AN EDITORIAL PAGE'S INCUMBENT-PROTECTION POLICY

AN EDITORIAL PAGE’S INCUMBENT-PROTECTION POLICY
The following article by David Brauer appeared in the September 28, 2009, edition of MINNPOST

In 2005, Jason Stone’s insurgent bid for the Minneapolis Park Board received a boost when the Star Tribune endorsed him over incumbent Carol Kummer.

“Jason Stone is brimming with ideas and gets the clear edge over incumbent Carol Kummer in District 5,” wrote editorialists four years ago. “Stone wants to save money by collaborating with other metro park systems and proposes a more imaginative agenda than Kummer.”

Stone didn’t win that year, but he came within 3 percentage points of Kummer. However, there’s no chance he’ll get similar help this year. That’s because the Strib editorial board has instituted what is effectively an incumbent protection plan, no matter how worthy or chuckleheaded the incumbent.

As editorial writer Denise Johnson explained via email to Stone, “Due to time constraints and much smaller staff, the Star Tribune Editorial Department decided to limit endorsements for the Park Board to open seats only. Thank you for your interest and taking the time to contact me. Good luck with your campaign.”

Editorial page editor Scott Gillespie won’t confirm the policy. “I’m not interested in talking about our coverage plans with you or any other competitor,” he said via email.

That’s a bit of a headscratcher, since the Strib effectively has no competition. Nonprofits like MinnPost can’t endorse candidates, and Minneapolis’ biggest community papers, the Southwest/Downtown Journals, traditionally haven’t.

However, Michael Guest, who is challenging Park Board incumbent Jon Olson in District 2, confirms that he was also turned down for a screening. The policy apparently affects three of six district seats; there are nine overall.

Gillespie’s refusal to engage is also unfortunate because I sympathize with his predicament. Even before more recent cutbacks, editorialists sidestepped certain legislative races; Minneapolis State Rep. Jim Davnie says the editorial page bypassed his race every two years after he was first elected in 2000.

According to Susan Albright, Gillespie’s predecessor (and now a MinnPost editor), “To do endorsements right you need to both research and interview people, and when you’re swamped all the time it’s very difficult to add those interviews to the schedule.

“While I was there we tried interviewing some people in groups, including Park Board and School Board candidates, but that wasn’t entirely satisfactory, either. So I understand the reasoning — do fewer and do them well.”

Still, from this Minneapolis voter’s perspective, the incumbent-protection policy is far too blunt an instrument. The Park Board may seem like an ignorable low-level body, but this year it’s more newsworthy than ever.

Two City Councilmembers made a controversial push this year to eliminate the board, which controls a $58 million budget (not to mention amenities enjoyed by many Twin Citians).
Critics call the board duplicative — for example, the parks have their own police force — at a time when state aid is plunging and property taxes rising. Meanwhile, supporters say a Council takeover would drain parks resources.

Unlike Stone, Kummer and most park board candidates, this Minneapolis voter favors abolition, in part because commissioners fly so far under the radar. I doubt 500 people in Minneapolis can name all nine current commissioners, or even the four who represent them directly.

That’s one reason, come election time, the Strib’s evaluation is especially vital. Despite Stone’s ’05 loss, the editorial page has more influence in lesser-known races than high-profile ones.

What would I do if I were at 425 Portland? I understand the temptation to use a blanket policy that doesn’t take individual races into account, but I’d use a smart bomb instead of a blunt instrument.

Legislative seats like Davnie’s in Minneapolis are one thing — those are usually walkovers. Although I can’t confirm it with Gillespie, I hear the Strib is endorsing in some Minneapolis City Council races that aren’t real contests.

Meanwhile, the Stone-Kummer race (which also includes Steve Barland, Dan Peterson and McClain Looney) clearly merits attention, not only for 2005’s narrow margin and 2009’s stakes, but because Kummer hadn’t even planned on running. She filed on the final day, after another candidate dropped out.

Had that challenger stayed in, and Kummer stayed out, the District 5 seat would’ve been open and the Strib would be working up an endorsement. No incumbent deserves a pass just for being in office.