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The DFL’s dark horse: Six quick questions with Paul Thissen

by Steve Perry
Politics in Minnesota
Published: April 14,2010

For months now, the perceived wisdom concerning the race for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement has been that it’s a two-person race between House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. The main benchmarks of the campaign season so far — most recently, February’s caucuses — suggest as much too.

Minneapolis rep thinks it’s now a three-way race for gov endorsement

For months now, the perceived wisdom concerning the race for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement has been that it’s a two-person race between House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. The main benchmarks of the campaign season so far — most recently, February’s caucuses — suggest as much too.

But lately a growing minority of observers in and around the DFL have come to believe that Minneapolis Rep. Paul Thissen, who chairs the House’s Health and Human Services Policy Committee, will be an important player in next week’s convention balloting and could come away with an upset win if the convention deadlocks or either of the presumed principals falters.

Certainly Thissen has shifted his message in the late pre-convention going. Now, at every turn, he’s hammering DFL mainstays — like the two front-runners in the governor’s race — for the sins of a Democratic Party that’s come increasingly under fire from the grassroots for its timidity in dealing with Republican opposition.

Thissen says that his campaign is peaking at the perfect moment — an obligatory boast under the circumstances, but possibly also correct. “I think right now the momentum and the energy are moving in our direction,” he told Capitol Report during a conversation in his office Tuesday, “and I think people will feel that when we get to the convention.”

What follow is an edited transcript of that interview.

Capitol Report: What issues have been the greatest source of traction for your campaign, and why?

Paul Thissen: The biggest issues are — well, leadership style. Democrats are concerned that [elected] Democrats at the federal and the state level haven’t been standing up to Republicans enough and haven’t been willing to risk political capital to get real solutions that are going to fix stuff. The GAMC fix bill is a prime example of that.
And the other issue is our electoral success in the last several cycles, and going with an establishment candidate, someone very much associated with the institution of the DFL, [versus] our offering of a fresh face and a different, future-oriented direction. That’s really what’s gaining us traction.

CR: Can you win the endorsement at this convention? Most people think at this point that it’s a two-horse race for the endorsement between Rybak and Kelliher.

Thissen: And the mainstream media seems to have locked in on that story quite a while ago. In fact, that’s not the case, based on the numbers we’re seeing. You’ve got to get to 60 percent, right? At most, the leading candidates are going to come in with maybe one-quarter of the votes [each]. We’re gaining ground all the time. Every day we’re picking up delegates, and even delegates who came out of other name [candidate] subcaucuses.

We’re far and away the second choice of most other campaigns’ delegates. And that, in the dynamics of this kind of convention, is really important. And I do think that as we get closer to the convention in Duluth, people are paying more and more attention to all the candidates, which helps us, and to who can win in November and govern us out of the mess we’re in in a highly partisan environment. I think those factors move things in our direction.

The other really strong thing that I think will surprise people is that we are running really strong in greater Minnesota. And as that information becomes more apparent, I think that will help us.

CR: Where are your strongholds around the state? I know you said the other day that you’re pleased with how things are going in the 7th [congressional district].

Thissen: The places—well, my own area, right? We’ve done decently well in Minneapolis and in the southern suburbs. And we’re running particularly strong in western Minnesota and southern Minnesota. We’re running decently everywhere, but that’s where we’re particularly strong compared to other campaigns.

CR: Where are you concentrating your campaign efforts in the week-plus leading up to the convention?

Thissen: It’s very much focused on three things. Calling delegates, whether it’s me or my campaign or my wife, who’s played a big role in that process as well. We still continue to go out across the state to meet face-to-face with delegates. I’ll be in Duluth and Hibbing tonight, as an example. And the other piece of it is to get our message out in different and creative ways, whether that’s through supporters, mail, or the Internet. And the campaign is getting ready for all the technical work of how we’re going to run the convention floor and what that’s going to look like.
And we’re preparing a speech [smiles].

CR: What has to happen at this convention for you to break through the ranks of the top two candidates and win the endorsement?

Thissen: I think right now the momentum and the energy are moving in our direction, and I think people will feel that when we get to the convention. As they see where our support is coming from, and hear our ideas for where we need to go in Minnesota, I think the good news for our campaign is that we’re continuing to grow in people’s minds. I think that dynamic, over the next two weeks and when we get to the convention floor, is going to propel us into the lead.

The way the math lines up, we don’t have to pick up every single delegate from everyone who is going to drop out [over successive ballots]. But if we pick up a good share of them, we will be running even with Margaret and R.T. by the time we get down to those critical ballots.

CR: A lot of people have said that you’ve run an interesting campaign, but that they don’t think it’s “your time.” What do you make of that?

Thissen: I think the thing that hasn’t been covered in this campaign is how surprisingly well we’re doing. I got into this race because the challenges we’re facing in Minnesota are so big, and I think I’ve got something to offer.
So my response to that is, it’s Minnesota’s time, and we’ve got to decide who’s going to be best at dealing with the problems that Minnesota’s going to be facing, as opposed to asking who’s next in line.

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