If You Haven’t Genuflected at the Right DFL Altars, Don’t Bother Running for School Board
I don’t know about you, but as we head into the meaty shank of this year’s political cycle I feel forced to give myself little pep talks about representative democracy. Because among the many problems with the ugly populist wave we’re riding is other people. I mean, to be mostly but not entirely facetious, it’s really hard to accept that I have exactly as much power as any of Trump’s Chick-fil-A-eating, Avalanche-driving zealots. Or their counterparts on the left.
Among the dark, late-night minor obsessions this has spawned, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking Minneapolis School Board Director Tracine Asberry’s campaign website. Every time I visit endorsements by more Democratic-Farmer-Labor party types have disappeared. We’re talking about elected officials who, three months ago, approved of Asberry’s performance in office but who now won’t break ranks to say so.
Like the other incumbent seeking re-election this year, Josh Reimnitz, Asberry attended the the party’s city-wide endorsing convention last April and agreed to abide by the DFL’s endorsement, as did newcomer Kimberly Caprini. Which is always problematic, right? If you don’t agree, you won’t be considered. And if you don’t go into the convention having genuflected at the right party altars, well good luck to you Chuckles.
In Minneapolis, school board races are nonpartisan. But with the exception of the hardcore education geeks, most folks either ignore these down-ticket races or, in a one-party town, vote the endorsed slate. The few candidates who manage to thread this needle tend to win in races where there is no endorsement.
The L—labor—in DFL looms large. The endorsements frequently go to candidates approved by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. The three-candidate slate that was endorsed this year had previously been endorsed by the teachers union; one member, Kerry Jo Felder, actually works for the regional federation as an education organizer.
And because turnout is notoriously low for most school board contests—as in single digits–the ability of the unions, plural, to turn out the vote coupled with the DFL endorsement frequently means the election essentially is decided at the endorsing convention.
What’s that? You know little to nothing about the convention? This is another problem with representative democracy circa 2016. It’s dependent on a free and vigorous press corps delivering voters the information they need to evaluate candidates and their claims. Which, given the drastically reduced number of reporters covering ever-broader beats, we no longer really have.
Mark my words, this year’s coverage will boil down to roundups containing brief candidate bios. And those stories will note that Asberry, Caprini and Reimnitz agreed to abide by the endorsement and then filed to run anyhow.
Here is why that shouldn’t count against them, and why representative democracy might better be served by eliminating partisan endorsements in local contests. If not corrupt, the process is at exceptionally undemocratic. And this year anticipation of the ugliness kept good potential school board members from so much as considering running for office.
Like the endorsing conventions of other years, the April meeting was thick with parliamentary procedure and an agenda packed with so much minutia newcomers and outsiders were essentially filibustered out of the room. The convention began on a Saturday morning, but voting for candidates did not begin until late Sunday afternoon. At which point lots of people had given up and gone home.
Many of those that stayed were horrified. Then a senior at South High School, Maisie Sattler volunteered for Asberry’s campaign. “People were hissing at me when I was walking up to Tracine’s campaign and sticking out their tongues,” she said. “There was just so much hissing. Why do people even do that?”
The crowd was even nastier to Reimnitz, she and others have said, booing and shouting over him as he tried to speak. The scarlet letter, in his case: Before moving to Minneapolis, he served as a Teach for America corps member in Atlanta.
In 2012, the teachers union did not endorse Asberry and Reimnitz and neither sought the group’s backing this year. Leaving aside the deep divisions that characterized the search for a new superintendent, during their first term neither championed anything particularly controversial.
Over the last decade a number of groups have attempted to democratize the process, in the little-d sense, by putting candidates in front of parents and other stakeholder typically locked out of the process. The Service Employees International Union, whose members are mostly blue-collar people of color, has taken heat for making independent endorsements.
And community groups such as AchieveMpls, the African American Leadership Forum and a Somali coalition have held forums where candidates have been peppered with the kinds of questions that don’t get asked at the convention.
Indeed at a June reception marking her retirement from AchieveMpls, former board chair Pam Costain called for an end to the endorsement system.
“If any of you have attended a DFL endorsing convention for school board then you know what I am talking about when I say that system is the definition of adult dysfunction,” she said. “Many of us go to conventions because we care and want to participate in grassroots decision-making. When we get there we soon learn this is an insider’s game with arcane rules, endless delays, a party line that cannot be breached and a process designed to drive all but the most masochistic away.”
Two years ago, a reform-oriented group and a DFL campaign committee flush with union money made six-figure independent expenditures in the year’s most hotly contested race. Local DFL leaders threatened to pull their support from one of their own endorsees because she attended events where non-endorsed candidates were present.
And so no one was surprised this year when credible, visible candidates with actual track records failed to surface. Asberry’s opponent, Ira Jourdain, is a lovely person with no education-related experience and a long list of endorsements from parents and teachers not at the MPS schools attended by his children but at the wealthy Southwest programs attended by the constituents of his champion, board member Rebecca Gagnon.
Like her views or not, by contrast Asberry taught in MPS for a decade, teaches teachers in training, directs a non-profit youth organization that works with St. Paul Public Schools and serves on a number of local and national education-related boards. One of which she was appointed to by DFL stalwart Gov. Mark Dayton.
Tellingly, it doesn’t appear that the names that have disappeared from Asberry’s campaign site over the summer have been added to the endorsements on Jourdain’s site. Which perhaps says more about the elections DFLers with aspirations have yet to run then it does about this contest.
Think what you will of any of these candidates, but know this: Barring the unforeseen, the upshot is that a very small and not diverse group of people will decide who will govern Minneapolis schools for the next two years.