One of the downsides of being a GOP activist and officer is that you have to get involved, even passively, in GOP inside baseball. Ever. For any reason.
And of course, it’s important; without a viable challenge to the DFL, Minnesota is a few downturns away from turning into California. Or Minneapolis.
So I go to the meetings. I vote on stuff. I do my bit to try to help get better people elected to office; not just Republicans, but conservative Republicans who support limited government.
And I try to get as informed as I can about some of the “inside baseball” issues in the GOP; the budget deficit (how the hell…?), the collapse in the Cities, the turnout issues in the first and second ring ‘burbs…
…and of course, the Judicial Elections Committee.
That Buzzing Sound That Never Goes Away: The JEC is an obscure fixture in the MNGOP, focusing both on endorsing judicial candidates and fighting for judicial reform.
As re the second? The subject is a deadly combination of intensely technical and very important. It’s intensely picayune – and absolutely vital. The judiciary has turned into an unaccountable, opaque, lifetime sinecure in Minnesota; judges have extremely disproportionate power as a result, and the ability to make sweeping decisions with almost no accountability. And the power extends beyond just the courtroom; the past several state redistricting processes, including the 2010 redistricting – gerrymandered enough to make Bull Connor and George Wallace sit up in the grave and say “Hey, bucko, you’re getting a little carried away, here”. “Shall Issue” carry reform was struck down in 2004 by a judge whose home was a DFL hamster wheel and who, ignoring the fact that every state budget is a combination of omnibus bills full of unrelated amendments, struck down the law because it wasn’t closely enough related to the bill that was originally amended.
So there is a problem that needs to be solved.
There’s a lot of history to the notion of judicial endorsements, and the creation of the JEC, and its activities since it was established; I’ve written about them in the past, and I won’t rewrite it all now (search my site for references to the phrase “My brain went blank and my ass went numb”).
But it’s the JEC’s recent history that concerns me most.
Last Saturday was the GOP’s State Central Committee meeting. I didn’t attend – but the future of the JEC was one of the subjects up for discussion. And my butt went a little numb just reading the accounts on Twitter.
Business: Of course, the JEC’s main claim to “fame” was the endorsement of Michelle McDonald to run for State Supreme Court. This happened at the MNGOP State Convention in Rochester in May of 2014. McDonald turned out to have a pending year-old DUI charge – about which the convention was not told. We’ve written about this at some length in the past.
Let’s fast forward to last Saturday. A series of handouts was waiting for the SCC delegates as they arrived at the event, or distributed during the convention; a friend scanned and sent them to me (the scan is included below the jump).
In it, the JEC explains the reasons for its existence – and, to be honest, does it fairly well, in places (and let’s be honest – the handout was written by logorrheacs, and you have to dig to find the good stuff. But it’s in there). In all my years of listening to JEC members trying to explain why judicial endorsements, and judicial reform, are good and vital, and why retention elections are bad, this is the first time even the faintest hint of a light has gone off above my head.
And so partly as a result of this handout, my previous determination to tear down the JEC, with flamethrowers if necessary, has been tempered just a bit.
I said “the JEC”.
The JEC’s membership is another story.
Twenty Octogenarians Driving A Clown Car: If you recall – and I completely forgive you if you do not – the history of and beef with the McDonald endorsement goes a little something like this:
- The JEC recommended Michelle McDonald – a controversial family-law lawyer – for nomination to run for the Supreme Court (SCOM).
- At the State Convention, after the delegates had endured a 20-odd-hour endorsement battle for Senate, the JEC brought McDonald to the stage for a speech and a motion for endorsement by acclamation. Many delegates were out – grabbing a bite, or in the bathroom, or stretching their legs after the endless Senate battle – and many that were in the room reported feeling bum-rushed – but the motion for acclamation passed, and McDonald was endorsed.
- The following week, the media reported that McDonald had a pending DUI charge awaiting trial.
- Reports emerged that the JEC had been aware of this charge, but had voted to nominate McDonald anyway, and had voted to not inform the delegates, including blocking an attempt to issue a minority report to the convention that would have brought up the legal issues for the delegates’ consideration.
- McDonald and the MNGOP brass spent the next five months fighting each other, under a blazing media spotlight, rarely managing or bothering to engage the DFL’s candidate, Darth Lillehaug, on any level.
- McDonald went on to lose the election against Lillehaug. According to some reports, her campaign raised less that $1,000, and spent about $8,000.
