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On a recent Wednesday evening, DFL activists gathered at Mancini’s Char House & Lounge in St. Paul to raise money for Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire.

Carlson faces tough endorsement fight for old Senate seat

Former state Sen. Jim Carlson is raising money and courting DFL activists in his effort to return to the Senate. “We’re more organized right now than we were in August of 2010,” he said. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

On a recent Wednesday evening, DFL activists gathered at Mancini’s Char House & Lounge in St. Paul to raise money for Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire. The list of guests included former state DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson, former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton, former state Sen. Deanna Wiener, and lobbyists Frank Ongaro, Kathleen Micheletti and Mike Wilhelmi.

But it was the event’s “featured guest” – Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk — that raised eyebrows among political observers. That’s because Maguire is locked in a tough contest for the DFL nomination in Senate District 38 with former Sen. Jim Carlson. It looked like Bakk, in other words, was backing Maguire over a former legislative colleague in the endorsement race for what’s expected to be one of the most closely watched contests in the state in 2012.
“When there is an endorsement contest like this, usually the leadership would stay out of it,” Carlson noted. “They would let it go to its logical conclusion.”

But Bakk cautions that his appearance at the event should not be construed as an endorsement of Maguire. “I went to a fundraiser because he asked me to come,” Bakk said. “If Jim Carlson asks me to come, I’ll do the same thing for him or anyone else who’s trying to raise money to knock off a Republican.”

Bakk further says that he doesn’t intend to weigh in on DFL endorsement battles. “I‘m not going to pick candidates,” he said. “Those things have to play out locally among the convention delegates.”

Maguire backs up this assertion. “He didn’t offer an endorsement of me over anybody else,” said Maguire, who was elected to his second term as mayor last year. “But he did talk about how glad he was that his efforts to encourage candidates like me were working.”

The flap over the fundraiser is indicative of the attention that will be focused on Senate District 38 in 2012. The district has been ground zero in recent years for control of the Legislature. Democrats took over all three legislative seats in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. Republicans turned the tables last year, sweeping all three contests. The Carlson-Maguire contest is not the only intraparty battle in the district. In House District 38A, former Rep. Sandra Masin and Eagan City Council Member Gary Hansen are both seeking the DFL nomination.

Vicki Wright, the DFL Party chairwoman in Senate District 38, says the competition is indicative of the party’s growth in the area. “As a rule, we should be looking at this as a good thing and not as a bad thing,” Wright said. “It is a positive situation for us.”

Both Carlson and Maguire are already raising money and courting DFL activists, despite uncertainty over the contours of the district given the ongoing redistricting process. Carlson claims already to have at least 140 people committed to showing up to support his candidacy at caucuses in February. He promises to abide by the outcome of the endorsement convention, which is slated for March. “I’ve always been a worker,” Carlson said. “We’re more organized right now than we were in August of 2010.”

Maguire sent a letter to DFL activists this week. But he’s not shutting the door on the possibility of running in a primary if he doesn’t win the endorsement. “There’s a lot of uncertainty around what exactly the endorsement process and the caucuses [are] going to look like because it’s going to be complicated by redistricting,” he said. “It’s our intention to pursue the endorsement vigorously. We’re hoping for a fair and open endorsement process.”

Wiener, who represented the area in the state Senate from 1993 to 2002, is backing Maguire. She says electability was a factor in her decision, noting that Carlson lost by more than 1,000 votes in 2010. “Mike Maguire is a very, very, very well-liked mayor,” Wiener said. “If I were to sit back and make a bet on who might win that seat [as] a Democrat, I would lay strong odds on Mike Maguire. He is able to pull the independent voter.”

Maureen Johnson, an attorney in the district, is supporting Carlson, citing his strong environmental record and support for a single-payer health care system. But she is also concerned about Bakk’s role in the contest. “I don’t think that people from the Iron Range need to be involved in Eagan politics,” Johnson said.

School funding is likely to be a hot-button issue in the contest. Maguire points out that both Carlson and GOP incumbent Sen. Ted Daley have voted for accounting shifts that delay payments to schools. “Of the candidates who are in this race right now on the Senate side, I’m the only one who hasn’t voted for a school shift, and it’s not my intention to ever vote for a school shift,” Maguire said. “It is not an example of honest fiscal accounting when we treat our schools like our state’s ATM.”

But Carlson points out that he voted for the K-12 funding shift in 2009 only when all other viable options had been shot down and time was exhausted to reach a budget deal. “We had to pass that bill or we weren’t going to complete the session,” Carlson said. “It was a caucus position, and the bill had to be passed.”

Despite previously serving in the Senate, Carlson finds himself running as something of an outsider. He believes his vocal criticism of the Senate caucus’ electoral efforts in 2010 have not endeared him to party leaders. In particular, Carlson suggests that the party’s vaunted voter file wasn’t meticulously updated in the run-up to Election Day. In Carlson’s Eagan district, for instance, there were 1,758 fewer registered voters listed in the file than in 2008.
“We knew those numbers before the election; we didn’t have to guess at it,” Carlson said. “There should have been some alarms that went off a month or two months earlier.”

In addition, Carlson believes the party made strategic errors by ignoring individuals who weren’t already identified as likely DFL voters and by failing to target college campuses in swing districts. In just one precinct in Northfield, for instance, where St. Olaf College is located, the number of pre-registered voters dropped by 559  from 2008 — a 27 percent decrease. Incumbent DFL Rep. David Bly took 79 percent of the vote in that precinct. He lost his re-election bid by just 37 votes.

Carlson says he voiced some of these concerns at a gathering of DFL senators — past and present — last February that served as a post-mortem on the 2010 election season. He believes that his pointed remarks were not received well by Bakk and others. “They didn’t want me to talk about it,” Carlson recalled. “They wanted to go on to the next person.”

Bakk questions this recollection, pointing out that he had little role in the 2010 elections since he wasn’t part of the leadership team at the time. “I don’t really feel any responsibility [for] the outcome,” Bakk said. “There were a lot of things that were problematic, much of it out of our control, including a very difficult headwind out of Washington, D.C.”

Carlson also believes that his candidacy’s wary reception from the leadership is due to his voting record. In particular, he has championed legislation that would increase environmental regulations for mining operations, a stance that didn’t sit well with the Senate’s DFL members from the Iron Range. In one particularly contentious caucus meeting during the 2010 legislative session, Carlson and Sen. David Tomassoni clashed over a proposal to impose tighter safe-water regulations on sulfide mining operations. “I ask too many questions, I guess,” said Carlson, a former engineer at the 3M Co. “Given that I’ve got a technical background, they know they can’t pull the wool over my eyes.”

While Bakk insists that he’s not taking sides in the contest, he does hold out the implicit threat that Senate District 38, despite being a quintessential swing district, might not be targeted with caucus resources if a strong candidate isn’t nominated. “We don’t know yet what the field of candidates is going to look like,” Bakk said, citing races in Edina, Coon Rapids, Blaine and Woodbury that could compete for resources. “I don’t think anybody should assume Eagan is one of the places that we’re going to play.”

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