Friday, June 13, 2008 By Aaron Brown
On Tuesday, I spoke with Bakk for an hour about his goals and plans regarding this race. In short, he is very serious about running if he can raise the money. But our conversation took some different turns as I focused more specifically on the electoral challenges facing Iron Range and rural candidates and his prescription for the specific economic woes facing rural Minnesota.
Some background: The first statewide campaign I was ever involved in was the 1998 Doug Johnson for Governor campaign. Johnson held the senate seat now held by Bakk and was, like Bakk, chair of the Senate Tax Committee. Johnson sought (but did not receive) the DFL endorsement, ran in the primary and lost badly to several better known, better funded candidates. I asked Bakk what he learned from that 1998 campaign.
"Doug waited until April of 1998 to get in," said Bakk. "I'm of the belief that if someone can't finance themselves they need to get in early."
So that's what Bakk is doing. He's getting out early and, during our interview, indicated that his primary focus will be seeing if there's enough money available out there for him to make a run. He was very explicit in pointing out that he'd have to not only give up his Senate Tax Chair position, but his whole senate seat to make this run.
"The day after the 2010 election, I'm 56," said Bakk. "I need to be OK with the fact that, if I lose, I'm retired."
Indeed, Bakk would be putting much on the line to make a run. His senate seat is considered very safe and running for governor would be a great risk. But Bakk says that risk is a part of leadership, and leadership is what he hopes to provide to the 2010 race.
"Real leadership can be kind of lonely," Bakk told me. "Real opportunity in life come with some risk, sometime significant risk," said Bakk. "If you only take the easy path you probably never took the opportunity out there."
He said the next governor needs to be willing to go beyond Tim Pawlenty's model of testing the political winds before acting. K-12 education, college tuition, local government and economic growth top his list of failures of the Pawlenty Administration. He wants to do better.
Job creation is Bakk's top concern, indeed his reason for running. As a labor official, Bakk has watched as organized labor has declined in recent years. He says he can't stand to watch as Minnesota loses ground in employment figures, average wages and quality of life.
"I ask myself, 'is there something I can do to turn this around?'" said Bakk. For him, that something is running for governor as a business-friendly Democrat who can reach across party lines.
I asked Bakk what coalition he intended to build to win. It was clear throughout that he would need the support of both labor and business to have any chance at all. As a carpenters' union business manager, Bakk would have a strong chance of lining up labor interests. And Bakk has also crafted strong relationships with the business community. He's one of the few DFLers who has a warm relationship with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. While that's a strong position for the general election, it presents many logistical problems in seeking the DFL endorsement and nomination.
Which leads us to this. Bakk said he intends to seek the endorsement, but would be willing to enter the primary without it ... just like Doug Johnson in 1998. Indeed, Bakk's pro-development environmental record and close ties to the business community would be great barriers to him ever receiving the endorsement. But he's looking at a primary, which means that if he enters the race the whole thing could end up looking much like 1998, with several DFL candidates duking it out just a couple months before the general election.
Bakk's strategy in all this is interesting. He's essentially carving out the Kelly Doran position, hearkening the pro-business DFLer who briefly flirted with a 2006 run for governor and U.S. Senate. In this, Bakk poses his strongest argument. Small business owners are not necessarily conservative or Republican, but many DFLers assume they are. Bakk believes that small business issues -- economy, health care and transportation costs -- are DFL issues. In this he has a strong general election argument, and one that could help the DFL down ticket. I come from a family of small business owners and know that, while not necessarily liberal, my family members are not immune from the same struggles as working class people or traditional Democratic voters.
