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As dust settles, MN's post-session turnover begins

The makeup of the state Legislature that will sit down for the 2006 session starting in March may depend on what happens in St. Cloud.

That’s because for sure one but possibly as many as three legislators will be giving up their seats in the hotly divided St. Cloud area-one DFLer and two Republicans.

Both houses of the Legislature have narrow political margins, but the House is closer with only a two-Republican majority.

The one confirmed departure is seven-term DFL Rep. Joe Opatz of St. Cloud, who has taken the job of interim president of Central Lakes College, a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities school with campuses in Brainerd and Staples.

Opatz is an associate vice president at St. Cloud State University.

The two possibilities-both Republicans-are four-term state Sen. Dave Kleis of St. Cloud, and state Rep. Jim Knoblach, St. Cloud’s other state representative. Last week Kleis filed to run for the job of mayor of St. Cloud; Knoblach is running for the 6th congressional district seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Republican. Kennedy is running for the U.S. Senate next year.

Both Kleis and Knoblach will stay in their current jobs if they don’t win the races they’ve entered.

Another legislator who’s definitely leaving his current job is state Sen. Mark Ourada, R-Buffalo. Ourada wouldn’t return calls, but according to a story in the Associated Press, Ourada has taken a job with an association of coal, rail and energy companies in the Washington, D.C. area.

But the district Ourada represents, which is west of the Twin Cities and is part rural and part exurban, is solidly Republican.

That can’t be said of the St. Cloud area.

Blois Olson, co-publisher of Politics in Minnesota, expects the special election for the open House seat in St. Cloud to be hotly contested.

“With the departure of Opatz-that’s a swing district that the Democrats need to hold on to,” Olson said. “And so it will be a very hotly contested special election and general election next year because he’s been a very established incumbent.”

A 13-year veteran of the House, Opatz counts among his achievements the so-called 48-hour law in 1996 that ensures new mothers and their babies don’t have to leave the hospital too quickly after delivery.

“That set the standard nationally and that became a national law,” Opatz said.

Opatz came to the Legislature when he was 40 and would now like to advance in higher education administration.

“I’ve been feeling lately it was time to look for opportunities in my career field,” Opatz said.

He plans to meet with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and discuss the appropriate time to leave the Legislature prior to the 2006 legislative session that begins March 1.

In keeping with the political diversity of his district, Opatz described himself as a centrist and noted he received endorsements from labor and business groups alike. Opatz was vice chairman of the Education Finance Committee, one of three DFL House members given vice chairmanships by House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, before the 2005 regular legislative session.

Opatz will maintain neutral in the special election. “My district is a swing district. I replaced a Republican. It could go either way,” he said.

Another possible shakeup in St. Cloud, this one coming from the other side of the aisle, stems from news that four-term Republican state Sen. Dave Kleis filed this week for mayor.

Then there’s Kleis.

Though he has said he’ll remain a state Senator if he loses to mayoral incumbent John Ellenbecker, a victory would leave open a seat that has been hotly contested in the past.

Kleis, who beat out Opatz in a special election for the Senate in 1994, faced his first reelection challenge from Ellenbecker in 1996 and won with 53.6 percent of the vote. Since then Kleis has faced two challenges from DFLer Tarryl Clark. Kleis survived the 2002 election by less than three percentage points.

“If the voters of St. Cloud determine that they want to continue with their current mayor, I’ll serve in the Senate,” Kleis said.

The St. Cloud mayor’s election is Nov. 8.

Knoblach threw his hat into the 6th congressional district ring several months ago. As of June 30, Knoblach’s congressional campaign reported $152,000 in cash on hand, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Knoblach, chairman of the House budget writing Ways and Means Committee, has been elected to his seat by wide margins since his first election, also in 1994.

The congressional elections are more than a year away.

It’s possible that the entire St. Cloud delegation could change faces. But St. Cloud State University political science professor Steve Frank doubts there will be three openings. Such turnover, however, would probably result in new office seekers.

“When you have this many possible openings, I think you’ll see some new people,” Frank said. “Someone who is not all that well established has a chance to win. I think for the DFL, with a narrow Republican majority in the House, these will be two important seats, one they want to keep and one they have a decent shot of winning. “I suspect both parties will put a lot of effort into the House seats if both become available and of course the Senate seat if it becomes available,” Frank added.

Special elections are always interesting, Olson noted. In particular, he suggested, watch for the public’s attitude toward the political parties and how much Pawlenty gets involved. Special elections can also be trial runs for political issues heading into the 2006 elections.

“They get to run very aggressive, consolidated campaigns. It’s the issues they run on that offer a sneak peak on what voters are interested in going into 2006,” Olson said.

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