Minnesotans haven't elected a Democratic governor in 24 years, Beltrami County DFLers heard over and over Sunday by a handful of would-be governors.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, evoked the name of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, saying he's another progressive Democrat with fire in his belly.
"I'm a little guy from the Range," Rukavina told nearly 90 Beltrami County DFLers at their convention Sunday at Bemidji State's Beaux Arts Ballroom. "But 20 years ago there was a little populist with a lot of ideas and people said he couldn't win. But Paul Wellstone won."
Rukavina was the only gubernatorial candidate winning delegates from Beltrami County with three. Six delegates will go to the April 23-25 state convention as uncommitted.
"I'm just a common, ordinary person," said Rukavina, chairman of the House Higher Education and Workforce Committee. "I can connect with the most liberal, progressive in the state and those blue-collar workers we've been losing."
Said he's been called the "love child between Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura," Rukavina said he has "a fire in my gut, and I've got a lot of passion in my heart, and I know with you I can win this election."
He was light on proposals, saying as chairman of workforce development, he has worked for years on job creation and on green energy projects. He also called education the way to a job and to better pay.
Fellow Iron Ranger Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, called the fall election "a very pivotal election" with Minnesota at a fork in the road.
"Never before will we have a governor as powerful as the next," Bakk said, saying Gov. Tim Pawlenty's use of unallotment to balance a state budget that had yet to take effect set new precedent, if it stands in court.
"Never before has the power of unallotment that Tim Pawlenty's used been used in that way," he said. "The next governor will be facing a $5.4 billion deficit, with the power to unilaterally hold the budget by him or herself."
Because the balance of power is so badly tipped, this election must be won by Democrats, Bakk said.
Bakk says his "jobs, jobs, jobs" campaign message is based on his background as carpenter who has gone without a paycheck. Also, as chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee, he said the economy must grow jobs as the state budget deficit can't be solved by cutting spending or raising taxes.
"The third reason is pure politics," Bakk said. "You think of this election, we Democrats have to do a little soul-searching. We have lost five governor's elections in a row. This is not a blue state in the governor's race."
Swing voters will determine the next election, he said, in rural Minnesota. "I understand the state better than other candidates ... I understand the entire state."
As House minority leader, former Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, said he also understands the state, helping to bring the DFL to majority power in 2004. He cited Frank Moe's win in Bemidji over three-term Republican Rep. Doug Fuller.
"This state gave me all the opportunities that I have," said the Worthington native and Twin Cities attorney who founded the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020. "It gave me the opportunity to get a good education right out of high school. It gave me the opportunity to go to law school at the University of Minnesota."
He noted the Bemidji area is now "100 percent Democrat." The House was down 28 seats from being a majority when Entenza took the lead role, he said, and was told that cities like Bemidji and Park Rapids would never be turned to DFL.
"We need tough leadership, we need strong leadership," he said. Entenza and then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson in 2005 called Pawlenty's bluff and forced the governor to shut down state government.
"We didn't want that, but the governor wouldn't negotiate," Entenza said, adding that among Pawlenty's pitches was to end MinnesotaCare and to deeply cut Local Government Aid. "I believe we aren't elected to hold office, we're elected to get things done."
The shutdown ended in eight days, with Pawlenty signing bills with the only real increase in revenues, he said, although there was a squabble over health impact fee or tax on cigarettes.
"We need to make sure we have a new sustainable environment, that we have respect for sovereignty and real partnerships with our tribes, that we expand MinnesotaCare and health care, and that we have a governor who will be strong and tough in a good DFL tradition," Entenza said.
Rukavina, Bakk and Entenza were the only gubernatorial candidates to speak to delegates, but a number of surrogates spoke for other candidates.
"A mother knows a lot about a person," said Lorraine Rybak Nelson, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's mother. "I know more about R.T. than anybody."
She told of being a single mother running a drug store near downtown Minneapolis and raising and educating a family.
"He is a proven leader, he has been a leader all of his life," said Nelson. "He's also a person who knows how to handle people and crises."
She said her son as mayor has balanced eight city budgets. "That's being fiscally responsible -- he learned that from me. He also knows how important it is for everyone to succeed in this world."
Minnesota needs a Democratic governor, she said, "someone who appeals to people all over this state ... The grass-roots people flock to him."
Nelson urged to Democrats to solidify behind whoever is endorsed at the state convention.
Karen Thissen spoke on behalf of her husband, Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and chairman of the House Health and Human Services Policy and Oversight Committee.
Paul Thissen's "clear and decisive leadership" is a reason to endorse his candidacy, Karen Thissen said. "He has a proven and successful track record on state-level issues like health care, education and economic development, and that track record is in the partisan environment of the State Capitol."
He's also "a fresh, energetic new face in the DFL who can beat the Republicans in November," she said. "We're not nominating a candidate, we are nominating a governor. Paul's going to do particularly well in November against Republicans.
"He is not weighed down by institutional political baggage like a lot of other candidates in the race," Karen Thissen said. "He can focus on Minnesota's future, he can be a fresh face in the DFL, and that will make him particularly strong in November."
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher "absolutely is the candidate who has one foot very firmly in the rural area and in the metro area," said Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, who spoke on behalf of Kelliher's bid for governor.
Sailer said she has worked closely with Kelliher and recommends her candidacy as a rural and metro candidate. "She knows and understands our part of the country, of the state, and she also a very, very good understanding of the metro area."
All of the candidates are "great people,' Sailer said, "but we need somebody who can win throughout the state."
Sailer said she was particularly pleased with Kelliher's leadership in a House override of a Pawlenty veto of transportation funding that included a phased-in gasoline tax hike, the first in 20 years.
Herb Davis, a DFL delegate from a southern county, spoke on behalf of Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who cited his work in health care.
"He supports universal health care and a single-payer system," Davis said. "Go on his Web site, and to know what he believes is to know me."
Local legislators Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, also addressed the convention but only to urge support of the endorsed candidate for governor, that the governor's office must be taken by Democrats in the fall.
Greg Paquin, who was elected as a delegate, spoke about his Senate 4 DFL candidacy against Olson, saying affirmative action laws must be enforced and that more American Indians need to hold elective office.