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District 61: Now comes the DFL scrum for Hayden’s seat

Briana Bierschbach//September 23, 2011//

District 61: Now comes the DFL scrum for Hayden’s seat

Briana Bierschbach//September 23, 2011//

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Nelson Inz, a social studies teacher, is one of a handful of DFLers looking to possibly replace Rep. Jeff Hayden in the Minnesota House. Hayden is the DFL nominee for a seat in the state Senate that was opened up by the retirement of Sen. Linda Berglin. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Minneapolis Dems begin jockeying for not-yet-vacant House slot

Nelson Inz has been making calls to DFL delegates in Minneapolis for the last four weeks. “I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve called,” Inz said. “It’s been constant.” He is trying to convince them that he would be the best DFLer to send to a House special election to replace Rep. Jeff Hayden should Hayden win a Senate special election Oct. 18.

The social studies teacher says he’s not jumping the gun in the DFL stronghold district: “I know I’m not the only one doing this.”

In a typically quiet nonelection year in Minnesota, Democrats in south Minneapolis’ Senate District 61 are more active than they have been in decades. Door-knockers and lit-droppers are sweeping through the area, and sidewalks have fallen victim to candidate chalking. The retirement of nearly 40-year state Senate veteran Linda Berglin in July led to a flurry of DFLers — six in all — trying to win the ballot slot to replace her in the special election. Since Hayden won the SD 61 primary earlier this month, the prospect of replacing him in the House has already drawn a handful of candidates out to start campaigning. A “half dozen, dozen or even more” are likely to jump in if Hayden wins, DFL district Chairwoman Julie Harrison said.

“An opportunity like this doesn’t come around in Senate District 61 all that often,” she said. “It’s been more than 30 years.”

The excitement among district DFLers is widespread, but that appears to be especially true of immigrant groups in the area, who are hoping to send their own representation to the House.

DFLers jumped at Senate seat

Berglin’s retirement announcement set off a free-for-all in the solidly DFL district. Six candidates quickly launched campaigns for the party’s endorsement and a spot on the general election ballot, including a graphic designer, a former Minneapolis civil rights director and a recent University of Minnesota graduate.

And then came the fighting. Candidates complained that the executive board of the district’s DFL central committee chose to endorse Hayden instead of putting it to a vote of all of the central committee members at a convention. Another, lesser controversy sprung up after recent University of Minnesota graduate and candidate Kyle Wilson was exposed on DFL blogs as a former College Republican. Wilson said at the time that his political views had changed dramatically, but that didn’t keep the blogosphere from posting pictures of a cocktail-toting Wilson mingling at College Republican events.

And while Hayden won the primary election handily with 58 percent of the vote, the race was not entirely uncompetitive. Candidate Sadik Warfa, a Somali-American and self-employed tax auditor, managed to garner 28 percent of the vote and outperform Hayden in six of the district’s 23 precincts. Warfa had a bit of an edge over the other primary candidates: He launched a bid against more than 30-year DFL House Rep. Karen Clark last fall.

His strong showing was a sign of growing political clout in Minneapolis’ Somali-American community. His message was also decidedly more conservative than any of the other candidates in the race. “I was trying to offer more economic issues,” Warfa said. “I thought I could work with the other side of the aisle, the Republican. For me it was how we can bring jobs to our district. I’m still sensing that the people in this district want someone who wants to look at economic issues.”

Warfa said he’s open to running again, although his residency on the other side of the district leaves him out of the mix for Hayden’s House seat. He noted that people were excited to see someone of immigrant background running in a district whose demographics have changed significantly since legislators like Berglin and Clark took the reins. “People were really excited about it, this guy who has an accent comes in,” Warfa said. “A lot of people were excited that someone with my background was running.”

And while the area’s DFLers appreciated Berglin’s health care expertise and the clout she accrued at the Capitol through her decades of seniority, some activists believed the senator also lost touch with her district as she became ensconced in the Legislature and her high-profile role as chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

In the words of one DFL activist who asked to remain anonymous, “Obviously the district has changed quite a bit in the 35 years since she was elected. I do believe people are excited to have some energy at the Legislature and people who are maybe more reflective of the current population in the district.

“It’s also especially exciting for us activists. Linda has been enmeshed in legislative issues and hasn’t been very involved in the activism side and get-out-the-vote efforts and bringing new people to politics. People are excited for a change.”

House race heats up

But for as much drama as there was surrounding the Senate seat, the prospect of replacing Hayden — who appears to be a prohibitive favorite in the October general election — is what’s really revving up activists in the district.

So far three candidates have registered to run, including Inz, marketing professional Josh Bassais and Native American attorney Susan Allen. A convention will be held to select the DFL endorsee for that seat, Harrison said.

Allen has been in the mix the longest. She was first approached to run as early as the start of the 2011 session, when Berglin was rumored to be in line for a commissionership in Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration. At the time, Hayden was already known to covet Berglin’s seat in the Senate, and Allen was asked to run to replace him in the House. Like Inz, Allen has been calling delegates to make her case. She has also been attending fundraisers for Hayden and showing up at community events. Last weekend she went to Camp Wellstone — all for a special election that has yet to be called.

“They want to have a convention, and there will be more participation in that race,” Allen said. “They are looking for something different, wanting someone representative of the district’s population.” She noted that Latino organizers in the city are also trying to recruit a candidate to represent their interests in the Legislature.

Inz said he knows there is already a lot of activity surrounding the seat. A member of the DFL Central Committee, he asked Hayden what he thought about Inz’s getting into the race. “He said, ‘Well, if you are going to run, you better get the ball rolling, because people have already started,’” Inz said.

Graphic designer Kristian Heuer is one of three candidates who lost to Hayden in the primary election who could also run for his seat in the House. Heuer is still mulling his options, he said, but he acknowledged that the open seat could represent a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

“Linda held her seat for 30-plus years, and every year when she came up for re-election, it was a foregone conclusion that she would win,” he said. “This isn’t an opportunity that comes around all that often. There’s a lot of distrust and dislike for the Legislature in general right now. There was a large group of people who chose to do what I did — [to] say this is something that, if I don’t do it now, it’s a decision that I will always regret.”

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