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Conservative group attacking Doepke for vote on bird habitat funding

Paul Demko//August 1, 2012

Conservative group attacking Doepke for vote on bird habitat funding

Paul Demko//August 1, 2012

State Rep. Connie Doepke is under attack for her vote in favor of an omnibus environment bill that would allocate money to restore winter habitat in Costa Rica for migratory songbirds. It would come from taxpayers who indicated that they wish to make a “non-game wildlife” contribution on their tax forms. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
In the 2010 election cycle the Freedom Club State PAC spent just over $220,000 on political expenditures. That money went exclusively toward mailings, phone calls, billboards and other communications attacking DFL candidates.

But the conservative independent expenditure group is apparently taking a different tack so far in 2012. The group has spent just over $7,000 on the Senate District 33 GOP primary contest, according to its pre-primary campaign finance report. That money was split almost evenly between supporting Dave Osmek, the GOP-endorsed candidate, and attacking state Rep. Connie Doepke, his lone primary opponent. They are vying to replace retiring state Sen. Gen Olson in a reliably Republican district that surrounds Lake Minnetonka.

One piece circulated by the Freedom Club features suitcases stuffed with cash and a tag that reads “Destination: Latin America.” “Connie Doepke voted to waste our tax dollars in Latin America for tropical bird habitats,” the headline reads. Other pieces similarly pound on Doepke’s purported support for profligate spending on tropical bird reserves.

At issue is $10,000 that was tucked into an omnibus environment bill that Doepke supported in 2010. The money would be used to restore winter habitat in Costa Rica for migratory songbirds. It would come from taxpayers who indicated that they wish to make a “non-game wildlife” contribution on their tax forms, rather than from the general fund. It must be matched with $10,000 in private contributions and has not yet been spent.

Doepke expresses bewilderment that this provision has become fodder for attack pieces. “I couldn’t believe that they would be doing a piece on this particular subject, that this was so important to them,” Doepke said.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Freedom Club once backed Doepke

The attack is particularly surprising because when Doepke first ran for office in 2008, the Freedom Club State PAC sent her a $500 contribution. But Doepke doesn’t believe that the mailings are likely to hurt her primary election prospects. “I have a proven record and that’s what we’re running on,” Doepke said. “I’m not about to get into the dirt on this at all. In my opinion, it is absolutely wrong to drag the citizens of this district through this kind of smear campaign.”

Olson issued a letter denouncing the lit pieces as misleading. “I suspect that the Freedom Club business people make their business decisions on better information than they are using for this political choice,” Olson wrote. “Connie Doepke will be a Minnesota senator you can respect.  I urge you to cast your vote for her in the August 14 primary election.”

Rick Weible, co-chair of the GOP in the 3rd Congressional District, also wonders if the pieces could backfire with some district residents. “They may start dismissing the Freedom Club, which is kind of disappointing, because the Freedom Club has done a lot of good work,” said Weible, who is supporting Osmek in the contest. “For them to go on this particular campaign and attack in this manner, I don’t think is very smart.”

Even Osmek, the intended beneficiary of the mailings, expressed misgivings about the content of the attacks. “It’s their choice,” Osmek said. “I would have picked a lot of different subjects other than this one.”

In particular, he emphasizes Doepke’s vote in favor of public financing for the Minnesota Vikings stadium as an issue that has angered voters in the district. “We should not be publicly financing and putting the taxpayers at risk for a stadium that can be fully paid by the Vikings,” Osmek said. “People are very disappointed in that vote.”

He also points to Doepke’s answer to a question about transportation funding on a questionnaire produced by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce as proof that she isn’t fiscally conservative enough for the district. “How should Minnesota address its unmet transportation needs in the near future?” the questionnaire asked. Doepke’s response: “Minnesota should develop new revenue sources for transportation, such as toll roads, MnPass and/or mileage-based user fees.”

Doepke points out that the state’s transportation needs are currently met primarily through a “hodgepodge” of bonding projects and that a stable long-term funding solution is needed. “Right now the most important thing we can do in transportation is we need to continue to be efficient and make the right decisions with the money that we have,” said Doepke, noting that she opposes expansion of light rail transit. “But we do need to have a long-term plan.”

Basis for attacks unclear

Freedom Club officials didn’t return multiple calls from Capitol Report seeking comment about their involvement in the GOP primary. So the motivation for targeting Doepke is difficult to pin down. The group’s founder and largest donor, Primera Technology President Robert Cummins, has indicated that he’s not going to provide any more financial support to the GOP House and Senate caucuses this year.

In particular, it’s believed that Cummins is upset that so-called “right-to-work” legislation, which would make it illegal to require payment of unions dues as a condition of employment, never came up for a vote in the House or Senate. The Freedom Club has also spent money on mailings attacking GOP state Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, who has been among the most vocal opponents of right to work in the Republican caucus and also faces a primary challenge.

But Doepke points out that she’s a co-sponsor of the proposed right to work constitutional amendment. Her campaign website features a letter from the chief proponent of the measure in the House, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, thanking Doepke for her support on the issue. So that seemingly wouldn’t explain why the Freedom Club has chosen to go after her.

Others point to her support for a Vikings stadium financed partly with public dollars as a likely motive for the backlash. The GOP primary in SD 33 is expected to be one of the closest in the state. Osmek won party backing in May, garnering support from more than 80 percent of delegates on the final ballot. He’s expected to pull strongly from the Tea Party and Ron Paul wings of the party that have been ascendant in recent election cycles.

But Doepke has earned the support of the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. That will help her win support from pro-business voters who have traditionally been the core of GOP activists in the area.

Weible and others say they aren’t sure which candidate has the edge. “I think the fight is so close that it’s too close to call,” Weible said.

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