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While the gubernatorial campaigns and the legislative caucuses are attracting most of the money and attention in the current election cycle, legislative candidates in competitive districts are also getting some measure of love from the PAC donors who have weighed in with their first finance reports of 2010.

Unions, biz offer first look at lege race spending

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. Joe Atkins, who chairs the House Commerce and Labor Committee, says there’s no political message in his return of some PAC checks recently. (Staff file photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Groups like Ed Minn and the Coalition of MN Businesses wade in

While the gubernatorial campaigns and the legislative caucuses are attracting most of the money and attention in the current election cycle, legislative candidates in competitive districts are also getting some measure of love from the PAC donors who have weighed in with their first finance reports of 2010.

A quick perusal of the pre-primary spending reports filed this week by labor unions reveals a substantial reservoir of campaign cash waiting to be unleashed in this fall’s race for governor. But the reports also show labor groups like the Education Minnesota teachers union turning their eyes to legislative races. DFL incumbents in tough reelection battles have already received contributions from Education Minnesota as well as other unions.

Education Minnesota has also carefully analyzed DFL challengers in districts held by Republicans. Their union’s PAC has contributed $250 each to DFL candidates who are either running for an open seat currently occupied by a Republican or challenging a GOP incumbent. They include Zak Chlebek (District 51A), Paul Meunier (49), Laurie Olmon (48), and Peter Perovich (48A).

And even though Republicans are focusing on a tough fight to retain the governor’s mansion, independent expenditures from groups like the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses are likewise setting their sights on legislative races. According to the coalition’s pre-primary filing, it hired the conservative, St. Paul-based research firm of Weber Johnson Public Affairs to acquire addresses and send out mailings in the districts of several DFL incumbents.

The coalition paid $7,548 to do mailings in the district of first-term Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. They also paid $6,769 to mail lit pieces in the district of Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Mora. In all, the group has spent $49,000 against eight incumbent House DFL legislators.

The spoils of incumbency

While labor and big business are calibrating their efforts largely along partisan lines, a fair number of associations that represent specific policy interests and contract lobbying firms make their PACs’ spending decisions on grounds of incumbency more than partisanship.

In the health care arena, PACs associated with HealthPartners and the Minnesota Hospital Association made donations to DFL Rep. Julie Bunn’s tough re-election effort in suburban District 56A. The Hospitals gave $250 to Bunn, who serves on both the House health care policy and finance committees. Bunn’s bid against GOP challenger Kathy Lohmer will be one of the most hotly contested races this November.

But HealthPartners and the Hospitals Association, along with other health care players at the Capitol, are also making contributions to the lead Republican on the Health Care finance committee, Matt Dean of Dellwood. The Hospital Association’s PAC gave $500 to Dean, who was a key player last session in negotiations with DFL legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty concerning the GAMC indigent-care program.

Similarly, the Minnesota Trucking Association PAC contributed to the Senate Transportation Committee’s ranking Republican, Mike Jungbauer of East Bethel, as well as key DFLers on transportation issues: Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and House Transportation Finance Committee Chairman Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston.

The bipartisan giving is a savvy strategy for lobbyists who represent specific interests like health care or municipalities in which lawmakers from both sides of the aisle play significant roles regardless of which party holds the majority.

In a related vein, political action committees tend to lavish contributions on committee chairmen even if they aren’t running in competitive districts. Committee heads who deal directly with business interests like health care and commerce often receive checks from PACs at or near the contribution limits.

Case in point: The Insurance Federation Political Action Committee, which has spent $9,200 so far this year and had $1,208 in the bank as of July 6, gave $100 to Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee Chairman James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul. Metzen won his last election by nearly 30 percentage points. Contributions to other chairs, like Senate Commerce Chairwoman Linda Scheid and Senate Economic Development Finance Chairman David Tomassoni, also appear in the pre-primary reports even though these legislators aren’t exactly girding for tough re-election campaigns.

TakeAction will screen in SD 67

On July 24, the progressive group TakeAction Minnesota will screen the crowded field of nine candidates seeking the DFL nomination in Senate District 67 on St. Paul’s East Side. The race in the heavily DFL district has been a pile-on since the party declined to endorse anyone in the race to replace incumbent DFL Sen. Mee Moua, who announced on the last day of session that she wouldn’t seek re-election.

The candidates: former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, Hmong-American DFL Caucus co-founder Foung Hawj, Tom Hilber, Chai Lee, Hmong organizer Vang Lor, state director for the Medicare Diabetes Screening Project Jim McGowan, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison staffer Trayshana Thomas, U.S. Sen. Al Franken staffer Avi Viswanathan, and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employee Cha Yang.

Not all relevant groups are taking the plunge in the District 67 primary. As we reported on July 8, the Minnesota Nurses Association and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) are staying on the sidelines until after the Aug. 10 deadline.

Viswanathan has garnered the endorsement of NARAL Pro Choice American and Stonewall DFL. Harrington has the backing of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and an influential former St. Paul mayor, George Latimer.

TakeAction will spend 15 minutes with each candidate at the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation building, and they say they’ll offer their preferred candidate organizational help in the Aug. 10 primary.

Trail mix

Legislative party units won’t report their fundraising haul until late this month, but a sampling of expenditures by business and labor/progressive PACs in last Friday’s PIM Weekly Report yielded this partial view of the money flowing to the respective chambers’ party caucuses:

• House DFL Caucus: $309,000

• Senate DFL Caucus: $319,750

• DFL Central Committee: $359,650

• HRCC: $45,000

• Senate Victory Fund: $250

A couple of PACs were surprised to get checks returned from House Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. Atkins returned a $200 check from Health Partners Civic Affairs Council and $500 from the Committee of Auto Retailers.

It wasn’t a strategic move, Atkins said: “There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to returning PAC and lobbyist checks,” he told CR. “Before session a bunch of them come in, and then right away after session, and then right away before reports are due. We just send a bunch of them back so we don’t go over the max.”…

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is hosting a golf scramble fundraiser on Wednesday at Meadow Greens Golf Course in Austin. The cost is $100 for political action committees and lobbyists and $50 for individuals…

The House DFL’s finance elite are hosting a caucus fundraiser in Minneapolis on Monday. Ways and Means Chairman Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, Finance Committee Chairman Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, and Taxes Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, will host the reception at the View Restaurant and Bar near Lake Calhoun. Contributions range between $100 and $500….


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