Lawmakers' spouses head DFL party committees
When Rochester DFL Reps. Tina Liebling and Kim Norton want to find out the latest update on Olmsted County grassroots politics, all they need to do is ask the person sitting across from them at the breakfast table.
Liebling and Norton's husbands are also the heads of the local DFL organizing units. Liebling's husband, Dr. Mark Liebow, is chairman of Senate District 26 DFL, and Norton's husband, Randy Stone, is chairman of Olmsted 25 DFL. It's a situation that developed after the state party required the Olmsted County DFL Party to divide into Senate districts and more skilled volunteers were needed to help with the transition.
"It's not that we want our husbands to be the chairs of the local parties. I actually would prefer to have a different chair just because it's a drain on (Mark's) time and he works a lot on my campaign and this pulls him away from that," Liebling said. "I would say it was kind of more by necessity than anyone thinking this was an ideal situation."
The leadership change started in 2012 after legislative redistricting. The Minnesota DFL Party's Constitution requires that if a county has three or more House District contained entirely within its boundaries, it must reorganize into Senate districts.
"It really took folks in Olmsted County off guard. Most of us did not think it was a good idea, but it was done anyway," Norton said.
Dividing county party
Liebling and Norton had urged the state party to let Olmsted County DFL remain intact, but their efforts failed. This marked the first time since 1990 that a county organizing unit had been forced to divide up and local Democrats quickly scrambled to reorganize in advance of the 2012 election. That's when Liebow, a long-time party activist, sought the top post for the newly-formed Senate District 26 DFL.
"I had thought about trying to take more of a leadership position, so I ran for this," Liebow said.
Things got even more confusing in Senate District 25, which includes Dodge County and northern Olmsted County. Redistricting created an organizational headache in Dodge County, where it got carved up into four Senate districts. As a result, the Dodge County DFL asked state party leaders to allow it to remain the organizing unit for the county. The party agreed. Olmsted 25 was formed to become the organizing unit for the parts of the Senate district in Olmsted County. At the same time, Senate District 25 DFL was created to handle candidate endorsement and fundraise for candidates.
Initially, Deb Duffy-Smet served as chairwoman of Olmsted 25. After the 2012 election, she decided to step down from the post. Stone, who was serving as a vice chairman, agreed to step into the post temporarily to help with the reorganization.
"I hadn't sought the position, but it was necessary and we were in the process of reforming," he said.
Olmsted County DFL has been left in place as an umbrella organization, helping to coordinate between Olmsted 25 DFL and Senate District 26 DFL. But the group no longer does any fundraising for candidates.
Hamline University law professor David Schultz, a campaign ethics expert, said having the spouses of local lawmakers heading up the local party units could create some challenges.
"It does lead to some potentially compromising situations ," he said. "If you have challenges within the party, say a primary, to what extent can you really expect the party chair to be impartial?"
Another tricky situation centers around campaign funding. Coordination between party units and candidates is illegal under state law.
Liebow said that while some local Democrats have expressed some concern about his new leadership role, it's not like he is hiding anything.
"Obviously, I don't have a hidden conflict of interest. It's pretty obvious who I am and who I am married to," he said.
Liebling said she stays out of party business and generally doesn't attend the meetings. She said if she did get an endorsement challenge, then her husband would probably have to step aside. Norton said she also has little to do with the party organization's structure, focusing instead on her campaign.
While the transition has been tough at times, Senate District 25 Chairwoman Cyndi Bennett Lee said she believes it is good for the party in the long run. Lee serves on the state party's constitution and bylaws committee and said Olmsted County DFL was at risk of becoming too big to be effective.
"It was getting to the point where if you didn't divide it, Olmsted County was going to have to rent the Mayo Civic Center for its convention. And so, at a certain point, it's better to have groups that are workable," Lee said.
Another concern among local DFL party activists has been a potential gap in the fundraising potential of each district. Traditionally, Senate District 26 has been seen as having more donors. Stone said that has been a concern but so far the problems have not materialized. The local DFL's annual fundraising dinner in September drew roughly an equal number of donors from both districts.
One major issue that remains is whether local Democrats understand the new, complicated structure.
"I think it has caused confusion for people when they are being asked for funding from a variety sources," Norton said.
Local Republicans remain organized by county but that could change as the region continues to grow. The Republican Party of Minnesota's Constitution requires local county organizing units to divide if more than four House districts are entirely contained within a county. Republican Party of Olmsted County Chairman Bruce Kaskubar said he actually prefers the idea of organizing along Senate districts because it's cleaner. Since city and county races are not partisan in Olmsted County, his organization's primary focus is helping to elect Republicans to the state Legislature.
"It's all about state legislators and if you are organized by Senate districts, then you have an organization that is exactly tied to your candidates' boundaries," he said.
While Kaskubar said he cannot recall a situation where a Republican state lawmaker's spouse ran the local party unit, he would not be surprised if such a thing had happened in the county's history.
"In some situations, it could be a nefarious thing. I wouldn't think it is here," he said.
While the transition has been tough at times, Stone said it has brought with it some benefits to the local party.
"We've been able to get a lot of new faces into the process," Stone said. "There's people who are new in leadership, so there's some new energy that has come in. At the same time, we've been fortunate to have some mentors who are very experienced."