To counter GOP meddling, some cannabis activists pushed effort to change party name
These days, Oliver Steinberg, chair and co-founder of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party, is feeling besieged on multiple fronts.
Since the party became one of two marijuana legalization parties to achieve major party status in 2018, interlopers have sought to use the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party to influence the outcome of competitive races.
Two years ago, some marijuana party candidates admitted they had been recruited by Republican operatives to run for races under the banner of the state’s two pro-legalization major parties, with the aim of siphoning Democratic votes and tipping races in favor of GOP candidates.
In some races, it may have made a difference.
Now, some frustrated Democrats and legal marijuana advocates appear to be fighting back.
Steinberg is decrying recent unsuccessful efforts by some party activists, who attempted to force what he called an “unauthorized” state convention to change the party’s name to “MAGA Party.” The aim would be to siphon GOP votes and counter any drafting of stand-in candidates by Republicans.
“Every opportunist and egotist and crank has decided that it’s open season on us,” Steinberg said.
The convention plans were detailed in a discussion between a DFL state representative, a House DFL staffer and Marcus Harcus, currently standing in as treasurer of the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party, who sought DFL help to push the name change.
Leaked audio published on YouTube features a nearly hour-long meeting that involved state Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis; Paul Cumings, a staffer for Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley; and Harcus, a longtime advocate for legalization.
Gomez said Harcus sought her expertise on how to stage a Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party convention. She said Harcus is a political ally who she worked with to shape the House DFL’s marijuana legalization legislation two years ago. She understood she would be providing broad guidance about how to plan and carry out a political convention, but that was it, she said.
“A friend reached out to ask me to help him with party development, including planning a convention,” Gomez said. “The substance of what the convention was dealing with wasn’t my concern.”
Cumings did not return a request for comment.
Some activists at the February precinct caucuses previously tried to rename the party “Marijuana Advocates with Governing Aspirations,” or MAGA. The nod to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan, they believed, would help lure GOP votes. But the plan failed.
Since then, Harcus has pushed to rename the party the Constitutional Liberty Party, which could also siphon votes from Republicans. Harcus argues that full DFL control of the Legislature is the quickest path to legalization. As long as Republicans keep recruiting marijuana legalization candidates to siphon votes away from Democrats and serve as spoilers, Harcus says, Republicans are more likely to retain control of the Legislature — and prevent legalization.
He recruited two other marijuana activists to join the party, and they pushed for a special convention to rename the party. The effort, Harcus said, created too much conflict, and in the end, the convention was canceled and the plans to force a name change were jettisoned.
Steinberg has opposed the name changes.
“His sentimental attachment to the party name is understandable,” Harcus said. Steinberg, he said, “doesn’t want to spoil races either, I know that, but sometimes it’s not about your intentions, it’s about the impact.”
Steinberg has learned that another candidate who filed to run under the party’s banner, Will Finn, is unlikely to be a bona fide pro-legalization candidate.
Finn, who filed to run for state auditor, is actually Kevin Finander, a South Saint Paul man who serves on the city’s library board.
“I am active politically as ‘Will Finn,’ he said in a text message. “It is how the Libertarians and pro-weed folks know me.”
Finander is also chair of the Taxation is Theft political action committee, a cause more typically associated with Republicans and which had $100 in its bank account, per campaign finance records. He said he is not Republican and also says he was not recruited by any political operative to run for the seat. His views are mixed but skew libertarian, he said.
He declined a phone interview and would only take questions over text.
He said he had tried running for state auditor by petitioning to run as a Taxation is Theft candidate “but petitioning by myself was brutal!” He also said he sought help for his candidacy from the Libertarian Party of Minnesota.
“I’ll take assistance from Anyone against our Common adversary,” he said in a text message, identifying the adversary as “Trumpian GOP.”
Told of Finander’s background and use of a political alias, Steinberg said he was frustrated to have another candidate use the party’s name for their own purposes.
The party has pushed for reform of the state’s ballot access law, which allows anyone to pay a filing fee and register to run under the banner of any of the state’s major parties.
Steinberg is adamant about preserving the integrity of his party and its aims. He said he is currently fighting to include Kevin “NeSe” Shores, a blind, disabled military veteran as their endorsed candidate for governor. He also hopes his party’s goals of legalizing marijuana don’t get overshadowed by political hijinks that he said ultimately deceive and mislead voters.
“We’re not going to be steamrolled,” Steinberg said.