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DFLers compete for safe seats in Twin Cities and on Iron Range

Staff//August 8, 2012

DFLers compete for safe seats in Twin Cities and on Iron Range

Staff//August 8, 2012

Lyle Koenen and Larry Rice

Staff Writers

As the state’s late-summer primary date approaches next week, more DFL candidates find themselves in the midst of competitive intra-party contests than Republicans.

That’s largely due to the high volume of retirements among DFLers this session, not to mention the handful of open seats created in DFL strongholds during the once-in-a-decade redistricting process. But Democratic candidates across the state are also eager to take the legislative majorities back from Republicans after the 2010 GOP wave election, and in many cases, more than one would-be legislator has emerged in a given district.
Among the DFL primary races that figure to be competitive on Tuesday, only one features a current legislator. DFL Sen. Lyle Koenen ran in and won a special election for Senate District 20 this spring to replace former Sen. Gary Kubly following Kubly’s death from ALS, but as Koenen looks to run for re-election this fall in what’s now Senate District 17, he’s facing a challenge from DFL businessman Larry Rice, who ran and lost against Willmar GOP Sen. Joe Gimse in 2010.

Northern Minnesota Senate District 11 will see four DFLers competing in two primaries for open House seats, and in nearby Senate District 10, DFLers Taylor Stevenson and Aitkin County Commissioner Anne Marcotte will battle it out in a generally GOP-leaning Senate district that is looking a little friendlier to Democrats following the release of this year’s new political maps.

The metro area will see its fair share of DFL primaries as well, with three St. Paul Democrats vying for retiring Sen. John Harrington’s East Side seat, and a northeast suburban House seat has one candidate vowing to spend $100,000 to beat the DFL Party’s pick.

SD 17: Koenen-Rice
HD 17B: Sawatzky-Rohloff

Mary Sawatzky and Lyle Koenen are running for the House and Senate, respectively, as labor-backed, socially conservative DFLers. In west-central Minnesota, where social issues have vexed Democrats in previous general elections, that combination could help them prevail against Republicans in November.

But Sawatzky, who has the DFL endorsement to run for the House District 17B seat currently held by GOP Rep. Bruce Vogel, and Koenen, a sitting state senator from Clara City who was paired in redistricting with Sen. Joe Gimse, face primary challengers who stand closer to the progressive wing of the DFL Party.
Competing against Sawatzky is Jessica Rohloff, a resident of Willmar who has roots in New London. Koenen, who served in the House before winning a Senate special election earlier this year, faces Willmar businessman Larry Rice. The pair deadlocked at their endorsing convention.

Sawatzky has a natural DFL labor constituency as a local Education Minnesota president. The union has already donated $581 in cash to her campaign. While Rohloff appears to be the underdog, she has some factors that benefit her among DFL primary voters in that she was a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. She’s also pro-choice, unlike Sawatzky.

Rohloff has tried to make the case that single-issue voters on social issues won’t vote DFL anyway, and that she can find common ground with DFLers and independents who might disagree with her on those issues.
“My personal feeling is that is not going to be the deciding factor in this election,” Rohloff said.
The progressive-conservative split is also pronounced between Koenen and Rice. Koenen was one of only two House DFLers to vote in favor of asking voters in November if same-sex marriage should be banned in the Minnesota Constitution. He also has a strong anti-abortion voting record. Rice said he would have voted with the rest of the caucus on the marriage amendment.

The Senate district became more enticing for DFLers due to redistricting. The new map jettisoned strong Republican areas in Stearns County that had been part of the old District 13. It also added Chippewa and Swift counties, which have a legacy of populism going back the Great Depression and the Farmer-Labor Party. HD 17B, which encompasses the city of Willmar, removed the Republican area of Prinsburg.

Besides the progressive versus social conservative split among the candidates, geography is another dividing line. Rohloff’s family farms in the New London area, which is seen as giving her support in rural parts of the district. Sawatzky is from Willmar, the district’s population center and the second largest city in the 7th Congressional District.

