Wednesday, May 31, 2006

COLUMN -- Jeffers challenges not just Pawlenty, but also GOP regard for principle

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:55 AM |  

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The radio host warned gubernatorial candidate Sue Jeffers that it was a question every politician had trouble with. Ready?

"Are you a dog or a cat person?"

"A dog person," Jeffers replied. Immediately bells and whistles started going off.

"Did I get it wrong?" she asked.

The host laughed. "No," he said. "You're just the first candidate that's given a straight answer."

Chances are the governor's election is not going to turn on the dog/cat issue, but the question of giving voters straight answers just might be a factor — especially for Republicans.

A lifelong Republican who volunteered for Gov. Tim Pawlenty's 2002 campaign, Jeffers is best known as a vocal leader in opposition to bar and restaurant smoking bans. She's also outspoken on private property rights, a supporter of no new taxes, and an opponent of publicly funded stadiums — traditional Republican positions.

So strong are her Republican credentials that party leadership encouraged her to run for City Council, the Minnesota House or Senate and even the 5th District congressional seat.

"I met with so many Republicans who were trying to get me to run as a Republican," Jeffers told MPR. "And I was too embarrassed. The Republicans have let us down."

Noting that she is 49 years old and doesn't have time "to start at the bottom," Jeffers, with characteristic decisiveness, decided to start at the top. In January, she announced as a Libertarian candidate for governor. She spoke at the Libertarian Party convention and received the party endorsement.

Whether an act of political naiveté or the sudden realization that her campaign was more than just a quixotic Libertarian endeavor, last month Jeffers announced she is challenging Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the Republican Party endorsement.

Slings and arrows. GOP leadership has called Jeffers' challenge a "publicity stunt," and has taken the politically practical but philosophically narrow view that the party should not provide a public stage for a candidate who has said that should she fail to get the party endorsement, she'll run against the GOP candidate in the general election. Party officials have lobbied a number of district convention managers to prevent Jeffers from addressing delegates. Second District Deputy Chair Mike Lindsay was not among those cowering.

According to Lindsay, whether Jeffers should be allowed to speak and obtain GOP delegate lists is decided by party rules. The Republican Party Constitution states that the only requirement to seek endorsement is agreement to run as a Republican if endorsement is granted. A candidate is under no obligation to not run or even support the party if endorsement isn't granted.

"By whose authority?" Lindsay responded when pressured by party leaders to forbid Jeffers from speaking, "No one individual or group has the authority to say who is and who is not a Republican worthy of endorsement. That is up to the delegates."

A matter of principle. Lindsay says he doesn't know Jeffers well enough to take a stand on her candidacy, but he does know the Republican Party preaches that it is a bottom-up party, not a top-down party, and that it should adhere to principle — and not just in intra-party matters.

"It's been the history of conservatism and the Republican Party that when we stand for what we believe, we win," he said. "When we do what we say, we win."

"The Republican leadership needn't be afraid to hear me talk," Jeffers told the 2nd District delegates. "I want what you want. Smaller, effective, affordable government. Lower taxes, safe neighborhoods, better roads, good schools and affordable health care. I want a party who will listen to the voters, who will follow the party platform and lead the state in a conservative direction."

DFL-lite: The irony of Jeffers' comments is that her statement is precisely why Republican leadership is afraid to have Jeffers talk. Party leadership has failed to grasp that Jeffers' message resonates with a significant segment of the GOP base.

The essence of the GOP campaign message is that things are OK, but think how bad things would be under the Democrats. That might get the party faithful to the polls, but it's not a message that will get them making phone calls and knocking on doors.

Jeffers' message is an unsettling reminder that Republicans are philosophically adrift and offering little more than a DFL-lite list of accomplishments. For the sake of the party that believes in academic freedom, it is best that message is heard, acted upon and not buried.