While this November’s legislative elections might still seem far off, the scene in east-central Minnesota’s House District 11B is marked by immediacy on both sides of the aisle. Thanks to a strange combination of circumstances, both major-party candidates in this redrawn swing district will be chosen in Aug. 14 primary elections.
What makes the scene so odd is that the new 11B was initially a district that paired two sitting House members. But then Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, finding himself in a district that included little of his old turf, opted to retire at the end of session. That brought three DFL candidates running. Former Rep. Tim Faust of Hinckley sought the DFL endorsement to win back the seat he lost to Crawford in 2010, as did Pine City planner Nathan Johnson and Quamba Mayor Tom Ladwig, Jr. The stakes seemed particularly high in light of the DFL-friendlier contours of the redrawn district, but no one was endorsed at the district’s May convention.
And then the surprising June 4 retirement of Rep. Roger Crawford, R-Mora, just before the end of the candidate filing period, set off a similar scramble among Republicans intent on defending the seat. Army National Guard major and berry farmer Ben Wiener immediately jumped in the race, followed closely behind by Pine County commissioner Mitch Pangerl.
Much of the new 11B was part of House District 8B for the last 10 years. That district was tough turf for DFLers, but Faust managed to win twice in the strong DFL years of 2006 and 2008. By grabbing Hilty’s DFL-leaning area to the north and removing some Republican-leaning townships in Isanti County to the south and Kanabec County to the west, the new district has DFLers more confident and Republicans feeling less safe.
“On a technical level, we Republicans lost some good territory in Kanabec County,” Crawford said. “The analysis we did of the townships we gained in Pine was it tilted a little bit DFL.”
Crawford, who suffered a mild heart attack before Memorial Day — his second — said he’s helping both his potential Republican successors and that either one would be “very strong and tough to beat.” He said both Pangerl and Wiener have roots in Pine County and will be well advised to reach out to Republican primary voters in the portion of Kanabec County that remains in the district.
In 2010 Pangerl, who didn’t return calls seeking comment, defeated an incumbent to win election to the Pine County Board.
Finlayson native Wiener, along with his wife and family, run Ben’s Berry Farm in Hinckley. Wiener is a major in the Minnesota 34th Red Bull Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard. He’s been deployed overseas four times: twice to Bosnia and twice to Iraq. He was elected chairman of the Pine County GOP Party in 2005, but had to resign three months later in preparation to lead a Red Bulls combat team to Iraq.
Despite the changes in district lines, the area still has a lot of conservatives, he said: “8B was a very competitive district. It went back and forth between Republican and Democrat based on the year. With redistricting it got a little less favorable to Republicans but it’s still a very competitive district, especially for a candidate that can reach out to conservative independents and even conservative Democrats.”
The DFL race, meanwhile, has turned into a two-way affair, because Ladwig briefly filed as an Independence Party candidate and then withdrew altogether.
The contest between Faust and Johnson is a study in differences both in terms of political experience and positions on certain issues important to DFL voters.
This is Faust’s fifth run for the House and so far he’s two-for-four. His first three campaigns were against former GOP Rep. Judy Soderstrom of Mora. Faust, who back then also lived in Mora and worked for a farm supply business, in 2004 lost to Soderstrom by less than half a percentage point. He then defeated her by nearly 5 percentage points in 2006 and narrowly withstood a rematch in the 2008 presidential-election year. In the 2010 election, Faust, who had moved to the Hinckley area and become a Lutheran minister, was soundly beaten, losing to Crawford by 12 points in the GOP wave-election year.
Faust remained an occasional face at the Capitol after his defeat and considered making a bid for Congress in the 8th Congressional District. His House campaign committee raised $5,000 in 2011, including $2,000 he loaned himself in December.
Johnson has a long history of civic engagement in Pine City. But this is his first bid for public office. Thom Petersen, a Capitol lobbyist and DFL activist from Pine City, said the candidates’ political experience is one of the factors in the primary.
“I think in the primary race, it’s kind of the new guy against the guy that’s run four times,” Petersen said. “You have the dynamic between people who think it’s his to lose versus people who feel, let’s let somebody else try for a little bit.”
Petersen was the chairman of the May DFL endorsing convention that deadlocked.
The convention lasted seven ballots, and no candidate reached the necessary 60 percent threshold. When Ladwig dropped out of the balloting, much of his support switched to Johnson, Petersen said. But the last two ballots were unchanged at 53 percent for Johnson and 47 percent for Faust. Even as recently as this week, when the Pine County DFL held a meeting on Wednesday night, activists have aired some anger that the convention stopped without picking a winner.
One potential significant development: Johnson has grabbed some labor endorsements that had gone to Faust in the past. The Minnesota AFL-CIO, which backed Faust in 2010, has thrown its support to Johnson. He also has the support of the Carlton County Labor Body, which includes many public employees from Pine County.
In addition to the loss of labor support, Faust is likely a tough sell with progressives in the party, especially owing to his anti-abortion voting record when he served in the House. Johnson is pro-choice.
But that could translate into an unlikely source of support for a DFL primary campaign: Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL). Scott Fischbach, executive director of the state’s leading anti-abortion group, said MCCL will be doing endorsements for some primary races. The race in 11B could be one the group chooses to weigh in on.
“It’s definitely a race that is on a lot of people’s radar,” Fischbach said.
The issue of gay rights could also figure into the campaign more prominently than it has in area races in the past. Johnson, who is gay, started organizing events in the Pine County area nine years ago to build acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Johnson noted that support for LGBT issues has grown in the community, and the county now has one of the largest numbers of same-sex households outside the Twin Cities, according to U.S. Census figures. Johnson’s gay rights advocacy is especially relevant in 2012 as voters get set to weigh a question on the November ballot asking whether same-sex marriage should be banned in the state Constitution.
Johnson has received the endorsement of OutFront Minnesota and the Stonewall DFL.
It’s uncertain whether questions about the electability of gay candidates in greater Minnesota will be a factor in the 11B primary. Faust opposes the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage in the state Constitution and has attended area Pride events, according to his campaign chair. Numerous attempts to contact Faust from Monday to Thursday were unsuccessful.
Johnson has been a Pine City planner since 2005 and has been involved in regional transit projects like the Northern Lights high-speed rail project between Duluth and Twin Cities. In an interview, he expressed the need to find a replacement for the JOBZ business subsidy program for greater Minnesota, which is slated to sunset in 2015. He said he doesn’t think gay-rights issues will figure prominently in the campaign.
“I honestly believe that the people of this area have more important things to think about than these divisive constitutional amendments and things like that,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, it’s probably not a big deal for them what my gender preference is. It’s more about how I’m going to represent their interests in St. Paul.”