After a successful showing at the April 4 precinct caucuses, DFL Rep. Raymond Dehn walked into Kolthoff Hall Thursday with a wide smile.
Dehn, a 2017 Minneapolis mayoral candidate, was there to meet with members of Students for Raymond Dehn, a University of Minnesota student group formed in March.
He spent an hour in a small classroom reviewing the precinct caucuses and answering questions from the seven audience members, who laughed at his jokes and listened intently.
The students asked about affordable housing, minimum wage and community policing after Dehn shared what his campaign took away from April 4.
“It’s a tossup between [City Council Member Jacob Frey] and myself,” Dehn said. “[Mayor Betsy Hodges] was somewhat of a distant third. Everybody’s talking about the race a whole lot differently.”
Dehn, a University alumnus, is the only candidate with an active student group on campus and employs a recent graduate — also a former student body president — as his campaign manager.
Dehn hopes his targeting of the student population will mobilize them to vote for him in large numbers and propel him to victory.
But his early advantage with students might not last long.
Frey said he plans to launch a group on campus sometime soon, and a Hodges spokesperson said the campaign would meet with student groups but isn’t sure if the campaign will need a student group of its own beyond College Democrats and others.
Dehn emerged as a legitimate challenger to Hodges after the precinct caucuses, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz.
“There seems to be a little buzz about [Dehn] that I don’t see for the other candidates,” he said. “Coming out of the caucuses, I actually think he’s the strongest [alternative] to [Hodges] now.”
Pursuing student votes
About 33 percent of eligible Minneapolis voters participated in the 2013 election with most University precincts averaging well below that.
At Thursday’s meeting, sophomore Alaina Friedrich said this level of engagement is new for students.
“Students may not vote because no one engages students,” Dehn said. “If you engage students, you can get those votes.”
Schultz said a strategy that engages with students is smart and makes sense in Minneapolis, as Minnesota students vote more frequently than others nationally.
The city is in a generational shift of how a Democrat is defined, he said, and Rep. Ilhan Omar — who recently endorsed Dehn — beating a longtime incumbent was one example of that.
Dehn said he sees himself as the most progressive candidate.
“We’ll know in November whether it’s the right strategy,” Schultz said. “If… that shift is in fact occurring, somebody who better understands that shift as a campaign manager or staffer certainly makes sense.”
Other candidates have attempted this in the past, said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. While it hasn’t always led to victory, Dehn has done a “great job” of focusing on the University, he said.
“The challenge is being organized and not falling asleep at the switch,” Jacobs said. “Some candidates think it’s a matter of a couple talks. You really got to put some muscle into it.”
But other candidates will join Dehn’s campus presence soon. Frey said listening to students is key, as they are the drivers of progressivism.
“We’re going to have a full effort of hiring workers and volunteers from the University,” Frey said. “When students are committed, excited and passionate, amazing things happen.”
Alida Tieberg, communications director for Hodges’ campaign, said the campaign will reach out to existing student groups.
Taking a page from Ilhan
At 22, Joelle Stangler is the head of Dehn’s campaign.
She was the Minnesota Student Association president from April 2014 to July 2016 and recently worked as deputy campaign manager for Rep. Ilhan Omar’s DFL-Minneapolis bid for District 60B, which covers the University area.
Dehn also hired Patrick Alcorn as his field director. Alcorn is a 2015 University alumnus who also served on Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016.
Omar won partly by mobilizing students. In a primary race where nearly 6,000 people voted, up 1,600 from the previous election, Stangler estimated that 800 ballots were cast by students.
Stangler said former Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who held that seat for 44 years, lost to Omar because she didn’t engage the students of her district.
Sophomore Sonia Neculescu, one of Dehn’s campus directors, said students have latched onto Dehn because he connects with the struggles of Minneapolis and its students, as he is still paying student loan debts.
“He really is making an effort to engage with students,” she said. “He’s the only candidate that has a strong student presence on campus.”
Jacobs said students could make a difference in the mayoral election, even though it encompasses more people than District 60B.
“The most efficient thing for Dehn to do is to try to tap some of that Omar magic in his own drive to build support,” he said.
But the campaign isn’t just after students, Stangler said, as Dehn has a base of support from three successful state legislative bids and can target voters who haven’t been reached by previous campaigns.
“It would be silly to think a candidate could just win on a ground full of young people,” Stangler said. “We know that if young people turn out in large numbers and are backing Ray, we’ll be in a good place.”
The key for Dehn will be mobilizing students this summer for the July DFL convention, Schultz said.
Omar’s primary was in mid-August and enough students showed up to elect her, something Dehn will likely have to replicate to defeat the still-favorite Hodges, Schultz said.
Before the precinct caucuses, Dehn said people saw the mayoral race as between just Hodges and Frey.
But with the April 4 results, he feels he has momentum and the race has shifted.
“People like to think Ilhan was an anomaly but it’s not,” Stangler said. “If you genuinely engage young people and you give them power over their own electoral destiny, you’re going to have success on the ballot.”
Alida Tieberg is a former Minnesota Daily reporter.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Alcorn's prior experience. He worked on Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.