An alleged attempt by Minnesota Democratic officials to change the name of a third party focused on marijuana to one meant to appeal to far-right conservatives is at the center of a political controversy, with some advocates calling the purported maneuver a clear example of corruption and others contending that it was an effort to restore democracy in the state.
The dispute largely focuses on an audio recording that surfaced late last week, which appears to depict a top staffer for Democratic House leadership and other party operatives seemingly conspiring to influence the outcome of the November elections by giving voters what would look like a Trump-affiliated party to support on the ballot as an alternative to the traditional Republican ticket. It would have also have the purported benefit for Democrats of taking off of the ballot one of two official cannabis-named parties that some believe have siphoned votes from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party in past elections.
The reported attempt to subvert the election did not go forward over the weekend, as allegedly planned, however. What needed to happen was for delegates at a scheduled convention to vote on a proposed name change, which insiders say would have changed the name of the “Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party” (GLC) to the “MAGA Party.”
SMOKING GUN on DFL Name ChangeGate:
"We don't give a shit if its unfair. We've got to get this done. We got to do it now or we're going to lose 7%. WE'RE GONNA LOSE WALZ if we don't do this. And we got to do it now. And being a nice is nice; fuck that. Lets just do it." #mnleg pic.twitter.com/2LtceIf3I0
— MN Up North Lake Guy (@MNUpNorthLakeG1) May 28, 2022
That specific “MAGA Party” name change wasn’t explicitly addressed in the recording, which reportedly involved House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler’s (DFL) chief of staff Paul Cumings, as well as Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL) and the campaign manager for Sen. Erin Murphy (DFL).
“We don’t give a shit if it’s unfair,” an unidentified person said on the recording ahead of the planned GLC convention, which was to take place on Saturday. “We gotta get this done. We gotta do it now or we’re going to lose seven percent. We’re going to lose [Gov. Tim Walz (D)] if we don’t do this shit. And we gotta do it and we gotta do it now, and being nice is nice, but fuck that. Let’s just do it.”
For context, Winkler has led the charge in getting legalization enacted in Minnesota, moving a bill through a dozen committees before it passed the full House last year, only to have reform efforts blocked in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Reached by phone on Monday, the leader’s chief of staff was repeatedly pressed by Marijuana Moment to comment on the veracity of the audio recording and said on three occasions that he has “no comment” when asked to confirm if he was involved.
Cumings did respond to a text from Marijuana Moment on Tuesday after this story was initially published, saying that while he stands by his “no comment statement” overall, he “did not say the quotes” from the the audio about the fairness and perceived political necessity of the move.
Minnesota election law allows parties to achieve major party status if, in a given election, one of their office-seekers secures at least five percent of the vote. Both GLC and a separate Legal Marijuana Now Party made the cut when a state auditor candidate for the latter party and an attorney general candidate for the former party narrowly met that threshold in 2018.
Allegations quickly surfaced that some Republicans sought to leverage those new ballot slots in a way that could attract voters who might have otherwise went for Democratic candidates in key races, potentially having compromised Democrats’ ability to win a majority in the state Senate.
The person on the recorded pre-convention call also suggested that the voting process to get a name change would be a simple matter, with whoever is elected the chair of the event being able to simply “gavel it through without debate.” As Alpha News reported, the unidentified person made similar remarks throughout the call.
“It’s up to the chair. He can say ‘in the view of the chair, the ayes have it’…and then adjourn the convention and be done in five minutes,” the person said. “Set the agenda, call for the name change and adjourn.” Another person on the call questioned the approach, calling it “not very democratic.”
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The planned convention was cancelled by organizers on Saturday morning, though some cannabis activists went to the local library where it was to be held to make speeches about what they saw as untoward political interference.
In any case, the abrupt cancellation of the GLC convention has raised an obvious question: did the leaked audio undermine the alleged plot?
Tuesday is the deadline to transmit a party name change to the secretary of state and would be the last opportunity to effectuate the switch for this election cycle.
Kurtis Hanna, a co-founder and contracted lobbyist with Minnesota NORML who describes himself on Twitter as a “Liberty Republican,” told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Friday that the audio about the alleged election conspiracy is a clear example of “extremely dirty politics,” but he also said he felt that Democrats were “overcorrecting,” because he believes that “the cannabis parties legitimately are going to pull from Republican candidates this year.”
