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DFLers hold on to friendly turf

Briana Bierschbach//October 21, 2011//

DFLers hold on to friendly turf

Briana Bierschbach//October 21, 2011//

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Chris Eaton won a special election Tuesday in Senate District 46. Eaton, a DFL activist since high school, will be sworn in Oct. 28. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Chris Eaton and Jeff Hayden easily triumphed in special Senate elections

The changing demographics and DFL-friendly voting record of Senate District 46 signaled an easy win for DFL Sen.-elect Chris Eaton in Tuesday’s special election.

Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton won the district, encompassing Brooklyn Center and part of Brooklyn Park, by 20 percentage points. Two years earlier, Barack Obama carried the district by a 2-to-1 margin in the presidential contest. The makeup of the district’s population is rapidly changing. According to 2010 census figures, just under half of Brooklyn Center residents are white. The same is true in Brooklyn Park, down from 70 percent white residents a decade earlier.

But while Democrats’ odds have improved in the district, no DFLer has managed to win a special election in the area in more than 20 years. That includes former DFL Sen. Linda Scheid, who died of ovarian cancer in June, thus triggering the special election.

“We didn’t take anything for granted,” said DFL Rep. Debra Hilstrom, who ran Eaton’s campaign and pulled in help from legislators in both chambers. “Democrats knew how important it was to win this seat.”
Eaton won the election with more than 60 percent of the vote.

While Eaton’s victory closed one chapter in the chamber, state Rep. Jeff Hayden’s election to the Senate has opened up another, wider door for DFLers in the House. Hayden’s move to replace nearly 40-year DFL Sen. Linda Berglin in Senate District 61 has set off a DFL frenzy to replace him in Minneapolis’ House District 61B, where activists say upward of 20 people could jump into the mix.

‘Never expected to win that big’

Eaton was tied to a strict door-knocking schedule. Hilstrom and neighboring DFL Rep. Mike Nelson organized door knocks in the district every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. In the weeks just before the special primary election and the general election, that schedule switched to almost daily. “We gave her one day off so she could recuperate,” Nelson said. They pulled in a host of other legislators to door-knock, too, including Sens. Terri Bonoff, Tom Bakk, Larry Pogemiller, Ann Rest, Sandy Pappas and John Marty. DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen hit the doors as well.

Nelson understood the risks. In 2002, he lost a special election for House District 46A to Republican John Jordan by nearly 15 percentage points. Later that year, he took the seat from Jordan by about 10 percentage points. “This is a DFL district when DFLers go out to vote,” he said. Scheid also tried to get into the House in a special election when Bill Luther opted to run for Congress. She lost and didn’t enter the chamber until she ousted incumbent Independent Republican Rep. Bill Schreiber in the general election.

Eaton said she had a good feeling going into the race, but she “never expected to win that big. It was … wow.” Eaton took in almost 62 percent of the vote, trouncing GOP challenger Cory Jensen by about 30 percentage points. Independence Party candidate Tom Reynolds received about 5 percent of the vote.
In addition to an organized get-out-the-vote effort, the absence of the pro-life group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) in the race likely contributed to putting the seat in the DFL win column, one local activist noted. MCCL has historically worked with allied churches to promote the pro-life GOP candidates, the activist said. “That has historically and consistently been the case in special elections here,” the activist noted. This year, the group was silent. “I heard nothing of the Sunday preaching and saw no literature. Maybe it’s because they are mad at Republicans in the Legislature. I really don’t know why, but they weren’t out this year.”

Eaton will be sworn into the chamber on Oct. 28. She has been a DFL activist since her senior year in high school in 1972, when she led a group of volunteers in door-knocking for George McGovern’s presidential campaign. She later moved to the Twin Cities area and became chairwoman of the Senate District 47 DFLers and the Brooklyn Center DFLers, where she became close to Scheid. Eaton also sat on the DFL State Central Committee, was a longtime member of AFSCME and is a current member of the Minnesota Nurses Association. She is the director of health services at Mental Health Resources in St. Paul.

At the Legislature, Eaton wants to use her experience in health care to work on implementing the federal Affordable Health Care Act, which she wants to make sure is “actually affordable” and accessible to the most vulnerable populations. She also wants to work to lower property taxes in her district and foster job creation via expanding and creating new businesses. She points to the new FBI field office in Brooklyn Center as a positive recent development. Eaton said she will likely serve on the Commerce Committee, which Scheid formerly chaired.

DFL scrum starts for Hayden’s seat

Senate District 61 DFL Chairwoman Julie Harrison was hoping for a short breather between Hayden’s victory and the special election for his seat. The districts’ DFLers went from a semi-controversial endorsement to a six-way DFL primary to the general election. Now activists are meeting to set up another committee meeting to endorse a candidate for Hayden’s seat. Dayton called the special primary for Dec. 6 and the general election for Jan. 10.

Three candidates were already registered to run before Hayden was elected to the Senate: schoolteacher Nelson Inz, attorney Susan Allen and union organizer Josh Bassais. Harrison and others expect anywhere from a half dozen to more than 20 people to seek the party’s blessing in the DFL stronghold. “It is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity in this district,” Harrison said.

Allen, a Native American attorney, launched out of the chute last week with an endorsement from the progressive group WomenWinning, but sources say her lead in the race was a long time in the making. She was asked to run by neighboring DFL Rep. Karen Clark as early as the start of last session, when Berglin was rumored to be in line for a position in the Dayton administration. Allen, an attorney, is already being called the “anointed one” in some DFL circles.

Allen has lived in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood for the last 14 years and is a partner at the firm Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, specializing in tribal and government relations work. She can already boast the support of Minneapolis City Councilman Robert Lilligren and Wellstone Action! trainer Peggy Flanagan, who cut her campaign teeth on teams for Obama and Sen. Al Franken. If elected, Allen would be the first female Native American legislator elected in Minnesota, and one of only about three American Indians to ever serve in the House or Senate chambers. “I think for the House there is going to be a lot of excitement,” she said. “People are looking for something different.”

Bassais emphasizes his deep roots in local unions. He currently works with the Minnesota Laborers Union as a field organizer. Before that, he worked with the restaurant-hotel workers union, of which his mother was a member for more than 40 years, he said.  “I’ve been union my whole life,” Bassais said. “It’s part of how I was raised.”

Inz teaches social studies at Great River School in St. Paul. He first got interested in politics while he was working as a bartender and heard about a minimum wage bill brought by former DFL Sen. Ellen Anderson. Inz decided to contact Anderson to talk about the bill, and he eventually testified in committee. After that he got involved more regularly in DFL activism. He has been a precinct chairman and a director in the Senate district, and last fall he started the Service Industry Workers against Tom Emmer for Governor group after the GOP gubernatorial candidate’s comments about cutting server wages.

Nate Blumenshine hasn’t filed his paperwork yet, but he plans to run in the district as an independent candidate. He is an advocate for single-payer health care and has interned in Hayden’s office. Last session he lobbied for a Lutheran group over cuts in the Health and Human Services budget, and in 2008, Blumenshine worked on Obama’s campaign in Pennsylvania. He is taking a leave of absence from his job as a carpenter to run for the seat.

Candidates who lost to Hayden in the Senate primary could also land on the DFL candidate roster for his House seat. Candidates Kristian Heuer, a graphic designer, and Elsa Batica, a former deputy directory in the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, are two of three DFL Senate primary candidates who live on his side of the district. Neither Heuer nor Batica would rule out a run for the House seat. Farheen Hakeem, a perennial Green Party candidate, is also expected to be in the mix.

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