Senior Nolan staffer opposes DFL-endorsed candidate, rankles DFL Party

The above headline is one no first term 8th District DFL congressman wants to see and newly-hired congressional staffers are cautioned that any perceived transgression – personal or professional – reported in the media will be framed in exactly this manner. And most are careful to always act in the Member’s best interest, behaving in a manner that serves to further their mission to serve constituents rather than detract from it. Wise staffers understand that others will assume their actions are sanctioned by the congressman and typically steer clear of intraparty battles involving other candidates for public office and instead strive to maintain good relationships within the party. Yet Congressman Rick Nolan’s district director, Jeff Anderson, has chosen to formally endorse a candidate who is challenging the DFL-endorsed candidate in a race for the Duluth School Board and to snub the DFL party apparatus in Northern Minnesota.

Nolan is facing some potentially serious problems within the ranks of the DFL and his district director’s actions, which one die-hard DFLer describes as “disheartening”, have no doubt contributed to the growing discontent among some members of the party. And it isn’t just the involvement in intraparty election contests that rankles activists. Anderson was scheduled to speak on Nolan’s behalf at the 8th District DFL Annual Fall Dinner last month, yet he never showed up at the event and did not even send other Nolan staffers in his place. But he did make sure some of his former campaign staffers attended the event, thus the table purchased by the Nolan campaign was occupied solely by those who supported Anderson in the DFL primary. No one spoke on Rep. Nolan’s behalf, leaving the congressman without representation at a major party event just as the Cuyuna Range native faces a tough bid for re-election.

Duluth School Board elections are non partisan, but the Duluth DFL does endorse candidates. In District 1, DFLers endorsed long time party and community activist Rosie Loeffler Kemp over newcomer Joe Matthes. Matthes had stated he would abide by the endorsement, but declared the process unfair after he lost to Loeffler Kemp, whose name was placed in nomination from the floor of the convention per DFL party rules. Anderson formally endorsed Matthes in his challenge to the duly endorsed DFL candidate. Matthes did make it through the three way primary with 28 percent of the vote but finished far behind Loeffler Kemp, who made a strong showing with 54 percent.

This race not only pits DFLers against each other, but also long time rivals AFSCME Council 5 and AFSCME Council 65. Matthes is a representative for Council 65, Loeffler Kemp’s husband is a field representative for Council 5 and together these unions represent approximately 12,000 members in the 8th congressional district. Also in play is a 2007 controversy involving the Loeffler Kemps hiring of a non-union contractor to build their home, an act that was characterized as a misunderstanding but nonetheless fueled the sometimes tense relationship that exists between the public employees union and the building trades. The story was revived just last week on MNLabor.

Only three other unions joined Council 65 and Council 5 in endorsing candidates in this race. The Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council backed Matthes and the Duluth Federation of Teachers and AFSCME Local 66 threw their support behind Loeffler Kemp, a former organizer for Clean Water Action. Of note is that the Northeast Area Labor Council endorsed candidates in every school board race except District 1.

The District 1 race was not the only school board election which Nolan’s district director chose to get involved in this year. In District 4, there was no DFL endorsement because delegates remained divided between Justin Perpich and incumbent Art Johnston. Anderson formally endorsed Perpich, one of his former congressional campaign staffers, over Johnston and EPA biologist David Bolgrien. And like Anderson, Perpich angered the DFL party by distributing campaign materials that gave the impression that he had received the party endorsement and he too failed to emerge from the primary. Bolgrien was the top finisher with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Johnston with 33 percent and Perpich with 29 percent. Perpich subsequently threw his support to Bolgrien.

It’s interesting that both of the candidates Anderson endorsed for school board received roughly the same percentage of the vote that he received in his unsuccessful primary challenge to the DFL-endorsed candidate in the race for 8th district congress.

The involvement of Nolan’s district director in these school board races is perplexing, especially since there is no record of the former city councilor formally endorsing any candidate who is seeking election to the Duluth City Council.But Anderson did join Mayor Don Ness and Councilor Dan Hartman (both of whom supported him in his primary race against Nolan) in co-hosting a fundraiser for council at large candidate Zack Filipovich last month.

Nolan’s district director has an interesting personal history with the DFL and the endorsement process that perhaps offers some insight into his recent actions. Anderson sought and received the endorsement for Duluth City Council in 2008, yet chose to not abide by the process in 2012 when it became obvious he would lose the DFL endorsement for congress to Rick Nolan. Nolan was indeed endorsed by a resounding 76 percent of the delegates to a mere 10 percent for Anderson, who then accused the 8th district DFL of being anti-mining and joined Republican incumbent Rep. Chip Cravaack in calling for deregulation of the mining industry. Nolan vehemently opposed such legislation and went on to handily win the primary with 38 percent of the vote. Anderson finished last in the three way contest, garnering just 29 percent to Tarryl Clark’s 32 percent, but as district director seems to have prevailed on the issue of deregulating the mining industry. We noted in September that Nolan changed his position and voted for the bill – which expedites the permitting process by gutting the Clean Water Act and NEPA – that Anderson advocated, a move that angered many supporters, including the Lake County DFL. Interestingly, one of the candidates Anderson opposes has ties to a group that advocates for clean water and another works for the federal agency charged with enforcing rules and regulations that protect the environment.

Anderson’s apparent disdain for both the party and the endorsement process stands in stark contrast to that of his boss, who is a staunch supporter of the endorsement process and has always run for office with the party’s full support. But the buck stops with Nolan. It is his responsibility to ensure that his district director serves him well because the assumption is that Anderson is acting with his full knowledge and consent. And a first term DFL congressman who has no presence at the 8th District DFL’s annual dinner and sees nothing wrong with his district director opposing the DFL-endorsed candidate in a local race may well find lukewarm support from party activists in his bid for re-election.

Congressman Nolan’s communications director did not respond to our request for comment.

An earlier version of the story erroneously switched the names of Art Johnston and David Bolgrien in the District 4 race. We regret the error.