In the Senate primary, similarly, Rice has name recognition in Willmar that Koenen lacks. But redistricting has forced Rice to compete in rural areas that weren’t in the old District 13 when he ran against Gimse in 2010. One local DFL observer who attended the deadlocked endorsing convention said the gymnasium in Clara City was split between the Willmar/Kandiyohi County delegates and those from the surrounding rural areas.
Koenen has garnered labor support from Education Minnesota and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which gave his campaign $500 on August 4. He lags Rice considerably in individual fundraising, with $3,060 raised as of July 23 to Rice’s $9,200. However, PACs have pushed Koenen to over $6,000 raised.
Sawatzky raised $7,025 in individual contributions as of July 23 and brought in $9,900 total in her pre-primary report. Rohloff has raised $6,670, all from individual contributions.

This weekend the candidates will have a venue to make their final pitches to voters at the Kandiyohi County Fair in Willmar. (Shaw)

HD 6B: Metsa-Janatopoulos-Meyer

A classic DFL Iron Range showdown is brewing in the hunt to replace 13-term DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina, who retired suddenly at the end of session. A five-ballot DFL endorsing convention deadlocked in May, though 32-year-old labor organizer and legislative campaign veteran Jason Metsa of Hibbing almost secured delegates’ blessing. He was blocked by longtime community organizer and volunteer Lorrie Janatopoulos of Eveleth, who boasts support from women’s and gay rights groups.

As usual on the Range, the race has come down to whether Janatopoulos’ support in the more progressive wing of the party can trump the union- and politico-backed Metsa in Minnesota’s mining country. Most bets are on Metsa, who has a strong family name in the area and has picked up a lengthy list of union endorsements, including the AFL-CIO and Education Minnesota. He also has the blessing of Rukavina himself, along with that of other prominent Iron Range names like Joe Begich and Jerry Janezich.

The district is situated in the heart of mining country, and Metsa supporters are trying to portray Janatopoulos as hesitant to move forward on all stalled mining projects in the area. One other candidate, construction worker Dave Meyer, registered to run for the seat before the filing deadline, but is admittedly running a low-budget, modest campaign. Metsa has raised $11,340 and spent about $9,133 so far. He has about $2,000 on hand. Janatopoulos has raised more than $7,000 and gave herself a $2,000 loan. She has spent about $6,500 and has roughly $2,500 on hand. The primary victor is likely to have a relatively easy time in the general election in this DFL stronghold. (Bierschbach)

Senate District 67:

For the second consecutive election cycle, this DFL stronghold on the East Side of St. Paul has no incumbent. Two years ago former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington ran away from a nine-candidate field with 31 percent of the vote.

This time around, there are just three challengers: Tom Dimond, Foung Hawj and Robert Humphrey. Hawj ran in 2010, garnering 10 percent of the vote. But this time he is the only candidate of Hmong descent in the contest. If Hawj can find a way to consolidate support from that sizable group of voters, he could prove a serious contender. But at least one of the other Hmong candidates from two years ago, Chai Lee, is supporting Humphrey.

Dimond is an environmental activist who served on the St. Paul City Council two decades ago. He’s backed by St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry, whose mom once held the Senate seat, and state Rep. Sheldon Johnson. Dimond’s base of support is in the southern half of the district.

Humphrey is widely viewed as the favorite, in part because Harrington has endorsed him. Humphrey’s a former DFL party chair in SD 67 and works as assistant to the director of the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections. His base of support is in the northern half of the district, in the neighborhoods around Lake Phalen. Humphrey has picked up a slew of labor endorsements, including nods from the Minnesota AFL/CIO and the St. Paul Police Federation. That organizing muscle could prove vital in an August primary.

“Labor has the get-out-the-vote machine that they will be working,” said Darren Tobolt, chair of the St. Paul DFL. “That organization is really going to matter in a low-turnout primary.” (Demko)

HD 11A: Sundin-Ahlgren

Veteran Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, was drawn into a new district largely severed from the Carlton County area that he used to represent. The open Carlton County seat led to a crowded endorsement race that was ultimately won by labor organizer Mike Sundin. Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren bypassed the endorsement process in order to run in the primary.

The primary will likely be the main event for the election cycle in the DFL-leaning district. While many primary candidates throughout the state fret that the August primary date will result in low turnout, the 11A primary stands a good chance of decent attendance.