The handouts give a couple of insights into the JEC’s performance – or “performance” – at the 2014 State convention, in the first two pages (the pink ones, whose order is reversed; page 2 is actually page 1). It’s also full of opinion-driven weasel words – “the chair appeared…”, “in the committee’s opinion, the chair…” and the like.
There are two quotes from the handout, though, that display…something about the JEC’s opinion of itself; whether that something is arrogance, incompetence or malfeasance, I’m not sure and I’ll leave it to better judges than I.
It should be noted that the purpose of any endorsing committee is to spare the convention the task of sorting through a candidate’s personal life. the job of any endorsing committee is to do the work in confidence and present a yes or no to the convention. Committees focus on a candidate’s message, their willingness to campaign hard and their ability appeal (sic) to voters. The idea that the Judicial Election Committee (or any other nominating committee) should air a candidate’s personal information to the convention is badly misinformed.
Exactly what a nominating committee is supposed to do is a subject worthy of discussion. And the passage may be right; a nominating committee should concern itself with competence and electability.
But a legal proceeding that is guaranteed to provoke a media feeding frenzy is both not “personal information” – it’s a public record, available online from the courts – and of direct impact to the candidate’s electability.
So this quote – along with the rest of the information in the handout, brings up three possibilities:
- The majority of the JEC genuinely believed that an arrest record is “personal information” that was nobody’s business. If this was the case, then we’re dealing with some stupid people. Arrest records are public! Public! Public! Anyone who thought this was “personal information”, and believed that the media and DFL would treat it that way, needs to be publicly (rhetorically) horsewhipped.
- They knew about the arrest record, but figured it wouldn’t be a problem, since McDonald assured them the charge was BS: You’ll note how many media figured led with the whole “Michelle McDonald is innocent until proven guilty, and gosh, she looks like she has a strong case” tack, right? Somewhere less than zero? Part of a nominations commission’s job is to try, as far as possible, to prevent media poo-storms like…the one we had.
- The JEC figured the news would be a problem, but wanted to jam McDonald down anyway, leading a supermajority to vote against the issuance of a minority report. This is the worst kind of malfeasance.
We also see in another quote that the JEC is wallowing in either wishful thinking or an arrogant desire to bullshit the rest of the party:
…in spite of the flap over a now resolved (not guilty) DWI case, Michelle McDonald for Supreme Court won 46.54% of the vote. This is higher than Johnson, McFadden, Severson, Gilbert and Newman – all the other MNGOP endorsed candidates
How stupid do these people think the rest of the party is?
The DWI is “now resolved” – but it wasn’t at election time. And the media certainly didn’t harp on “innocence until proven guilty”.
As to her turnout? As we pointed out the first time the JEC tried to use this chanting point to gull the gullible, it was BS. McDonald got 46% against Lillehaug, it’s true – but John Hancock got 42% against Mimi Wright, and virtually every contested judicial race in the state got 35-40%. McDonald outscored random, obstinate, uninformed noise by 4-6%. And while it’s possible she outperformed “background noise” due to her brilliant campaign, it’s also possible that a few thousand shooters voted against Darth Lillehaug, and would have no matter who was nominated.
My Conclusion, For Those Who Care?: The JEC exists for good reason. Minnesota’s judicial system needs changes, and the GOP needs to help drive those changes.
But most of its members need to go. Decency would involve resignations of the sitting membership for their malfeasance, or at least stupidity, in the McDonald flap. The JEC process is almost completely opaque to delegates, and even officers at the BPOU and Congressional District level. I’m an officer, and I have no idea how Judicial Districts elect officers and do business. It’s not just me.
The JEC, in my opinion, is a nook and cranny of the GOP that was built by, and is controlled by, a group of people who have turned it into their little political playground. This doesn’t serve the mission that the JEC has set out for itself.
Just my opinion. But I’m not alone.
As we’ll see, I’m sure, come the next State Convention.
Telling Tangent: Want to know something ironic? I might well have voted for McDonald even with the pending DUI charge, had the JEC tried a little honesty, and had McDonald spent more time tackling Darth Lillehaug than Keith Downey. But if I’d known about her involvement in the Grazzini-Rucki custody battle, I’d have voted for Charles Manson before I’d vote for McDonald. If McDonald was involved with kidnapping and brainwashing a couple of kids against their custodial father, she deserves much worse than losing an election.