Traditionally, there have been a number of more or less well-worn paths to the Minnesota Legislature. They include backgrounds in local government, business, and partisan political activism. Each, in its own way, has tended to breed familiarity with the levers of government and how they operate.
That’s still true of many in the current batch of St. Paul aspirants. But the nationwide backlash against economic stimulus measures and the national debt has spawned a new type of candidate in 2010. In a number of House and Senate districts, political newcomers enamored with the Tea Party movement are running for office mainly because they object to the policies of President Barack Obama and his fellow travelers at the state and local level.
Gretchen Hoffman, who has had a long career as a nurse but has never been active in public service or party politics before organizing some Tea Party gatherings this year, is running an energetic campaign to win the Senate seat in District 10 in Otter Tail and Wadena counties. She hopes to oust incumbent Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt.
“What got me involved was watching our government grow exponentially,” said Hoffman. “It’s really difficult in the private sector with as much government that’s interfering.”
But despite her newfound passion for conservative politics, she lacks the sort of name recognition that more experienced pols can take for granted.
“Part of what has to be done at my level is nobody knows who I am, so it’s hard work. You have to look voters in the eye and hope they believe in the same things you do,” Hoffman said.
Some races, like Hoffman’s, are playing out in competitive districts.
In District 11B, where Agriculture Policy Chairwoman Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, is retiring, Republican candidate Mary Franson, an AT&T credit representative, is a Tea Party activist. Her website says she “feels government has grown out of control and opposes the bailouts, buyouts and handouts to powerful special interests.”
Republicans are targeting 11B because GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 won the district by more than 10 percentage points. Otremba eked out a win over GOP challenger Dave Kircher by 5 percent.
On the other side of the state, a Tea Party Republican candidate is butting heads with an establishment figure in the Aug. 10 GOP primary. Kerry Stoick is running for the nomination in District 29A against Republican-endorsed candidate Duane Quam, whose resume includes time as a Byron School Board member and as chair of the Minnesota State Academic Science Standards writing committee.
Stoick’s website, like those of other Tea Party activists, embodies a family-flavored approach to firebrand political advocacy. It features a picture of her son at Tea Party rally holding a sign that reads: “Born Free but taxed to death!” Observers in the Rochester area note that Stoick’s campaign is long on personality and bold pronouncements. That zeal contrasts with Quam who, according to one neutral observer in District 29A, lacks Stoick’s charisma on the campaign trail.
These political newbies are running at a time when many members of the old guard are retiring from the Legislature. In the 67-member Senate, there are nine open seats. In the House, 15 members are stepping down from the 134-seat body. Among them are House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is running for governor, and former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. Committee Chairmen like Otremba and Sens. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, and Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, are also leaving the Legislature.
The legislators who are next in line in terms of seniority will take hold of their gavels in January as a new class of legislators join the rank and file. One business lobbyist noted that a 2011 freshman class featuring a strong contingent of political newcomers would give the 87th Legislature a unique character.
“If you’ve got a city council member or county commissioner, they’ve got a little procedural background,” the lobbyist said. “They’ve got a little bit of play with how the funding comes through with things like LGA [local government aid]. But if you’re a neophyte, it can be a little bit overwhelming for people who have never seen the gavel.”
If Tea Party sympathizers get elected in significant numbers, it would likely change the political calculus for many entrenched interests on both sides of the political aisle. On issues that are deeply embedded in state law and fiscal policy, like LGA and the defined benefit pension plans, lobbyists could encounter intense resistance to their efforts to advocate for existing programs.
For her part, Hoffman would see change as her mandate if elected.
“What I foresee is the government is going to get back in line with what it’s intended to be for, not what it is,” Hoffman said.
LOOMING LARGE at the House GOP Caucus’s 15th annual Elephant Open on Tuesday at the Links at Northfork golf course in Ramsey will be the always formidable golfing tandem of Charlie Weaver and Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina.
Weaver, a former GOP legislator who is now the executive director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, and Michel almost always turn in some of the top scores at the House Republican Caucus’s annual fundraiser.
Also looming large is the question of how much the House Republican Campaign Committee can haul in from the event. Donors who give $5,000 are tournament sponsors and gain entry for six golfers to duff it along with two legislators. For $2,500, donors can sponsor individual holes and get golf for three along with one legislator.
The House DFL will also hold a big golf outing fundraiser next month. On Aug. 17 DFL contributors will tee off at the Keller Golf Course in Maplewood. Hole sponsorships cost $5,000. But Democrats go the Republicans one better on sponsorship options: A “partial hole” can be had for just $2,500….
STATE SEN. PAUL KOERING, R-Fort Ripley, has faced tough re-election prospects ever since he drew a primary challenge from social conservative and former GOP state Rep. Paul Gazelka. As the summer has progressed, Koering had embarrassing attention drawn to his sexuality when his dinner date in Brainerd with a gay porn star was reported.
The political drama surrounding Koering ratcheted up again this week when the Brainerd Dispatch reported that a state GOP party researcher has been snooping around the Morrison County sheriff’s office in search of information about any police contacts with Koering. The Capitol crowd, however, hasn’t given up on the chances of the two-term senator, who is an important player in bonding bill negotiations as the ranking Republican on the Senate Capital Investment Committee.
Said one long-time Capitol lobbyist: “I’ve talked to people who own cabins up there who think Koering can pull it off.”…
THE NATIONAL JOURNAL mentions St. Cloud DFL Sen. Tarryl Clark’s 2005 special election victory in an interesting piece about the phenomenon in which special legislative elections are harbingers of political change. In 2006 and 2008 — years in which the Democrats notched significant nationwide gains — special elections in states frequently went their way. That was definitely the case in Minnesota. In addition to the magazine’s reference to Clark’s St. Cloud district, which she won after former GOP state Sen. Dave Kleis was elected St. Cloud mayor, Minnesota Democrats picked up suburban District 43 (Terri Bonoff), rural/exurban District 25 (Kevin Dahle) and rural District 16 (Lisa Fobbe).
The NJ story wonders if the trend has now reversed in favor of Republicans. The magazine notes that in about 40 special elections nationwide since December 2009, Republicans have converted more seats (five) than Democrats (two).
In Minnesota, Republican Sen. Mike Parry won this year’s only special election. But Parry’s SD 26 win constituted a hold for Republicans, not a pick-up.