“I think we’ll have above-average [turnout] in this area,” Ahlgren said. “The reason is, Mike and I are running for a seat that wasn’t there before and the fact that the 8th Congressional District has a three-way primary with Rick Nolan, Jeff Anderson and Tarryl Clark.”

Sundin has amassed a sizeable war chest thanks to contributions from labor organizations and groups like the Coalition for Democratic Values. He reported $12,000 in campaign contributions in his pre-primary report, with $5,700 coming from PACs. Sundin has been endorsed by Hilty.

Ahlgren raised $6,300, none of which was PAC money. His effort got some recognition last week when the Duluth New-Tribune endorsed his candidacy. He is also supported by DFL CD 8 primary candidate Jeff Anderson. (Shaw)

HD 4A: Lien-Wiger

Redistricting shrank the size of House District 4A so that it includes only Moorhead and Oakport Township, which is in the process of being annexed by Moorhead. And GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning announced late in the candidate-filing period that he won’t seek a sixth term.

The open, redistricted seat has two DFLers vying for the nomination to run against the winner of a GOP primary that features three candidates. Local DFL activist and credit counselor Ben Lien won the endorsement to run for the seat last April. Non-profit executive Sue Wiger entered the primary race later in the campaign.
Until last week, Wiger was executive director of the Blue Stem Center for the Arts. (Blue Stem’s board dissolved the organization last week due to financial troubles and eliminated her position. She is doing some contract work for the entity as it winds down.)

The House seat has been held by Republicans since 1992, when GOP Rep. Kevin Goodno was elected.
Lanning, a former Moorhead mayor who succeeded Goodno, was bullet-proof during his tenure in the House. But Lien notes there are a lot of split-ticket voters who have sent Lanning to St. Paul at the same time they supported state DFL state Sen. Keith Langseth of Glyndon, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL U.S. House and Senate candidates.

“With [Lanning] stepping down and all of us being fairly new candidates, it really opens things up,” Lien said. “DFLers have done pretty well in the city of Moorhead as far as the state senate and the federal elections. I feel pretty good about the DFL’s chances this year.”

The community’s college campuses are fertile ground for DFL GOTV efforts, and activists are hoping opposition to the gay marriage ban constitutional amendment will help drive turnout among students in the general election this fall.

Lien raised $5,130, which includes $3,500 in individual donations. He pulled in a combined $1,100 from the SD 4 DFL and former candidate Greg Lemke’s campaign. Wiger raised $3,180 in individual contributions. (Shaw)

HD 11B:

DFLers in the House District 11B will choose between two primary candidates from different parts of the east-central Minnesota area who have divergent views on social issues.

Former Rep. Tim Faust, who served two terms as a DFLer from Mora and is now a Lutheran pastor in Cloverdale, is running to win back the seat he lost to Rep. Roger Crawford, R-Mora, who is retiring after one term. Pine City planner Nathan Johnson, a newcomer to electoral politics, is his primary opponent. At this year’s endorsing convention, Johnson led in the ballot count but failed to reach the 60 percent support necessary to clinch the endorsement.

Regarding social issues, Faust is the more conservative with an anti-abortion voting record in the Legislature. Johnson is pro-choice. Johnson, who is openly gay, has worked for years to encourage acceptance of LGBT people in the Pine City area. As a result of those efforts, Census figures show that Pine City has one of the largest populations of same-sex households of any Minnesota community outside the Twin Cities. Faust has attended Pride events and opposes the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, so the issue figures to be a factor in the primary.

One interesting development was Johnson’s endorsement by the AFL-CIO, which endorsed Faust two years ago. Thom Petersen, a DFL activist from Pine City, said the campaign has been intense. But the two sides will need to come together after August 14 because 11B is an important swing district, he said. Republicans will also choose a nominee via primary.

As to the DFL race, “It’s a real unknown because the activists are pretty split,” Petersen said. (Shaw)

HD 43A: Fischer-Hill

Attorney Bob Hill has threatened to spend an unprecedented $100,000 to win the DFL primary against the endorsed candidate Peter Fischer. That’s not likely to happen. But according to Hill’s pre-primary campaign finance report, he’s already spent at least $28,000. Almost all of that money, $25,000, was provided through a loan from the candidate himself.

