James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A new candidate for Congress, unknown but awake

In January, while a lot of disorganized grumbling about Rep. Marty Sabo's failure to use his congressional pulpit was going on, up popped Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.

Never heard of him?

Neither had I, nor most of the disgruntled Democrats and former Democrats who make up a substantial portion of my personal circle. The only one who had heard the name knew nothing more than that the guy had been involved in some anti-war activity or another.

One of the most active and effective members of the peace and justice movement sent an email one day stating that Nelson-Pallmeyer was going to have a meeting in a Minneapolis church in a couple of days to explore the possibility of running for Congress as a Democrat. That is, he was thinking about challenging Sabo for what undoubtedly is one of the safest Democratic seats in Congress, that of Minnesota's Fifth District -- Minneapolis and portions of some inner, mostly Democrat-leaning suburbs.

Because of the short notice, and other obligations, I was a bit late getting to the meeting and missed Nelson-Pallmeyer's short talk, but I did hear and see enough to be thoroughly surprised and to gain a glimmer of hope.

It would be rational to expect maybe 10 or 15 perpetually dissatisfied people to show up at such a largely unpublicized gathering. In fact, upward of 100 people were there. The age range probably ran from early 20s to late 70s, with no particular age group dominant. Judging by appearances, the crowd didn't represent a lot of wealth, but neither did it appear to be largely of any one economic level. A very attractive mix of voters, in other words.

A couple of people who already were part of the would-be candidate's budding organization spoke very well, though briefly, and then about a dozen people from the audience stepped unprepared to the microphone to state why they wanted someone other than Martin Sabo to represent the Fifth District in Congress.


Turns out that the grumbling I'd been doing for months (see the article immediately below this) was being repeated all over the district. There's no way yet of knowing how many others feel the same way, but I certainly had a substantial amount of company. The theme, repeated in brief statements by speaker after speaker, was that the seat should be occupied by someone with the guts and the ability to fight the Bush crowd and to take the fight to the people, to use the office to show the public what's wrong and what can be done about it.

So, politics, hope and human nature being what they are, it was not surprising that, after being pumped up at that meeting, Nelson-Pallmeyer decided to run.

Here's what we have at this point:

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a resident of south Minneapolis, is going to try to get the Democratic nomination for the Fifth District seat at the party caucuses March 7, facing a deeply entrenched incumbent who will have the full weight of the party organization behind him.

The new candidate, 55, is an associate professor of justice and peace studies (more on that later) at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He is the author of many articles and 11 books on topics such as religion and politics, how food is used in social and political battles, violence in the Bible and the Quran. He has a degree in political science from St. Olaf College, a high-ranking Lutheran college in Northfield, Minn., and also attended Union Theological Seminary in New York.

He has a stack of credits for work in this country and abroad for various humanitarian organizations.

Since that initial meeting, I have heard the man speak. He's articulate, conveys warmth to his audience and is remindful in some ways of both the late Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey in his early years in the Senate. That is, he has facts and numbers – verifiable facts and numbers – at his finger tips when speaking, as Humphrey did, but tends to be less pedantic in using them. He also recalls Wellstone's enthusiasm, though he's not so given to delivering stemwinders.

At early exposure, at least, he is on a personal and public-appearance level an extraordinarily attractive candidate.

From a liberal point of view, he's also talking about the right things. The Iraq war is at the top of his agenda, and he believes planning for a rapid pullout should be started immediately. He believes in strengthening and working through international systems to settle disputes and he is against American empire building. He sees degradation of the physical environment as a top priority and sees a direct connection between that, dependence on oil and true security. He's concerned about the educational system, making higher education affordable, maintaining the integrity of science and more. And he's willing to discuss both what is and what could be.

Beyond that, watch for his public appearances and campaign materials and see what he has to say.

I know little more than what's here and what I've heard him say, but it is enough for me to believe he would be a better, more active, more vocal and useful member of Congress than poor, tired Martin Sabo.

Obviously, it is highly unlikely that he will gain the Democratic nomination this year. Sabo is deeply dug in with the entrenched party regulars who are leading the Democrats toward yet more failure, and Nelson-Pallmeyer is unknown to the vast majority of people in the district.

Yet an upset is not impossible.

The Star Tribune will make light of Nelson-Pallmeyer and cover him in a demeaning way, when it deigns to mention him at all. That's not a guess, that's a fact. The picture it draws of him will not be accurate nor true. The only mention it has given the new candidate thus far was in liberal-leaning Doug Grow's column. There has yet to be a news story; the paper ignored his official announcement of candidacy. When it does acknowledge his presence in news articles, it will identify him as a lightweight “peace and justice” advocate – suggesting a rather dim and foolish individual – and rarely, if ever, mention his background, qualifications, thoughts or positions on other issues.

The editorial page staff – still liberal-leaning, unlike the news operation, which has been dragged to the right – will declare that the Democrats must, of course, stay with a reliable, proven Congressman in these troubled times and suggest that somewhere down the road perhaps Nelson-Pallmayer could be considered for office when he's paid his dues to the party and waited the appropriate number of years.

Still, don't call the man dead yet.

At the two gatherings at which I saw him, he generated an amazing degree of enthusiasm among the sort of people who who show up at caucuses and get themselves elected to county and state nominating conventions. Nelson-Pallmeyer and the people who have lined up with him – including some of his colleagues and a goodly number of his students and former students – seem to know how to organize for the caucuses, and they're diving into that with gusto.

If you can help, or come up with a few bucks for the campaign, please do so. The Democrats desperately need to replace the sleepwalkers.