Last Saturday GOP activists gathered in Burnsville to determine who would be the endorsed candidate in House District 56B. No incumbent is running for re-election in the district, which leans heavily Republican. The two candidates — Terry McCall and Roz Peterson — each brought formidable resumes to the contest. McCall is the GOP chair in the 2nd Congressional District and boasts considerable support from the libertarian wing of the GOP base. Peterson sits on the Lakeville School Board and serves as chair of the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce.
After four rounds of voting, the convention adjourned without making an endorsement. That’s because neither candidate reached the 60 percent threshold required for party backing. In fact, on the final ballot just one vote separated the two GOP challengers. That doesn’t mean, however, that McCall and Peterson will face each other in a primary. Instead a second convention will be held in the coming weeks to resume the endorsement fight.
Over the next two weekends, DFL and GOP activists across the state will gather in schools and libraries to resolve similar endorsement contests. The outcomes will shape 2012 legislative races and help determine whether Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate or Democrats can claw back at least partial control of the Legislature.
This weekend promises several contests that bear watching. Here’s a preview of the races in four competitive legislative districts:
Senate District 49: Democrats are energized by the prospect of taking over a seat held by retiring Sen. Geoff Michel. Three months ago it looked like Michel would be a lock for retaining his seat. He’s a prodigious fundraiser and won re-election by at least 13 percentage points in each of the last three election cycles.
But that was before Michel got entangled in the scandal involving former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and her executive assistant, Michael Brodkorb. Facing an ethics complaint over his handling of the matter, Michel announced this month that he would not seek re-election.
Three credible challengers — Melisa Lopez Franzen, Cynthia Bemis Abrams and Ann Swenson — are seeking the DFL endorsement. Franzen announced her candidacy well before Michel dropped his re-election plans and got a jump on her DFL counterparts in wooing delegates. She is an attorney for the Target Corp. making her first foray into electoral politics. Swenson has served on the Edina City Council since 2005. Before that, she spent 10 years on the city’s planning commission.
Abrams was previously elected to the Bloomington school board and is a former head of public relations for Fairview Southdale Hospital. She has the backing of former DFL Rep. Paul Rosenthal, who is seeking the open seat in House District 49B, and of Rep. Ann Lenczewski, an influential veteran legislator who represents an adjacent district.
“The enthusiasm is high,” said Elaine McAwley, chairwoman of the SD 49 DFL. “We feel we have a strong shot at the Senate seat. I think we’ve got three very capable women who are running for it.”
Republicans in SD 49 will gather Saturday as well, but they are unlikely to endorse a candidate. Lew Coffey, co-chairman of the GOP in the district, said they will likely delay endorsements four to six weeks. That’s because the retirements of Michel and Rep. Pat Mazorol caught Republicans off guard, and no official challengers have emerged for the open seats.
“I don’t see where we’ve got much choice,” Coffey said. “So far we don’t have anybody seriously on the radar.”
The district will almost certainly be a key battleground in 2012. While all three legislative seats in what’s currently Senate District 41 are held by Republicans, Barack Obama carried the area by nearly 11 percentage points in 2008. In addition, four years earlier Democrat John Kerry narrowly carried the presidential vote in the district.
“I would say it’s up for grabs,” Abrams said. “It’s a true swing district.”
Senate District 35: Rep. Branden Petersen wasted no time in revising his political plans after redistricting pitted him against fellow GOP incumbent Rep. Peggy Scott in House District 35B. On the very day that the newly drawn legislative maps were released, Petersen announced that he would be running for the open Senate seat in the district.
But if the first-term legislator thought that he would clear the field by quickly jumping into the contest, that did not prove to be the case. Political neophyte Martha Weaver is also vying for the GOP endorsement in a suburban district that includes parts of Anoka, Ramsey and Coon Rapids and tilts heavily Republican. Weaver is a former journalist who most recently served as public information manager for Anoka County.
But she comes from a family of considerable political pedigree. Her cousin is former Rep. Charlie Weaver, who heads the Minnesota Business Partnership. Her uncle and father also both served in the House. In addition, her brother sits on the Anoka City Council.
But Petersen argues that Weaver’s family connections can’t make up for a lack of political activism in the district. “Delegates don’t care about that,” Petersen argued. “They care about, what are your credentials? What have you done to advance the cause? Martha was entirely uninvolved in GOP politics prior to her announcement.”
Weaver doesn’t dispute that she has been inactive in local GOP politics. But she argues that her career prevented her from engaging in partisan activities. Specifically, her duties as public information officer for Anoka County required her to be apolitical, as did her years working as a journalist. “You guard your credibility with everything you have,” Weaver said. “You don’t want to give any indication or any leaning.”
Petersen has to deal with his own liability in the contest: the duties of his current job. In recent weeks, as committee deadlines passed and floor sessions lengthened, legislative business has often dragged on well beyond standard business hours. On Monday, for instance, Petersen had a meet-and-greet event scheduled in the district. But a meeting of the Property and Local Tax Division, on which he sits, was scheduled for the same time. Petersen skipped the political gathering and attended the committee hearing.
“Sometimes you truly have to choose between putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage and doing your job,” he said. “I feel like my first responsibility is to live up to [my] obligations as an elected official.”
House District 30A: When Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer opted to seek an open Senate seat, it created a void in this staunchly conservative district that covers Big Lake and Elk River. At least three credible GOP challengers will vie for the endorsement at Saturday’s convention.
Nick Zerwas was the first to officially file for the seat. He has served for six years on the Elk River City Council and has worked as a latent fingerprint examiner for the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and the Target Corp. Zerwas also has a unique personal story: He was born with a three-chamber heart and has survived 10 open-heart surgery procedures. He has written a book about those experiences: “The Gift of an Open Heart.”
Chris Kumpula is running with a specific legislative agenda as his top priority: reforming the state’s court system. He is driven in part by what he perceives as a friend’s mistreatment by the judicial system in a whistle-blower case. Kumpula argues that the Legislature has shirked its responsibility to provide oversight, deferring instead to the state bar association. “It’s not a sexy issue for Republicans,” Kumpula acknowledged. “It’s not the ideal issue to run on.”
Chad Westberg, who serves on the Elk River Planning Commission, is the latest Republican to announce his candidacy. He is the founder of Jera Farms, an agricultural company that specializes in farming the calorie-free natural sweetener stevia. He cites that business experience as something that’s needed at the Capitol. “Businesses need customers. Customers need jobs. Government needs to get out of the way,” Westberg recently told the Star News, which covers Elk River and other northern suburbs.
The competition is expected to be vigorous at the endorsing convention. “I think it will be kind of a battle on Saturday,” Zerwas said. “I know that I have done everything possible to engage each delegate on a one-on-one basis.”
House District 61A: There are five endorsement contests in which incumbents from the same party will face each other. This South Minneapolis district pits five-term DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein against freshman caucus mate Rep. Marion Greene. The winner will have a clear path to re-election in a district that is among the most liberal in the state.
Hornstein has the benefit of experience and is the ranking minority member on the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee. But Greene is looking for support largely on her home turf. Roughly 70 percent of the newly drawn district consists of areas that she currently represents.
Greene has the backing of WomenWinning and cites a strong track record of female political leadership in the area. “This is the district of Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Dee Long,” Greene said, citing two former House speakers. “I am very much in their tradition.”