Hill has used that war chest to flood the district with mailings – some of which play loose with the facts. In one mailing he describes Fischer as “pro-life.” But Fischer, who is Catholic and runs a shelter for homeless youths, has stated that he doesn’t support limiting access to abortion. In fact, Fischer has been endorsed by the NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota Election Fund and received a 100 percent rating for his answers to the group’s candidate questionnaire. “Hill has decided to double down on the rumors and innuendo,” said John Nephew, a DFL activist who is backing Fischer.

The northeastern suburban district, which includes parts of Maplewood, White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi, tilts in favor of DFLers. But a messy primary could open the door for Republicans, who boast a strong candidate in Stacey Stout, a former attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. (Demko)

HD 10B: Radinovich-Schaaf

There is no incumbent in this central Minnesota district, which includes Aitkin County and part of Crow Wing County. Labor organizer Joe Radinovich secured the DFL endorsement in March without opposition. But David Schaaf, who previously served in the House from 1973 to 1980 representing Anoka and Ramsey counties, filed to run in the DFL primary. The winner of the contest will take on GOP challenger Dale Lueck. The district favors neither party in any significant way. A Common Cause analysis of the new district put its voter base at 50.2 percent DFL.

“There are some precincts that are very blue, and there are some precincts that are very red, and they’re right next to each other on the map,” said Tiffany Stenglein, chair of the Crow Wing County DFL. “So much of it depends on who turns out to vote on election day.”

Radinovich would seem to be a significant favorite to advance from the primary. In addition to the DFL endorsement, he enjoys a formidable fundraising advantage. Radinovich took in more than $16,000, according to his pre-primary campaign finance report, compared to just $2,500 for Schaaf. What’s more, Schaaf’s principal benefactor was the candidate himself, contributing $2,000 to his own campaign. Radinovich also appears well-situated for the general election campaign: He outraised his potential GOP opponent by a more than two-to-one margin.

“We’re feeling like we’re in a strong position heading into the primary,” Radinovich said. “Everything is going as it should for our campaign right now.”

Schaaf emphasizes his experience in the Legislature and his approach to tax policy as key attributes. He wants to reduce all tax breaks by 10 percent. For instance, if a company currently gets a $1,000 tax credit for hiring a military veteran, that figure would be reduced to $900. “By doing that, we can have a billion dollars to play with,” Schaaf said. “This is a really big idea, and it’s something that not a lot of people have talked about.”

Schaaf’s campaign has been further hampered by the fact that his house on Big Sandy Lake flooded earlier this summer, limiting his ability to campaign in the sprawling district. “I was on a very small island for about three weeks,” Schaaf said. (Demko)

SD 10: Stevenson-Marcotte

Central Minnesota’s Senate District 10 isn’t one that most political watchers would immediately peg as a potential swing district in the 2012 election. At least part of the area has been represented by a Republican in the Senate for the last few cycles, but the new redistricting maps took GOP-leaning Morrison County out of the district and substituted parts of Aitkin County in its place, increasing the DFL index in the area by about 10 points, some Democrats say (a partisan voter index prepared by Common Cause Minnesota still puts the district at GOP +4). And though Republican Sen. Paul Gazelka is the district’s ostensible incumbent, he has moved to a neighboring district to run, leaving the Senate seat wide open this fall.
That dynamic has increased DFL interest in the seat since February, when the maps were released. Taylor Stevenson, a 24-year-old substitute teacher from Baxter, beat two other DFLers for the endorsement back in March, but before the filing deadline closed in June, Aitkin County Commissioner Anne Marcotte jumped into the mix. That took a lot of activists by surprise.

“We had no idea that she was concerned about running, and to my knowledge she hadn’t showed up to the conventions,” Aitkin County DFL chair Bill Pick said. “At the last minute I heard that she was considering running, so I called her and I asked her if the rumor was true. I strongly encouraged her to reconsider, but she said the time was right to run for her to run.” Pick said he has also heard from Republicans in the district that Marcotte had briefly considered running in the GOP primary for the seat against endorsed candidate and former Sen. Carrie Rudd. “I don’t want to say too much against her,” Pick said of the claim, “but I do know for a fact that it is not made up.”

