In football, you ride in a parade to celebrate your victory. In politics, you clamber on to the flatbed of that trussed-up truck over and over again and wave to the people as part of a ritual for trying to attain victory. That’s one of the many contrasts confronting Phil Hansen in his cultural leap from gridiron hero to political neophyte.
Throughout the 1990s, Hansen was in his element playing defensive end for the Buffalo Bills — he became just the 27th player in franchise history to be honored on the Bills’ “Wall of Fame” —after winning two Division II national championships as a star for North Dakota State University. Now he’s learning the ropes as a first-time candidate for state Senate in Minnesota’s newly redrawn Senate District 4 up in the northwestern part of the state.
“It’s a learning curve, no question. I said a long time ago I’d never be a rookie again, but here I am, a rookie,” Hansen notes sheepishly.
“People ask me how it’s going and my general answer is good, I guess, or bad, because I have nothing to compare it to. I found that you don’t ask someone to be your campaign chair; you ask for help and whoever helps the most becomes campaign chair. All I can say is that I’m working hard, knocking on doors, putting up signs. I’ve been in a parade every weekend since June 5th.”
Contrast in styles
The weekend before Labor Day, the parade du jour was in honor of Barnsville Potato Days, with festivities that included mashed potato wrestling, a potato sack fashion show, and a demolition derby. Waving to the crowd from the back of a truck, the 44-year old Hansen has retained his chiseled physique, although he carries less weight on his 6-5 frame than the 270 pounds from his days in the NFL. Even to those unaware of his past, his unforced, macho appearance went over well in this farming community where the VFW is one of the prime watering holes in the center of town and more than a few of the parade-watchers wore t-shirts advertising football teams or the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in nearby South Dakota.
Earlier in the parade, Hansen’s opponent in the Senate race, DFLer Kent Eken, rode in the back of a truck that also held U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, looking every bit like the schoolteacher he is—slight, boyish and bookish. When it comes to optics, it is advantage Hansen.
But Eken is a formidable candidate, having won four terms representing House District 2A before redistricting scrambled the political terrain. When the farm in where he lives with his wife and four children—originally settled by his great-great-grandfather in 1884—was redrawn into District 9, where the longtime DFL state senator, Keith Langseth, had announced his retirement, Eken was the logical candidate to replace him on the ballot.
Eken shrewdly has fun with the contrast between him and Hansen. “I played football for four years with the Twin Valley Tigers,” he says. “And I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I did letter during that time.” Then he turns serious, acknowledging that “This will be my most challenging race,” and not only because of Hansen’s celebrity. He estimates that about 90 percent of the redrawn District 4 is distinct from his old territory in District 2A, “so it will be like running for the first time. We also expect to be heavily outspent by a lot of outside money coming in and thus far we have seen that.” The initial campaign contribution filings show Hansen raising approximately $45,000, compared to Eken’s $32,000.
But Eken also points out that he has been targeted for defeat and outspent in other campaigns he has won, even capturing his first House race in 2002, when the DFL was mostly routed statewide in a year marred by the plane crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone. And where the largest city in his former district was Ada, population 1,710, the redrawn District 9 includes Moorhead, which by itself makes up nearly half the district’s population, and Detroit Lakes (where Hansen began living during the football offseason in 1998). Both and have colleges where Eken has taught. Both are beneficiaries of local government aid, which has faced sharp cuts from the Republican-controlled Legislature.
More DFL friendly turf
The retiring Langseth claims that the new District 4 “is much more leaning Democratic. They got rid of the two southern counties, which were more Republican, and added more of [site of Eken’s old district], which is more Democratic. When I first ran [way back in 1974], the district rating for Democrats was 43 percent; now it is 53 percent.” Of course that makes it pretty much of a classic swing district, and Langseth envisions “an exciting race,” believing that Hansen was “a smart choice, although I’m surprised the Republicans didn’t pick someone who is well-known and well-liked from Moorhead.”
In a state with a historical fondness for unconventional candidates— be it Wellstone, Rod Grams, or, most notoriously, Jesse Ventura — tabbing a former football star with regional, if not local, roots, isn’t a bad idea. DFL-leaning political analyst Blois Olson, from Fluence Media, thinks the choice of Hansen is an attempt by the Republicans to duplicate their success with John Kriesel, a thoughtful and independent-minded Iraq war veteran who was elected to the House in 2010, but announced his retirement this year. And even Langseth admits that Hansen has greater name recognition than Eken at this point in the campaign.
As a self-proclaimed rookie on the stump, Hansen has some fairly predictable strengths and weaknesses. In his literature and on his website, his political positions seem like Republican boilerplate: Fiscal restraint, fewer regulations, and local decision-making as the pillars of a pro-business approach to job growth; a “pro-life and pro-family” approach to social issues, and proud support for schools and the environment without any specifics on how to fund them in a time of decreasing resources. Unlike Eken, he is not well-versed in the minutiae of politics—he was unaware of the Lessard-Sams Council that advises legislators on how to spend “Legacy Amendment” monies for the arts and the environment, and wasn’t clear how the Legacy Amendment came about, although he did know it dedicates a portion of the sales tax.
On the other hand, Hansen speaks about serving in government with a tone of optimism and sincerity, a humanizing quality that will help him in this race. Eken clearly intends to run against the doctrinaire intransigence of last session’s Republican majority, saying “the uncompromising tone needs to change so that things don’t grind to a halt again. When I was a kid my mother told me you don’t get everything you want and I will compromise to get things done—I’m not running for dictator. We need to work together.” That position, coupled with Eken’s more conservative votes against his party’s positions on gun control and abortion, solidifies his moderate credentials.
Beneath the boilerplate, Hansen also has some moderate instincts. After indicating that he was pro-life, he recoiled with obvious distaste when asked if he believed victims of rape or incest should be denied the right to an abortion, which is the official position of the national Republican Party platform. And when asked what from his football experience can be translated to politics, he replied: “I was elected captain by my peers on my high school, college and professional teams. So a lot of it has to do with teamwork. We have a diverse group of legislators who all represent , and as Minnesotans we all have to work for the common good. In sports it is called sportsmanship; in politics, statesmanship. Both have deteriorated over the past twenty years. I believe that even when you disagree with someone, you should be respectful.”
Later, speaking of his opponent, Hansen said, “I met Kent at the first parade in June in Hawley, and at parades there is always time to chat. It is a good, very respectful relationship. We talked about wanting to keep the race cordial and above-board.” That sounds good during parade season, but what happens when, as most expect, this remains a tight, competitive race?
And, as Hansen adds somewhat ruefully, “There are also the independent expenditures. We can’t control that.”