There are just four districts across the state where incumbent legislators from opposing parties are squaring off in the general election. But three of those contests are in a single central Minnesota Senate district that stretches from Iron Range mining towns in the north to the Pillsbury State Forest in the south.
The district includes the regional centers of Bemidji and Grand Rapids, and the economy relies heavily on lake tourism and timber. Senate District 5 is expected to tilt slightly in favor of DFLers, but will undoubtedly be crucial in determining which parties control the House and Senate in 2012 and for years to come.
“These are leaning Democrats seats at best,” said DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc, who is pitted against GOP Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick in House District 5B. “A lot of if it is going to depend upon the quality of the campaigns, the aggressiveness of the campaigns.”
Senate District 5: DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug and GOP Sen. John Carlson will likely be spending a lot of time on Highway 2 this summer. That’s the road that runs between Bemidji and Grand Rapids. Saxhaug’s home turf is Grand Rapids, where his family has lived for three generations. Carlson’s base is Bemidji, where he runs an insurance firm with his wife.
“Bemidji and Grand Rapids have a lot of similarities, the tourism and timber and water,” Carlson said. “He’s going to have to introduce himself to Bemidji and I’m going to have to introduce myself to Grand Rapids.”
Carlson initially ran for the House in 2008, but lost to DFL incumbent Rep. John Persell by 8 percentage points. Two years later he won by a 9-point margin over Sen. Mary Olson, part of the GOP wave that saw Republicans take control of the House and Senate. Carlson describes himself as a “blue collar legislator,” noting that he was the chief author of 28 bills that were signed into law during his first term at the Capitol.
For instance, Carlson points to a bill that allows out-of-state dentists to get temporary licenses to perform charity work as an example of bipartisan legislation that he was able to help pass. “Just a nice little bill that has some statewide significance,” Carlson said.
He’s disappointed that the Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration act, more commonly known as the MAGIC act, didn’t become law. The legislation would allow counties to experiment with changes in service delivery without first obtaining a waiver from the state. It passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but never cleared the House. “I can’t even begin to tell you what all happened in the House,” Carlson said. “It was a mess over there and they never did get it done.” Enacting the MAGIC act will be a priority for Carlson if he wins another term.
Saxhaug is seeking a fourth term. His current district stretches all the way to the Canadian border. He’d sometimes have to stay overnight when visiting his own constituents. So he’s pleased that his new district is only about a third as large geographically. “I’d say it’s middle of the road,” Saxhaug said of his new district. “It’s conservative, but that doesn’t mean it’s Republican.”
Saxhaug cites repeated cuts in state aid to counties and cities — and the resulting increases in property taxes — as a crucial issue in the campaign. “If the state doesn’t want to participate in helping local governments where we don’t have as much tax base, we’re going to suffer,” Saxhaug said. “That’ what people need to know.”
One question facing Carlson and Republican Senate candidates across the state is whether the sex scandal that led to the downfall of Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch will dog them on the campaign trail. Patrick Donnay, a political science professor at Bemidji State University, doesn’t believe it will be a significant factor in the race.”I think it’s more personal,” Donnay said. “People know John, at least locally, and I don’t think they’ll hold that against him in Bemidji.”
House District 5A: This district is dominated by Bemidji and the Leech Lake Indian reservation, the state’s most populous tribal homeland. That’s seemingly good news for DFL Rep. John Persell, who currently represents both of those areas. In addition, Persell works part-time as an environmental policy analyst for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and his wife is an enrolled member of the tribe. Despite the 2010 GOP wave, Persell won re-election to a second term by 6 percentage points in a swing district.
“I plan on wearing out a couple pair of boots door-knocking,” Persell said. “Just going to work my tail off.”
He cites the elimination of the market value homestead credit, which happened as part of the 2011 deal to end the state government shutdown, as the most significant issue in the election. DFLers have vowed to reinstate the program, which provided roughly $500 million in property tax relief per biennium.
“The Republicans doing away with the homestead credit is the biggest deal that I’ve seen in my brief political career here,” Persell said. “I think it was a mistake; we told them it was a mistake; and people in my district are very aware.”
Despite having the home-turf advantage, Persell faces a formidable electoral foe in seven-term GOP Rep. Larry Howes. As chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, Howes is among the most powerful legislators in the state. Residents of Bemidji, which he has not previously represented, saw evidence of this last legislative session: the bonding bill included $3 million for Lakeland Public Television to build a new facility and $3.3 million for a new business building at Bemidji State University.
“We always thought of him as almost one of ours,” said Donnay, the Bemidji State University political science professor. “A lot of people in the area wouldn’t mind having the bonding chair be our representative.”
Howes has also distinguished himself by splitting with much of his party on issues related to labor unions. He opposed the so-called “right to work” amendment, which would have made it illegal to link employment with union membership, and which ultimately never came up for a vote in either chamber. Organized labor has rewarded that loyalty. Howes has been endorsed by the Minnesota Nurses Association, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. “When you get those folks on your side as a Republican, it’s huge,” he said.
Howes also touts his record of bipartisan work in St. Paul. “If you look at people’s voting records, the truth usually comes out,” Howes said. “People are really more partisan than they like to say back home.”
But Persell points out that if Republicans retain both legislative chambers, they are likely to continue pursuing an agenda that is hostile to organized labor, no matter which way Howes votes. “It’s the party that makes the difference,” Persell said. “He can talk all he wants about being pro-labor.”
House District 5B: The contest between Anzelc and GOP Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick likely offers the starkest contrast between incumbents in the district. McElfatrick is a first-term legislator from Deer River, a retired nurse and staunch conservative on social issues. She initially ran for the House in 2008, but lost by double digits to DFL incumbent Rep. Loren Solberg. Two years later she avenged that defeat, winning by just 409 votes. “I worked very hard in 2008 and lost, worked very hard in 2010 and won,” McElfatrick said. “I intend to do the same thing this year.”
McElfatrick points to several bills passed during her first term that demonstrate her effectiveness as a legislator. For instance, she authored legislation that ended the state’s practice of annually filching $1.5 million for the general fund from the construction code fund, which is supposed to be reserved for inspections. McElfatrick also sponsored legislation that allows municipalities to make grants directly to emergency medical service providers, whereas previously they were limited to making contributions to hospitals. “That might seem like a small bill to most of Minnesota, but to the people who are directly involved, it is important,” she said.
Anzelc is an Iron Range populist who is in his third term at the Capitol. Under the new legislative map, however, Anzelc retains just a sliver of the Iron Range. Instead the district shifts the geographic emphasis to Grand Rapids and neighboring towns. “That’s the epicenter of the election,” Anzelc said. “That’s where it’s going to be won or lost. I expect to be at nearly every door.”
Anzelc points to the Vikings stadium — which he supported — as a potentially significant vote in determining the outcome of the election. “Clearly the citizens throughout this district were in support of the Vikings stadium,” he said. “They’re puzzled as to why my opponent voted no on the stadium.”
By contrast, McElfatrick says the topic is rarely broached. “I’m not hearing anything at the doors,” she said.
Anzelc also cites the constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls as evidence that the Republican majorities are out of touch with swing-district voters. “Putting things in the constitution to circumvent a governor, I consider that pretty radical, pretty extreme,” Anzelc said. “Most of them like being in the comfortable middle. The last two years have been not comfortable, and we certainly haven’t been in the middle.”