Just how important is an endorsement from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association this election cycle?
Ask state Rep. Dan Wolgamott, a St. Cloud DFLer in a swing seat whose campaign brochures feature a picture of the organization’s badge — sized as large as his head. “It’s certainly the one (endorsement) that comes up the most,” Wolgamott said.
Wolgamott is not the only candidate who feels that way. The MPPOA’s stamp of approval has become a fixture across much of the state in 2022, adorning television ads, mailers and websites for a wide swath of Republicans — and a few Democrats — hoping to portray themselves as supporters of law enforcement as they seek offices at the state Capitol or in Congress.
That’s in part because crime is a top issue for voters. But it’s also evidence of the MPPOA’s notable and changing impact. The 10,400-member organization representing frontline officers and other first responders is an influential and unique political actor.
The MPPOA is now a mainstay in the Republican Party and is detested by many on the left after the murder of George Floyd, despite a long history of favoring the DFL. At the same time, Democrats in some of Minnesota’s most important elections seek, and sometimes win, the organization’s endorsement, making the MPPOA one of the few political groups across the state to back candidates from both of the two biggest parties.
The MPPOA once backed the DFL
Individual county sheriffs sometimes make political endorsements, as do a handful of police unions like the Ramsey County Deputies’ Federation. But the MPPOA is by far the largest and most prominent police group active in political campaigns, especially since the associations representing police chiefs and sheriffs don’t make endorsements.
And it wasn’t so long ago that the MPPOA threw its collective weight behind most Democrats. While not a union, executive director Brian Peters said collective bargaining and union rights have typically been main issues for the trade association. That led to a strong preference for the DFL.
In 2012, for instance, a campaign organization tied to the MPPOA ran ads against many Republicans, including one in a swing district opposing King Banaian, who was a GOP state representative in St. Cloud. A flier bashed Banaian as “putting public safety at risk,” in part for votes related to crime lab funding and domestic violence services.
In an email shortly before the 2012 election, Banaian speculated the MPPOA endorsed his opponent because it was “most likely unhappy about my pension work.” The Republican lost.
In the 2016 election, the MPPOA endorsed 32 DFLers for the state Senate, including many lawmakers from the more liberal wing of the party like Roseville Sen. John Marty. In the House, the MPPOA backed 39 Democrats. Republicans earned just four endorsements in the Senate and 14 in the House that year.
Even as recently as 2018, the MPPOA backed more Democrats for state House than Republicans. The organization also endorsed U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Collin Peterson, along with three Republicans.
That shifted sharply in 2020. The MPPOA endorsed 43 Republicans for state Senate that year and 87 Republicans for state House. The organization endorsed just 12 Democrats across the two chambers.
This year, the MPPOA has endorsed 45 Republicans for state Senate and 85 Republicans in the state House — compared to just eight DFLers between the two chambers. And nearly all the group’s political fundraising has gone toward Republican candidates.
Relationship between DFL, MPPOA deteriorates
Peters said the political swing from the DFL to Republicans at the Legislature was sparked by the DFL’s police reform agenda after Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in 2020.
In response to the killing, Democrats led by lawmakers of color sought wide-ranging changes to policing, like tougher laws governing when officers can use deadly force and the ability for cities to impose a residency requirement on officers. A House bill with many of the proposals was passed with wide support among the DFL majority.
Most Democrats saw the package of bills as part of a justified effort to reduce deaths at the hands of police and make systemic change to hold officers accountable. And many viewed the MPPOA — which has a legal defense fund for officers accused of crimes like Chauvin — as resisting change.
The Republican-led Senate, however, blocked many of the House DFL plans, siding with the MPPOA, which argued much of the DFL legislation would interfere with the work of officers or make their jobs more dangerous or difficult. The House and Senate did agree to a more limited set of police reform and accountability laws, including restricting chokeholds and warrior-style training.
Peters said the MPPOA was open to reform, pointing to his participation on a task force with Attorney General Keith Ellison before Floyd was murdered. The task force recommendations later helped inform what lawmakers did pass.
“At the end of the day we need legislators who will stand up for the profession and will stand against their party if appropriate,” Peters said. “The Republicans really came in, and at the time it was Paul Gazelka, the Senate Majority Leader, who stood his ground and didn’t allow a lot of the negative police reform stuff.”
