Hatch's shadow haunts Kelley

Categories: Politics

Early on at the Primary Night party for Steve Kelley, the state senator-turned-gubernatorial-candidate-turned-attorney general-candidate, there was an air of confidence among his supporters. About 50 of them were crammed into the back corner of Mac's Industrial Sports Bar, on Central Avenue in southeast Minneapolis, chowing on meatballs and chicken wings, watching the early results on an array of laptops.

The news was not promising: First figures showed that Kelley trailed both Lori Swanson and Bill Luther in the DFL primary to replace Mike Hatch, capturing just 29 percent of the precincts that reported by 8:30 p.m. Still, everyone thought that once some other districts started reporting, Kelley would cruise to victory. "In an hour, he'll be at 50 percent," predicted Mike Simpkins, a Kelley field worker from Bemidji.

The conventional wisdom among Simpkins and other Kelley supporters was that the early results were mostly from Anoka County--"Swanson's territory" generally, according to Kelley communications director Jessica Vealitzek--and that when outstate and urban precincts started reporting, their man would triumph. They were, it turns out, severely deluded. And they were underestimating the power of Hatch, who considers perhaps only Swanson his protege.

By 9:30 p.m., Kelley himself appeared and, with the signature green of the campaign's signs and beers flowing, soon was presiding over what started to resemble an Irish wake. Kelley claimed that he was "not surprised" by the early results.

There was an air of elation when Hennepin County's numbers started rolling in--showing Kelley at 45 percent and Swanson at 37 percent. But by then, Swanson's lead statewide was 41 percent to 35 percent. Surely Hennepin County would not make up ground for Kelley.(Luther was at a distant 23 percent by then.)

Still, he was undeterred, claiming that he had captured the hearts and minds of outstate voters because of his tough talk on the stump for prosecuting meth dealers, and that his role in bringing a new Twins ballpark to fruition "hasn't been an issue."

An hour later, Kelley was admitting that Swanson was "doing a little better outstate than I thought," and passed the time by singing a round of Happy Birthday to a campaign staffer. But it became increasingly obvious that he should call Swanson and concede.

In the interim, Kelley's supporters made the case for Kelley as an honorable public servant, one that is genuinely concerned with the well-being of Minnesotans, and an expert on education issues. And they're right, of course, which is what made the night even more bleak. Sure, some could--and should--mark Kelley as an opportunist for taking up the AG's race after his failed gubernatorial bid.

So how come the general goodness of candidate Kelley didn't translate outstate to the AG's race? Well, to hear the disgruntled supporters tell it, the answer was Mike Hatch.

None of them would speak on the record about it, but most of them agreed that Hatch essentially ensured that Swanson would win by sharing mailing lists, helping her target potential-voter pockets, and generally talking her up on the stump. Hatch, behind the scenes, apparently helped out political neophyte Swanson--whatever pull and resources he had in the race, he used, so said the Kelley chorus.

"It's not illegal," said one Kelley staffer, "but it's pretty poor form."

And what's wrong with that? If Hatch gave a push to a close colleague, well, isn't that what politics are made of? Kelley's demise may have more to do with the stench of desperation surrounding his AG gambit. Or maybe it had to do with the notion that "Hatch's ego won't allow him to share the stage with anyone who is his equal," according to one supporter, and that made the DFL slate of candidates for statewide office all the more important to Hatch.

The attorney-general-turned-gubernatorial-candidate (Hatch, that is) has never been a favorite in his own party, and Kelley gained the DFL endorsement in this race. Tellingly, Mac's had a thinning contingent of old-school union types (the bar itself is in the United Labor Centre office complex), the same forces that failed to help Peter McLaughlin in his recent mayoral bid against R.T. Rybak.

In other words, the real reason for Kelley's loss--and, conversely, Keith Ellison's win in the 5th CD--may be that the old-guard of the DFL is finally dead.

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