Two years ago the open seat in Senate District 67 attracted nine DFL candidates — easily the most challengers in the state. But ultimately former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington emerged from the scrum with a double-digit victory, garnering support from 31 percent of primary voters. The next closest challenger, Chai Lee, was backed by less than 12 percent of the voters.
But Harrington decided not to run for a second term, expressing frustration at his inability to accomplish legislative goals as part of the DFL minority caucus. Harrington’s surprise retirement spurred numerous rumors about who might seek the suddenly open seat representing St. Paul’s East Side, but ultimately only three DFL candidates emerged: Tom Dimond, Foung Hawj and Robert Humphrey.
None of the challengers enjoys the widespread name recognition that helped Harrington earn a commanding victory two years ago. Only Dimond has previously won an election, and that was a St. Paul City Council race two decades ago. All three candidates are running vigorous campaigns. In what’s expected to be extremely low turnout for a mid-August primary, it means that any of the three challengers could emerge victorious.
“I can see it going many, many different ways,” said St. Paul City Council president Kathy Lantry, who lives in the district and whose mother once held the Senate seat. “I think they all have really different constituencies.”
Whoever survives will likely face token GOP opposition in a district that leans heavily Democratic. In 2010 Harrington won the general election with 66 percent of the vote despite facing two major party challengers.
Senate District 67 is poorer and more diverse than most parts of St. Paul. According to 2007 U.S. Census data, the most recent available, the average household income in the area was less than $40,000 and more than a third of the residents were minorities. A report issued last month by ISAIAH, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that homes on the East Side have lost 50 percent of their value since 2006. In addition, the three zip codes with the highest number of foreclosures in recent months were all located on the East Side.
In recent years the area has seen a rapid rise in Hmong and Hispanic residents. Payne Avenue, a main commercial artery in the district, is now lined with taquerias and stores selling Mexican soccer jerseys. The paths around Lake Phalen are filled with Hmong families.
Dimond and Hawj were in the race even before Harrington decided not to seek re-election. In March they battled him to a draw for the endorsement, with some party activists believing Harrington was too moderate for the district. Harrington is not backing any candidate in the primary, but points out that they’ll face a difficult climate at the Capitol.
“I’m hopeful that we’re going to come up with a good candidate that has energy and passion and who has the patience of Job to deal with what I think is going to be a even more severely divided Legislature,” Harrington said. “My hope is that we have someone who really does understand the policy issues, but has the patience to wade through what I think are going to be very, very troubled times for the state Legislature.”
Dimond has an extensive background of neighborhood work and DFL activism. In addition to serving on the City Council, he has chaired the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority and served on the DFL State Central Committee. In recent years Dimond was a central figure in successfully opposing a proposed floodwall around the St. Paul airport, arguing that it would be damaging to the Mississippi River. Key supporters of Dimond include Lantry and state Rep. Sheldon Johnson, who holds the House District 67B seat. “He is a tireless worker for the East Side of St. Paul,” Johnson said. “He’s shown what he can do in practical ways to make things happen to make it a better place to live.”
Hawj is the sole return candidate from 2010. In that election he captured 10 percent of the vote. But Hawj was one of four Hmong candidates in the mix two years ago, which undoubtedly diluted the influence of a key constituency group in the district. While Hmong voters aren’t a monolithic entity, Hawj should be able to count on drawing a greater percentage of their votes this time around. “It certainly will give me some advantage, but I can’t be too complacent and can’t say that it’s going to be absolute,” Hawj said. “I don’t want any free lunches. I want to work for my lunches.”
Hawj is a DFL precinct captain and co-founder of the Hmong-American DFL Caucus. He’s served on the board of the District 2 Community Council and as vice president of the Lake Phalen Townhome Association. Professionally he runs a multimedia production firm, Digital Motion, that has worked with numerous nonprofit groups in the Twin Cities. “Even though this is my second dab at it, I’m still like a new kid on the block,” Hawj said. “I’m not what they call some career politician.”
Humphrey is a former DFL Party chair in SD 67 and also has served on the boards of Friends of Lake Phalen and the District 2 Community Council. He’s picked up numerous union endorsements, including the St. Paul AFL/CIO, AFSCME Council 5 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. Humphrey works as assistant to the director of the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections. Prior to that, he spent a decade as a legislative assistant at the Capitol, working with Reps. Tom Rukavina and Tim Mahoney and former Rep. Al Juhnke. Humphrey’s wife is a lobbyist at the Capitol for the Minnesota Credit Union Network. The couple’s third child was born in May.
“My opponents have a natural leg up,” Humphrey conceded, regarding the presence of an infant in the house. “They get to sleep at night.”
All three candidates emphasize foreclosures and job creation as crucial areas of attention for the district. Numerous factories on the East Side — 3M, Whirlpool, the Stroh’s brewery — have been shuttered over the years, and redevelopment of those sites could provide crucial jobs to the struggling district. “The sheer economic impact of the downturn in recent years has just been devastating,” Dimond said. “It’s a really tough economic time.”