Similar cycles played out after two Black men, Daunte Wright and Amir Locke, were killed by police in 2021 and 2022. For instance, House DFLers wanted to sharply limit no-knock search warrants both years, but the Senate agreed only to some regulations on them.
Another flash point was many Democrats pushing to ban officers from being part of white supremacists hate groups, citing in part extremists with military or law enforcement ties at the U.S. Capitol during the pro-Trump riot on January 6, 2021. The MPPOA was unhappy with the suggestion that local police ranks were infiltrated by white supremacists, Peters said, and instead backed GOP legislation that would have blocked officers from being part of a wider range of hate groups. The police licensing board eventually adopted an anti-white supremacist policy on its own.
Outside of the Minnesota Capitol, other issues have caused the relationship between the MPPOA and the DFL to deteriorate. One example was the burning of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd precinct, and the majority of the Minneapolis council vowing to dismantle the department amid cries from some activists to defund or abolish MPD. The U.S. House passed a bill that would have stripped “qualified immunity” legal protections from officers, which the MPPOA opposed.
The organization was frustrated by what they felt was a muted response to Rep. John Thompson beating effigies of former Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll and his wife Liz Collins at a protest outside their house. And then there was a contentious debate over the public safety charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a department of public safety.
Rep. Athena Hollins, a Democrat from St. Paul who proposed stronger no-knock warrant restrictions, said an MPPOA endorsement would likely not be viewed as a positive in the Twin Cities core even though she didn’t criticize other DFLers around the state who asked for MPPOA support. That negative outlook on the MPPOA came after the killing of Floyd and Philando Castile, she said.
“I’m trying to think of how to say this diplomatically,” Hollins said. “There was sort of a divide, I would say, between the community and law enforcement, and there was definitely a sense within the community that the law enforcement was there and MPPOA was there to protect its officers and not to look out for the good of community members.”
At the State Capitol, she said the MPPOA has been “steadfast in support of the status quo” and less open to change than other police groups like the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Hollins said she felt the MPPOA wouldn’t engage with DFL lawmakers advocating for wider reform. Peters said he felt the DFL ignored many of their earnest suggestions on policy.
When the MPPOA endorsed Republican Scott Jensen for governor, the group held a press conference outside of the 3rd precinct building. “Over my shoulder used to be a police department,” Peters said. “It’s no longer there. Gov. (Tim) Walz has been missing in action during his term.”
MPPOA as Republican fixture
Asked why the MPPOA endorsed just eight DFL legislative candidates, Peters said the group’s board of directors was disappointed in many Democrats they used to support and wanted to give Republicans an opportunity to “deliver on what they’re campaigning on, which is tough on crime.” The GOP has pushed for tougher sentencing and more money for police to help with recruitment and retention problems that are a top concern for the MPPOA.
Many in the DFL, including Walz, also pushed for more money at the Legislature earlier this year to help police with recruitment and retention issues, but a contingent in the party were hesitant to approve that cash without money for other public safety initiatives. The Legislature this year failed to reach a deal on public safety spending using its large surplus.
The MPPOA has backed many Republicans in swing seats thought to be crucial to the balance of power in the Legislature, such as GOP Rep. John Heinrich of Anoka or Republican Heidi Gunderson, who is the mayor of Vadnais Heights.
Gunderson said voters view most endorsements as “just a logo on a lit piece.” But this year, public safety is a top issue for voters, so she crafted a mailer entirely on public safety featuring the MPPOA endorsement and other law enforcement support.
Gunderson’s opponent, DFLer Brion Curran of Vadnais Heights, has prominently highlighted her own experience as a former police officer and promises to invest money to boost public safety. But Gunderson said if the two candidates are debating who truly supports cops — only she is endorsed by the MPPOA, along with the Ramsey County Deputies Federation and Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
The MPPOA also endorsed GOP attorney general candidate Jim Schultz, who has made fighting crime his top issue. Schultz has also been endorsed by 40 sheriffs, and has campaigned on that support from law enforcement.
In fact, the MPPOA has become so ingrained in Republican politics, the organization took what Peters said was a new step by intervening in primary races and endorsement contests. In the governor’s race, the MPPOA endorsed Gazelka, viewing him as a key ally from the police reform debate at the Legislature.
The organization also endorsed, or spent money on behalf of, several more centrist Republican candidates in primary races that featured harder-right foes, some with ties to the far-right Action 4 Liberty group.
