St. Paul Mayor’s Race: Really Crappy Voting System Requires Courage to Win in 2017


Telling people that you stood up for things – behind the scenes – that you were a leader – behind the scenes – is the equivalent of asking if what happens to trees, bears and the Pope in the woods if nobody is there to see or witness what they are doing actually happened.


In the course of my career in St. Paul politics I have won some – and I have lost some.

I have, in fact, lost some really badly!

For those keeping score, here is how it breaks down:

St. Paul Mayor’s Races:  3 wins and 1 loss.

St. Paul Referendums:  1 win and 1 loss

St. Paul City Council Races:  1 win and 1 loss

A winning percentage of .625 isn’t too shabby.

But, you are always judged by your last campaign and being a part of Randy Kelly’s losing campaign for Mayor in 2005 is something I own.  I was a part of it, I played a role in it and I am as responsible as anyone else for his defeat.

I  also have to admit that each of my wins (as well as losses) were before the truly horrible electoral process known as “Ranked Choice Voting” or “RCV” for short.

Or, for those who care about an electoral system that works: “Really Crappy Voting” or “RCV” for short.

It doesn’t really make sense for me to try to explain RCV because the vast majority of voters in St. Paul really don’t understand it.

Which, incidentally, makes me one of the vast majority of voters in St. Paul.

Advocates of RCV have assured us that it does all sorts of magical things.

Magical things, I might add, it does not do.

Advocates assured us it would remove big money from the system. 

It hasn’t. 

Case in point:  The leading candidate for St. Paul Mayor to replace Chris Coleman has already bankrolled $150,000 in campaign contributions.

We were told it would eliminate negative campaigning.

It hasn’t.

Case in point:  The nasty campaign for City Council in the City’s 2nd Ward apparently was one of the most personal and vicious negative campaigns in recent memory.

We were told it would increase voter participation.

It hasn’t.

Despite passage of RCV in 2011 for St. Paul the Pioneer Press reports the following:

“But in the past five years, St. Paul’s turnout has continued to slump, despite a 6 percent uptick in Ward 2, an open seat. In 2013, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman won a third term by a landslide, but turnout was the lowest in at least 30 years.”

St. Paul political guru and resident Curmudgeon, Chuck Repke, has been one of the most outspoken critics of RCV.

It’s ironic because besides being a guru and a curmudgeon Chuck is a pretty proud liberal who would typically find these kind of feel good schemes to be – well – good feeling.

He doesn’t find it good feeling.

Just go to his Facebook page sometime and you’ll find out what he thinks of Really Crappy Voting.

I figure if Chuck Repke and I are on both sides of an issue there is a pretty good chance that St. Paul has been encased by a thick layer of ice and my Catholic fear of Hell has been realized –and Chuck’s lack of belief in God shows that science is making us pay for our folly of having Really Crappy Voting.

But there is an irony here well beyond Chuck and I playing together in the same sandbox on this issue.

Each of the currently announced candidates for Mayor clearly needs RCV to have any chance of getting elected Mayor.

Ironically, given where each of the candidates appears to stand on the issues – uncannily being almost equally far left of center on most of them – RCV may be their actual undoing.

Oh, to be sure, there will be one candidate who ultimately wins.

Even RCV can’t mess that up.

But, when you have four candidates who appear to have the same exact position on every major issue that may – or may not – be discussed in this year’s campaign – it means that RCV will not increase voter turnout for those candidates who might need to draw votes from a pool of moderate or conservative St. Paul voters.

Here’s my thought.

  • Four liberal candidates taking liberal positions on every issue will appeal to liberal voters.
  • Those liberal voters have four choices (so far.)
  • Whatever the size of that pool it won’t get any larger than it currently is.
  • So, to win in a pool that won’t get any larger you have the following options.

One, you can raise more money than the other candidate and overwhelm the opposition with direct mail, voter identification, GOTV and other targeted efforts.

Two, you can have a better “grassroots” campaign that allows you to draw your votes out by literally working door-to-door.

Three, failing #1 and #2 you can go negative and decide to attack one or more of your opponents as not being liberal enough to the current, and not growing, liberal pool of voters that might be inclined to show up at the polls.

All of which still means you have to figure out some way of rising above the other 3 candidates in the race to be more liberal than them to win the liberal voters that are probably 99% of the electorate that will turn out for this year’s Mayoral election.

Unless, of course, a candidate emerges from within, or outside, of the 4 announced candidates for Mayor who chooses to embrace another strategy.

That strategy could be expanding his or her inventory of prospective voters by running a campaign that speaks to liberals – and moderates – and conservatives.

That, of course, would require said candidate to take some risk that his or her message could potentially alienate some from the existing pool of liberal voters.

Taking risks in politics is part of the nature of politics.

Being a leader requires taking risks and letting people – publicly – know where you stand on issues.

Telling people that you stood up for things – behind the scenes – that you were a leader – behind the scenes – is the equivalent of asking if what happens to trees, bears and the Pope in the woods if nobody is there to see or witness what they are doing actually happened.

RCV for four liberal candidates for St. Paul Mayor assures that a liberal will be the next Mayor of St. Paul.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  It just means that with 7 liberal City Councilmembers and a liberal Mayor there will be little difference of opinion, thought or ideas on policy or the role of government in St. Paul.

Kind of exactly how things are today.

The problem with the strategy of 4 liberal candidates playing to a liberal base, however is this:  If a legitimate conservative or moderate candidate – regardless of party affiliation – enters the race – it upsets that strategy in key wards in the City.

Specifically Wards Two, Three and Five.

A conservative or moderate candidate emerging would play havoc with a strategy of candidates who hope to quietly convey – behind the scenes – that they are the conservative or moderate in the race for Mayor.

Conservative voters, let’s call them Republicans, are not likely to be able to understand the silent message of candidates who don’t speak to their concerns during a Mayoral campaign and will stay home rather than vote for unabashedly liberal candidates who currently occupy the candidate landscape.

While Republican voters represent a significantly smaller percentage of voters than liberal in St. Paul they can make a significant difference in RCV.

Even in 2016’s presidential campaign between Clinton and Trump St. Paul Republican voters gave Trump, in Wards Two, Three and Five, anywhere from 6% of the vote to more than 21% of the vote, in various different precincts.

I would argue that a great number of St. Paul Republican voters didn’t support – and either voted for Clinton or simply did not vote in the Presidential election.

That means the percentage of Republican voters is both statistically significant and electorally significant.

If there is a candidate intending to speak to them.

There may or may not be any candidate who jumps into the race for Mayor who intends to broaden the electoral base beyond the liberal pool of voters that the current 4 liberal candidates for Mayor want to woo.

If there is one he or she will clearly undermine any strategy of any candidate who believes they can win by stoking up the liberal base on one hand while assuring a conservative and moderate base they are with them on the other hand.

If there isn’t another candidate to emerge it is clear – to me – that the winning hand for the current crop of candidates is to start taking a stand on issues that have resonance to people on the left – the right – and in the middle.

But, what do I now.  I was wrong .375 of the time when it came to political campaigns in St. Paul.

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