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Mark Ritchie: The man they love to hate

Paul Demko//August 10, 2012

Mark Ritchie: The man they love to hate

Paul Demko//August 10, 2012

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has become something of a political piñata during this election season. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s decision to change the title on two ballot measures has made him public enemy number one among Republicans — again

Earlier this month, 8th Congressional District GOP activist Terry Stone drafted a letter to House Speaker Kurt Zellers. It urged Zellers to begin the unprecedented process of impeaching DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. Ritchie’s principal offense: changing the titles of two proposed constitutional amendment questions that will appear on the November ballot.

Stone’s initiative was debated at Tuesday night’s gathering of the 8th Congressional District GOP’s executive committee and passed unanimously. “It sailed right through,” said Ted Lovdahl, chair of the CD 8 Republicans, estimating that about 15 members voted in favor of the resolution.

“We view Secretary Ritchie to be politically motivated,” the resolution reads. “We view these actions to be against the best interest of the people of Minnesota. We view these actions to clearly constitute corrupt conduct in office.”

Stone hopes that the bold move will be a catalyst for real action. “If the Republican Legislature needs political cover for [impeachment],” he said, “to whatever extent we can do that, we did.”

The episode highlights how much of a political piñata Ritchie has become during this election season. Last month the Senate state government committee held a hearing on Ritchie’s actions with regard to the proposed amendments requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls and banning gay marriage. Ritchie declined to show up and answer questions about his actions. But that didn’t stop Republicans from arguing that Ritchie was misusing public resources in order to travel the state stirring up opposition to the Republican-backed measures. “Is it a violation of his oath of office to travel around the state being an opponent to a piece of legislation on elections that the Legislature [passed]?” asked Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. “Should the taxpayers of the state of Minnesota be responsible for footing the bill? Presumably he has to get there somehow.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether Ritchie overstepped his authority in retitling the ballot measures. Earlier this month oral arguments were heard in a lawsuit brought by GOP legislators and allied groups challenging the constitutionality of Ritchie’s actions, and a ruling is expected within weeks. But the secretary of state is likely to remain a political target throughout the election season no matter the outcome of the lawsuit.

Recount reputation

The role of partisan whipping post is not exactly new for Ritchie. He oversaw the drawn-out, contentious recount in the 2008 U.S. Senate contest that ultimately certified Al Franken as the victor and gave the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in Washington. Many GOP partisans viewed the outcome through a conspiratorial lens that made Ritchie the fulcrum on which the plot to foil Norm Coleman turned.

But the GOP lawyers and officials directly involved in the recount — no matter how much they despised the outcome — generally gave Ritchie high marks for overseeing a fair, impartial process. “I think that he relied, as he should, on his staff, and I would have to say he handled it reasonably well, quite professionally,” said Fritz Knaak, the lead attorney for former Sen. Norm Coleman’s campaign during the recount. “I have a huge amount of respect for the staff in that office. He does defer to them and that’s important.”

But Knaak has no such kind words for Ritchie’s actions in changing the ballot titles. “A lot of people have worked very, very hard to try and keep that office, even though it’s held by partisans, as non-political as possible, and of course he’s failed in that regard,” Knaak said. “It’s obvious. Why pretend it’s anything other than what it is? The only real question is whether he’s going to get away with it or not.”

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz also spies political calculation in Ritchie’s actions. “In the same way that the Republicans clearly chose their titles and descriptions for political purposes, Mark Ritchie’s doing the same thing,” Schultz said. “He built up this enormous political capital with the two recounts, and really did his best not to be viewed as a partisan figure. Now I think it’s hard not to conclude that, whether he has the legal authority to do what he’s doing or not, he’s clearly doing it for political reasons.”

Schultz points out that it’s not the first time that the charge of politicizing the secretary of state’s office has surfaced. During former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer’s tenure, DFLers were often apoplectic over her heavy-handed approach to overseeing elections. In 2004, for instance, Kiffmeyer removed all Independence Party candidates from the ballot, claiming that the party had insufficient support to merit an automatic ballot slot. That maneuver was rebuffed by the Minnesota Supreme Court and the IP candidates were returned to the ballot. That same year, Kiffmeyer’s office proclaimed that tribal ID cards were insufficient for registering to vote at non-reservation polling stations. That decision, too, was ultimately overturned by the state Supreme Court.
Schultz argues that Ritchie’s actions on the ballot titles arise from similar motives. “Clearly he’s risked putting himself and the secretary of state’s office under a microscope that’s not good,” Schultz said. “Ritchie runs the risk of looking like the Democrats’ version of Mary Kiffmeyer.”

Democrats scoff at such comparisons. “I think that his questions are comprehensive, they are accurate, and they are fair,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-St. Louis Park, a legislator who has been heavily involved in election issues. Winkler points out that the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty overstepped his authority in 2009 when he made unilateral cuts to resolve the budget deficit. “You didn’t have the DFL drafting up petitions for impeachment after that,” Winkler pointed out. “The court hasn’t even said [Ritchie] was wrong on the merits of it or right on the merits of it. It’s just nonsense. The fact is, they don’t like it because they don’t get their way all the time.”

Impeachment implausible

Whether Ritchie acted with political motives or not, there is no chance that he is going to be impeached as envisioned by CD 8 Republicans. That would require a two-thirds vote by the GOP-controlled Senate, and no elected official in the state’s history has ever been removed from office through impeachment.

Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was present for the CD 8 meeting, but didn’t vote on the impeachment resolution and expressed reservations about whether it was the right idea. But Daudt confirmed that Ritchie’s name was coming up on the campaign trail. “I have gotten a lot of questions [from constituents],” Daudt said. “People are asking, ‘What is [Ritchie] up to? What is he trying to do?’”

Knaak is more blunt about the prospects for impeachment. “That’s a nice, dramatic, over-the-top position for my party to take,” Knaak said. “But the reality is, whatever else he’s done, I don’t think it’s impeachable.”

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