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DFL to open low-key convention with an eye to engaging voters

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Heading into the state convention weekend that marks the kickoff of campaign season, the re-election pitch from Minnesota’s dominant Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is clear: Keep us in charge.

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“I think the biggest message is promises made, promises kept,” said Ken Martin, chairman of the DFL Party, which opens its state nominating convention in Duluth today. Republicans open their convention the same day in Rochester.

For the first time in a long time, not much competition is expected at the DFL convention.

Top-of-the-ticket candidates Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken are all but guaranteed nominations and will be there to give acceptance speeches. That’s a big difference from the last time the two hit the campaign trail and had to beat out primary challengers before going on to win the general election.

The only competitive statewide race is further down the ticket. Secretary of state hopeful Debra Hilstrom, a Brooklyn Center state representative, faces her colleague Steve Simon, who represents St. Louis Park, for the nomination.

Outside of that race, expect candidates to focus on recent accomplishments and look ahead to what they’d like to do in the future. DFLers have a lengthy legislative record to run on given the short time they’ve held control of the House and Senate chambers and the governor’s office.

In the past two years, the DFL has raised the minimum wage, legalized gay marriage and medical marijuana, raised taxes to balance the state budget, then cut taxes when there was a surplus. They’ve passed a $500 million in new education funding, completed the repayment of $2.8 billion borrowed from schools and increased money for all-day kindergarten and preschool.

That’s quite different from Dayton’s first two years in office, when Republicans ran the House and Senate and he vetoed 57 pieces of legislation. Those two years also included a nearly three-week government shutdown.

With the state’s economic engine chugging along, expect DFLers to cite their stewardship of state government as part of the reason Minnesota continues to outpace much of the U.S. economically. Minnesota’s unemployment rate shrank to 4.7 percent in April, compared to the 6.3 percent national rate, even as the state posted the fourth consecutive month of job loses.

“I think we’ve made a great deal of progress since I took office,” Dayton said Wednesday in an interview. “We have 160,000 more Minnesotans working now than when I took office in January 2011. We’ve made some excellent progress, and we have a lot more to do. We have too many people out of work or looking for better jobs than they what they have.”

If he wins a second term, Dayton said he’ll continue his economic focus by keeping education as a top priority and finding a way to fund the state’s myriad of transportation needs.

“We have over 60,000 jobs right now in Minnesota that are vacant because employers are looking for people with skills that the workforce right now or young people looking for jobs haven’t gained,” Dayton said. “We have to get our higher education system better aligned with the jobs of the future.”

The governor said he is prepared to defend both the Affordable Care Act and MNsure, the state’s health care exchange, which experienced near disastrous rollouts. Despite the rocky start, Dayton said both will prove to be beneficial by covering more Minnesotans and keeping health care costs down.

“I think we have an important challenge to set the record correct on MNsure and the Affordable Care Act,” Dayton said.

Despite their accomplishments, the DFL has a tough fight to keep one-party rule in St. Paul. Keeping the House is seen as being the biggest challenge. There are no Senate seats on the November ballot.

Last election cycle, DFLers snatched several House seats that typically lean to the GOP to secure a majority. Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said that will be tough to pull off again.

“I think it’s an uphill battle to keep the House,” Jacobs said. “The thing that defeats Democrats this year is if their supporters don’t show up at the ballot box.”

Party chair Martin agrees that enthusiasm and turnout will be essential for the DFL in November.

“I’m not worried about Republicans at this point. I think this is one of the weakest fields they’ve had,” Martin said. “I’m most worried about Democrats’ enthusiasm. We have to remind them elections have consequences. If you stay home, you essentially are voting Republican.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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