesota city were (sic) party affiliation wasn’t asked or required. Over the years, I have supported candidates from both parties, basing my choices on their positions, not their party affiliation,” Bildsoe said to The Intercept in a statement. “Over the past 10 years, my positions have become centered in the Democratic (DFL) Party. I became increasingly active in the Minnesota DFL Party, culminating with my election in 2017 as a delegate to the DFL Ward and City Conventions. I have been warmly received by DFL party members, who recognize my experience in local government as an asset to Minneapolis and the DFL, and are well-supported by my actions and priorities. I welcome voters of the Minneapolis City Council Ward 3 to review my experience and positions at'”

Asked about his support for Johnson, spokesperson Steve Bonoff added, “Tim served as honorary chair for a Judy Johnson campaign more than a decade ago. Reflecting his changing views, Tim subseqouently publically (sic) supported a Johnson opponent, Terri Bonoff, DFL candidate for MN Senate and DFL candidate for US Congress. Terri Bonoff and Judy Johnson remain united in their support of Tim Bildsoe.”

At least one of Minneapolis Works!’s donors — Steve Minn, who sent the joint fundraising email for MJC’s legislative arm and Minneapolis Works! —  has also donated to Republicans in the past, backing GOP candidate Keith Downey in a House race. Downey is running for governor next year to try to end Democratic control of the state.

To be sure, a number of loyal Democrats have funded Minneapolis Works! as well. Former General Mills and Northwest Airline executive James A. Lawrence, donated $60,000 to the group’s operations.

But what Jentzen’s race shows is that while the group is citing party affiliation as a way to turn the ward’s DFL voters against her, it has no problem teaming up with a Republican-led firm to take her down.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Democrats and Republicans teamed up to defeat a socialist in Minneapolis. Historian David Paul Nord notes how the Democratic and Republican parties teamed up in the early 20th century to take on socialist Thomas Van Lear:

Frightened by Van Lear’s strong showing…Minneapolis Democrats and Republicans united to push through the 1911 legislative session a nonpartisan primary law. It provided that the two candidates receiving the highest vote totals in a nonpartisan June primary would be on the ballot in November. In 1912, the year of the first municipal election held under the new law, things at first went according to plan. The winners in the primary were Charles D. Gould, a Democrat, and Wallace G. Nye, a Republican. But Van Lear was nominated later by petition and soon became a leading contender again. When it looked as if the Socialist might win in a three-way race, Gould was persuaded by a visit from a group of the city’s leading bankers, brokers, and industrialists to withdraw. The final vote was 19,963 for Van Lear, 1,258 for Gould, and 22,384 for Nye, the Republican “nonpartisan.”

But the story didn’t end there. As Nord notes, this “seeming political suicide on the part of the Democratic candidate not only raised suspicions of corruption, but tended to confirm the Socialists’ claim that there was no significant difference between the two major parties.” Van Lear later ran again and won in 1916, serving from 1917 to 1919.

Top photo: A portrait of Ginger Jentzen while she was out canvasing a neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Oct. 20, 2017 .

Join The Conversation