In addition to her commissionership, Marcotte is an attorney who serves as a public defender in the Ninth Judicial District. She has the support of Friends of DFL Women and Women Winning in her bid for the Legislature, pulling in large donations from both groups. “One of the major reasons I’m running is because the GOP gained this seat last time around and therefore gained control of the Legislature. I saw what they did and what they didn’t do,” Marcotte said. “I want to get the Legislature back in DFL hands and get some things done.”

Marcotte is a Teamster and a Minnesota Farm Bureau member, but Stevenson says he is the only candidate who has earned major endorsements, including the backing of major unions like the AFL-CIO and Education Minnesota. Stevenson says he feels confident about his chances, largely because his campaign is merely a continuation of work he started two years ago, when he ran against Gazelka for the old Senate District 12 seat. Stevenson lost that race by more than 15 percentage points.

“We have quite a bit of experience under our belt,” he said. “We are making phone calls, we are getting out to the doors. We’re really connecting with the community. When we ran two years ago, obviously we knew it was going to be an uphill battle.”

Stevenson has raised more than $10,200 in individual contributions and has spent about $6,300 so far, leaving him with about $6,700 on hand. Marcotte raised about $5,000 and gave nearly the same amount to her own campaign. She has already spent more than $7,000 and is reporting $2,800 still in the bank. (Bierschbach)

SD 57: Clausen-Germain

Former Rosemount High School principal Greg Clausen didn’t announce his candidacy until the day of the District 57 DFL endorsing convention. In his first day in the race, he snagged the endorsement on the second ballot against Mike Germain, who ran unsuccessfully against retiring GOP incumbent Sen. Chris Gerlach in 2006 and 2010.

Germain has stayed in the race to challenge Clausen for the nomination, and next Tuesday’s winner will face Republican Pat Hall, the brother of suburban GOP Sen. Dan Hall.

Despite being a newcomer to politics, Clausen has garnered major union endorsements and reported raising $13,300 as of July 23. Since then he’s received $500 each from PACs affiliated with the Laborer’s District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota, AFSCME Council 5 and the Minnesota Police and Police Officers Association.

Germain, who is in the unfamiliar position of party outsider after being endorsed in his two previous runs, raised $6,025, including $5,000 he loaned himself. Germain said he was caught by surprise at the convention by Clausen’s entry into the race and contends that Clausen, until then, had been “a life-long Republican.”
“My opponent has been a Democrat since the endorsing convention,” Germain said.

Clausen denies the charge and said his lack of a political resume is due to his career spent in school administration.

“I’ve always been a Democrat,” Clausen said. “I don’t know why he insists on calling me a Republican. Up until this time, I really have not been active politically.… When you’re a high school principal and working 70 hours a week, you don’t have much time for outside interests because you’re so consumed with what you’re doing.”

In addition to lacking his party’s endorsement, Germain is staunchly opposed to copper/nickel mining projects in northeastern Minnesota. That puts him at odds with DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and other DFLers on the Iron Range. Germain’s stance makes him similar to neighboring DFL Senate candidate Jim Carlson in Eagan, who clashed with Iron Range DFLers when he served previously in the Senate.

Clausen takes a wait-and-see approach to the issue, which is moving through a multi-year-long environmental review process. “I think anytime that we’re making a critical decision with an issue dealing with the environment, we have to gather all the information before we move ahead,” Clausen said.

The suburban area has not been on DFLers’ list of key swing districts in the past. And it’s not guaranteed to be in play this year either. But the amount of money that labor and other groups have contributed to Clausen’s campaign suggests that DFL strategists have their sights on it. Redistricting took away some Republican-leaning areas of Burnsville. But the new map also added some GOP turf on the north side of Lakeville.

“There’s a history of this being a Republican area,” Clausen said. “But I’ve been well-received on the phone and well-received at the doors and events across the district. I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I had a shot.”

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