And then there is this.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, a political legend on the Iron Range, is also considering a run for governor. Bakk seems rather dismissive of that possibility, saying that Rukavina's past conviction of driving while intoxicated will play poorly across the rest of the state. But while Rukavina might have a harder path to the governor's mansion than Bakk, his candidacy could effectively kill Bakk's chances. Most everyday Iron Rangers know Rukavina, usually personally, but not as many know Bakk. Rukavina has also proven himself heartily on core DFL issues like the minimum wage. Bakk needs huge numbers off the Iron Range to have any chance in a primary. Until he gets Rukavina out of the race, his candidacy will probably stall. Rukavina, who says he's waiting until 2009 to make a decision about running, told a local paper this week that Bakk's run may end before anyone knew it began. This kind of division among the Iron Range political class tells me that not much has changed since 1998.
I also asked Bakk about his prescription for the economic situation facing the Iron Range. We've enjoyed something of a recovery here in recent years, with more growth slated in the next few years. But my concern as a young professional on the Range is what we plan to do to sustain growth and development beyond the predictable areas of natural resources. In this, Bakk relied heavily on the talk I hear so often around here. Our natural resources economy is being modernized to be competitive for many decades in the global economy. From wood products to iron ore, the Iron Range will be a player for years to come.
But my question was "What can we do here to stoke homegrown creativity and encourage young people to start businesses and create their own opportunity?" In this, Bakk offered one truth.
"Parents here tell their kids not to get involved in the Iron Range economy, to go elsewhere," Bakk said. "Kids who live here need exposure to the opportunities that exist."
These opportunities, according to Bakk, include massive hiring in the mines and many new mineral projects around the area.
But I couldn't help noticing that our discussion didn't stray far beyond mining and wood products, the same industries that have sustained -- and sometimes betrayed -- this area for five generations.
Tom Bakk is almost certainly going to run for governor unless his attempts at fundraising are a complete disaster. With his unusually strong ties to the business community as a DFLer, you might see business interests lay some money down if there is a sense that the DFL has a strong shot at winning the governor's race. If Pawlenty runs for re-election, however, or if a business-oriented Republican emerges as the GOP front-runner (Brian Sullivan for example) big business interests might not fund a DFL campaign.
That leads to my biggest fundamental concern about Bakk's candidacy at this point. Bakk is thinking very strategically at this point, correctly identifying fundraising and name ID as his biggest hurdles. But DFLers won't want a nominee that has built a long-shot campaign on the backs of special interests money. Bakk, who enjoys an unusually strong relationship with the state chamber, energy and other land-use groups, would collect money from all over the political spectrum -- including many business and energy interests that would greatly muddy the waters of any potential reform message.
We just watched the very recently "unknown" Sen. Barack Obama take out an overwhelming favorite in the presidential primaries with a much different, frankly much cleaner way of raising sufficient money. Bakk isn't following that model. His narrative is deeply political, focusing mostly on his time as tax chair and the challenges he's faced in the Senate. He touches on his career as a builder and uses a few conversational phrases invoking his "builder" background. He needs to stoke this fire, because people want to have an emotional connection to the message of a campaign, not just the issues represented. Maybe it's my status as a young dad, but how about "Tom the Builder" complete with talking backhoes and dump trucks? Well, maybe not the talking backhoes, but the point remains. Bakk needs to connect to Minnesota voters in a way that transcends his Iron Range roots.
Lastly, from an Iron Range perspective, Bakk needs to prove he can beat the 19-20 percent that Doug Johnson and Jerry Janezich got in 1998 and 2000 primaries, respectively. While he seems aware of the problem, he is talking the same way these previous candidates talked (win labor and a share of the "cities" voters) ... only several months earlier. He's got to show that he can play south of Duluth before this talk becomes anything more than talk.
Like everyone involved with the DFL, I am very interested in the potentially vast field of candidates for governor in 2010. As an Iron Ranger, I'd love that candidate to be from the area I love. But, as of today, I remain uncommitted, and advise everyone to wait this out and see who provides the message the party needs in 2010. To elect an Iron Range governor, like Rudy Perpich, requires more than just labor ties or a folksy demeanor. Such a person needs to have a statewide message and a statewide coalition, now more than ever. Bakk may get there. But he's got lots of work to do.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly implied that Rep. Tom Rukavina had multiple DUI convictions. I apologize for the error.