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At least three strong DFL challengers — Jacob Frey, Cordelia Pierson and Peter Wagenius — are seeking the Minneapolis Senate seek vacated by Larry Pogemiller. The three-decade veteran legislator announced last week that he was resigning to serve as director of the state’s Office of Higher Education.

Candidates line up for Minneapolis Senate seat

Cordelia Pierson, executive director of the nonprofit Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, is running for the state Senate seat vacated by Larry Pogemiller. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Pogemiller’s exit adds to upheaval in delegation

At least three strong DFL challengers — Jacob Frey, Cordelia Pierson and Peter Wagenius — are seeking the Minneapolis Senate seek vacated by Larry Pogemiller. The three-decade veteran legislator announced last week that he was resigning to serve as director of the state’s Office of Higher Education.

Democrats in Senate District 59 have opted not to hold an endorsing convention before the Dec. 6 special primary election. That likely means all DFL challengers will be on the ballot.

The window for filing was set to close on Wednesday, less than a week after Pogemiller made his surprise announcement. Candidates then have until close of business Thursday to drop out of the race. Several additional potential candidates were still mulling bids, according to sources familiar with discussions in the district. (Check regularly for updates on candidate filings.)

“These things don’t come up very often,” said Rep. Diane Loeffler, who briefly considered running for the Senate seat but decided that it wasn’t worth losing her seniority in the House. “The time frame is really tight. It’s very enticing.”
Frey was the first to declare his candidacy. On the day that Gov. Mark Dayton announced the appointment of Pogemiller, he quit his job with the law firm of Faegre & Benson to run. Frey is chairman of the political action committee for Protect Minnesota, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce gun violence. He also recently helped organize the Big Gay Race, a fundraiser to support efforts to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

“I will be hitting the pavement like crazy,” Frey said. “We have a lot of supporters who will be out there door-knocking. My campaign will be entirely based on just grass-roots politics.”

Pierson filed papers to run on Tuesday. She is the executive director of the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, a nonprofit group that focuses on riverfront revitalization. Previously she spent more than a decade working for the Trust for Public Land and played a key role in the statewide campaign to adopt a half-cent sales tax to supports environmental and arts programs. Pierson has a law degree from the University of Minnesota and has been active with the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association.

The timing of Pogemiller’s move was fortuitous for Pierson. Her husband recently started a new job at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. “If that had come up six weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” Pierson said. “The timing is quite amazing for our family to be able to make this commitment.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who has represented House District 59B for nearly four decades, is backing Pierson. “She’s got a spectacular background for this,” Kahn said. “If there’s anything that’s important to this area, it’s the river.”

Wagenius is also in the mix. For the last decade he has served on the staff of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, most recently as policy director. Wagenius also has considerable campaign experience, including a role as deputy field director on Skip Humphrey’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign. His resume also includes time as a staff researcher at the Senate. His mother, Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, has served in the Minnesota House since 1986.

Pogemiller doesn’t expect to weigh in on the race. “I haven’t even seen all of the filings yet, but historically I try to stay out of other endorsement fights within the party,” Pogemiller said. “I respect the community, and I think they get to choose. I will have personal preferences, but I don’t want to intervene in the process.”

Complicating matters is the prospect of redistricting. The district includes part of downtown and southeast Minneapolis, two of the fastest growing areas of the city, according to 2010 census data. That means that the district could change significantly when the lines are finally redrawn in early 2012. In other words, whoever wins the contest could end up living outside the district when it comes to running for re-election next year.

The district is dominated by DFLers. In 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer couldn’t even pull 20 percent of the vote in Senate District 59. It looks unlikely that other political parties will play any significant role in the contest. Republican Ole Hovde, who has twice run against Kahn in House contests, losing by lopsided margins, does not intend to run.
The Green Party might be better situated to turn up a credible candidate. Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, a Green Party member who lives in the district, says he briefly considered a Senate bid. “I probably gave it a minute or two of thought and decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do now,” Gordon said. He hasn’t heard of any other Green candidates looking to run.

Pogemiller’s departure is just the latest upheaval in Minneapolis’ legislative delegation. Sen. Linda Berglin’s decision to step down from the Legislature in July to take a job with Hennepin County started the electoral dominoes in motion. Last month Rep. Jeff Hayden won a special election to fill her seat in Senate District 61.

But that set up an additional contest to fill Hayden’s House District 61B seat. As of Tuesday, there were four candidates, all DFLers, in the race. Attorney Susan Allen appears to be the front-runner. She has picked up the endorsement of Rep. Karen Clark, who represents the other half of the district, as well as WomenWinning. Allen would become the first woman of American Indian descent to serve in the Legislature if she prevails.

Josh Bassais, a veteran labor activist, and high school social studies teacher Nelson Inz have also filed to run. The filing period for the House seat also closes on Wednesday, and the primary is slated for Dec. 6. An endorsing convention is scheduled for Nov. 12. The latest challenger to climb into the race is Paul Dennis, a political neophyte whose principal career experience has consisted of working with children from troubled backgrounds. A Macalester College graduate, he has split time between Vermont and Minnesota in recent years.

Dennis describes himself as “liberal” but interested in other viewpoints. “I’m willing to listen to anybody and what they have to say,” he said. “I’m definitely open to many new ideas.”

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