Another activist, Marcus Harcus, who was seemingly gearing up to play the role of GLC convention chair at the now-canceled event, according to the leaked audio, has painted a different picture about the reason for the effort being called off, writing in a Facebook post that there were “some Republicans threatening to show up like a mob to disrupt the event we planned to hold to try to help save democracy and the legalization movement,” so they decided against going forward.
“We have also seen evidence that the GOP (Republicans) is sending a ‘van full of people,’ which means they plan to show up to cause confusion and chaos,” Harcus appeared to separately write in an email to top GLC members on Saturday, according to a screenshot posted to Twitter by Hanna. “While a majority of present board members did vote for this convention, we cannot ensure the safety of delegates and observers. We apologize for the inconvenience of this late cancellation and hope to find a peaceful resolution soon to support the mission of the Grassroots Party.”
— Kurtis Hanna (@CaptainKurtis) May 28, 2022
Marty Super, an executive member of GLC who unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat as a Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate in 2020, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that while he does believe that representatives of the DFL participated in the leaked call, he said it was principally “three people that are not affiliated” with the party who have spearheaded the plot.
He did point out, however, that the strategy of running candidates on third party tickets with ulterior political motives isn’t without precedent in Minnesota.
Republicans have “run candidates on our party name because they feel that they’ll get take votes away from the DFL by having a candidate, a pro-marijuana candidate,” he said. “They did that. They put quite a few candidates on either of the two marijuana parties in Minnesota here.”
“We don’t know whether it took the votes away from the DFL or not, but they did get a lot of votes,” he said. “And in a couple of races, it did make a difference in swing districts.”
The Democratic operatives and other activists’ “idea was to change the name of the party to sound like a Republican Party and hope that that then takes votes away from the Republicans—kind of, you know, tit for tat,” Super said. However, because the convention event was cancelled, he said that this point, “we would actually like to have it go away right now.”
Meanwhile, Republican officials have keyed in on the leaked audio, expressing surprise that some of their Democratic colleagues may have been willing to go ahead with a name change in seemingly bad faith.
The Republican Party of Minnesota blasted the alleged Democratic conspiracy in a Tweet, for example, linking to the audio of the pre-convention discussion.
Democrats “can’t fix the economy, the crime wave or the other massive problems they’ve created, so they’re trying to fix a convention to disenfranchise voters,” the party said in the Twitter post on Friday. “Minnesotans know better and won’t fall for Democrats’ smoke-blowing schemes.”
.@MinnesotaDFL can't fix the economy, the crime wave or the other massive problems they've created, so they're trying to fix a convention to disenfranchise voters. Minnesotans know better and won't fall for Democrats' smoke-blowing schemes.https://t.co/iH8oVdzwVB
— Republican Party of Minnesota (@mngop) May 28, 2022
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, a former state senator, questioned why Democratic staff were allegedly involved in “trying to hijack a convention and change the name of a political party they’re not part of.”
A disturbing thread. Why are Democrat (DFL) staffers trying to hijack a convention and change the name of a political party they're not part of?….
— Scott Jensen (@drscottjensen) May 28, 2022
“Um wut?,” Minnesota House GOP legislative director Gavin Hanson said simply in response to the news.
Um wut? https://t.co/rbnCSzD7J7
— Gavin Hanson (@gavinhanson) May 27, 2022
But it’s not only Republicans who are pushing back against the alleged Democratic plot.
Richard Painter, a former White House ethics lawyer who is running as a DFL congressional candidate in the state, said that the recording and alleged plot constitutes a “blatant effort to deceive voters.”
Changing the name of a progressive marijuana legalization party to the “MAGA Party” is a blatant effort to deceive voters. These scammers should be thrown out of any party that wants the confidence of voters.
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) May 30, 2022
A Cannabis MAGA Party? What are these people smoking? https://t.co/49goknSAGw
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) May 30, 2022
These “scammers should be thrown out of any party that wants the confidence of voters,” Painter said in a tweet.
Hanna, for his part, said he wasn’t sure if the alleged conspiracy to siphon votes through the convention process constitutes criminal activity. But he claimed he’s spoken with at least one state representative who thinks that could be the case.
This story has been updated to clarify that sources have given varying input to Marijuana Moment about who could be heard making specific statements in the leaked audio.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.