For instance, the MPPOA donated $1,000 this year to state Rep. Tony Jurgens of Cottage Grove in a senate primary against Republican Tom Dippel, who had aligned with a New House Republican Caucus that often fights with GOP leaders and accuses them of being not conservative enough.
“We want to support people that are a little bit more moderate,” Peters said. “Not saying that far left and far right won’t work together, but there’s just such strong differences” on issues like police reform.
The MPPOA endorsement may be highly sought after by candidates, but it did not always convince Republican primary voters and activists. While some of the organization’s favored candidates won, Dippel crushed Jurgens, and the MPPOA-endorsed Tina Riehle also lost to Action 4 Liberty-backed Mark Bishofsky. (The MPPOA has since endorsed Dippel but not Bishofsky.)
Gazelka also lost his bid for the GOP governor’s endorsement. After Gazelka quit the race while trailing in several rounds of endorsement balloting, the MPPOA threw its support behind businessman Kendall Qualls. When Qualls spoke to the crowd, the big screen on stage at the Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center displayed proof of that endorsement rather than the usual video of Qualls himself.
Qualls gains MPPOA endorsement. (Originally they endorsed Gazelka.) pic.twitter.com/Tioa8SNMo8
— Dave Orrick (@DaveOrrick) May 14, 2022
But Jensen won the Republican endorsement. And the MPPOA followed suit, backing Jensen roughly five months later.
Some DFLers win MPPOA backing
Even as the MPPOA has embraced the GOP, Peters said more candidates than ever seek their endorsement, including some Democrats.
The organization does interviews and has a questionnaire for candidates, which asks how politicians will promote and protect legislation that impacts public safety services, whether they will support pension, benefits and collective bargaining rights for officers and what proposals they don’t support in the public safety discussion. Ultimately, the board of directors led by David Titus makes the endorsement decision.
Some DFLers were rejected by the MPPOA, much to the frustration of former Austin mayor and police officer Tom Stiehm running for state House. But the MPPOA has backed a few DFLers, and several of them are in crucial swing seats that could help Democrats keep control of the state House and U.S. House.
In the Minnesota Legislature, that includes Wolgamott, the representative from St. Cloud, who said an MPPOA endorsement can help debunk any “conspiracy theories” that he supported defunding police. Republicans have tried to tie many DFLers to the defund movement for two election cycles.
The MPPOA also backed DFL state Reps. Rob Ecklund of International Falls and Dave Lislegard of Aurora in what are expected to be close races.
Leslie Rosedahl, a spokeswoman for the MPPOA, said Ecklund and Lislegard are champions on labor issues. MPPOA staff highlighted several bills they supported tied to pensions, labor agreements, increased local government subsidies and frontline worker pay.
For Congress, the MPPOA backed U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat from the 2nd Congressional District in one of the most important swing races in the country. In 2020, the MPPOA backed Kistner. (The organization this year also endorsed U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, from the 3rd District.)
Several of Craig’s television ads tout her opposition to the Minneapolis charter amendment, and support from the MPPOA and Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie.
Peters said endorsing Craig “made some people angry,” especially after she voted for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in Congress, which would have restricted qualified immunity. But he said Craig “came in, she interviewed, she owned it.”
“She said: ‘Knowing what I know now I would vote different if that came to my desk,’” according to Peters. In endorsing Craig, an MPPOA news release cited Craig’s advocacy for increased funding for local and federal police, measures that sometimes angered members of the Congressional Black Caucus and progressives who wanted new accountability standards.
The MPPOA also cited legislation Craig championed to provide death and disability benefits to police and their families if officers have PTSD or die by suicide. That bill became law.
The MPPOA is one of a handful of high-profile political organizations to back Republican and Democratic candidates, making it something of a rarity in Minnesota. Some trades unions endorse in both parties, such as the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 and the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce mostly backs Republicans but sometimes supports Democrats.
Peters said the MPPOA is “not going to shy away from supporting people that have supported us.” There’s also, perhaps, a benefit to not closing the door entirely on the DFL, especially in a state where Democrats often control some levers of power in the government.
“If you only work with one side that may be good for you now but that may hurt you down the line,” Peters said. “I think people now are kind of coming back to ‘we need to work together on these issues,’ because look at recruiting and retention, look at crime. One party is not going to be able to solve that on their own.”