The redistricting maps that were drawn by a panel of judges last winter significantly altered the area immediately southwest of Duluth. Eight-term incumbent Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, was carved out of the new district that contained a lot of his old turf and he opted not to seek re-election.
In response to the new map, a large field of DFLers launched campaigns for endorsement in the open District 11A seat that includes the cities of Cloquet and Moose Lake. While the DFL endorsing convention significantly winnowed the field, the end of the filing period on Tuesday confirmed that a primary will be held in August between two candidates who are prominent in the local political scene.
Mike Sundin of Esko is a business market development consultant for the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82 union. He has been a fixture in labor activism and Carlton County DFL party politics, and is the endorsed candidate. He is being challenged for the nomination by another long-standing political figure in Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren.
The race is something of a rematch from 1995, when Sundin knocked Ahlgren off the Cloquet School Board. “He got people to go out and vote for him and I didn’t,” Ahlgren said. “I learned a lesson and that’s not going to happen twice.”
District 11A includes a couple of townships in Pine and St. Louis counties, as well as all of Carlton County. Compared to the old District 8A seat that Hilty currently holds, a substantial portion of Pine County has been lopped off. This is a heavily DFL leaning district. In 2010 DFL Gov. Mark Dayton creamed Republican candidate Tom Emmer in Carlton County by 27 percentage points.
Waiting for the DFL primary winner is Republican Jim Putnam, the mayor of Scanlon. Potentially complicating matters for the GOP is the presence of Independence Party candidate Cory Pylkka. The IP challenger’s campaign website states that “government has been increasingly intruding into our lives,” suggesting he stands on the rightward side of the ideological spectrum. As of this writing, Pylkka hasn’t been endorsed by the IP, according to party chairman Mark Jenkins.
The 8th Congressional District, in which District 11A fits, was the site of a major political upset in 2010 when veteran DFL Congressman Jim Oberstar lost to Republican Chip Cravaack. However, Oberstar beat Cravaack in Carlton County by 11 points.
Deep roots in the district
The partisan profile of the district suggests the DFL primary will be the main event of the election cycle.
Sundin (pronounced sun-DEEN) won DFL endorsement over three other candidates on the fifth ballot at the endorsing convention in Barnum. Ahlgren didn’t participate in the convention with the assumption that he would run in the primary.
Sundin is a battle-hardened campaigner with decades of experience working on races ranging from legislative contests to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. In addition to the DFL endorsement, which gives him access to the party’s voter list, he has racked up area labor endorsements, including the AFL-CIO North East Labor Council, the Carlton County Central Labor Body and the Duluth Construction and Building Trades Council.
Despite the long-winded title of business market development consultant, Sundin supporter and Carlton County Central Labor Body president Mike Kuitu said Sundin is a hard-nosed labor organizer who can go to toe-to-toe with contractors. “He’s been a fighter. He’s a guy that gets things done,” Kuitu said.
Amid many memorable experiences, such as attending the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Sundin said his proudest moment was in the 2004 presidential election when he served as Carlton County DFL Chair and local turnout for the tight contest between Kerry and President Bush was massive.
In Sundin, Dayton would likely have a firm supporter for his proposal to increase income taxes on the highest earners. “If we could switch back to a more progressive tax system where those people who have benefited the most from our infrastructure, be it transportation infrastructure, information infrastructure, those people that are benefiting the most and doing well, I think can afford to pay a little bit more,” Sundin said.
Ahlgren at age 27 became one of the youngest court administrators in Minnesota, having served until then as a probation officer. A theme of Ahlgren’s candidacy is his advocacy over several decades at the state Capitol on judicial and local government issues. He was chosen by Dayton to serve on the Tax Reform Advisory Group for Local Government Aid. These experiences have gained him audiences with governors and Supreme Court justices. He also said his legislative work got him acquainted with important northeastern Minnesota legislators like Sam Solon and Florian Chmielewski.
Ahlgren and his supporters are framing his candidacy as being above the political fray and devoted to a regional and multi-issue perspective. Chris Wagner, a retired school principal and education professor who is managing Ahlgren’s campaign, said he can work on issues ranging from housing for seniors to attracting small businesses. “His vision is one that has to do with creating community wealth. It’s an over arching approach. It’s what’s good for kids and towns and cities. It has everything to do with strengthening our assets. I don’t think anybody knows the assets in our community or the problems as well as Bruce,” Wagner said.
Ahlgren and Sundin both emphasize fiscal problems as central issues facing the state. Sundin noted that lawmakers’ decision in 2010 to eliminate the Market Value Homestead Credit has exacerbated the property tax burden.“The shift from income taxes to property taxes is starting to weigh pretty heavily on homeowners,” he said. “With the homestead credit being eliminated, that’s another knife in the back of homeowners.”
Ahlgren said state budget cuts since 2003 have amounted to $14 million less in local government aid for Cloquet. “I don’t mind doing our share,” Ahlgren said. “And we have to work together to solve the budget problem. But you can’t do it on the backs of local governments and take all the money from us and give it to [the state] and not reduce your budget and your spending.”