Democrats in Duluth are ready to move on from last month’s well-publicized sex scandal, which saw first-term incumbent DFL Rep. Kerry Gauthier investigated – but not charged – for having oral sex with a 17-year-old male at a public rest stop. Gauthier first said he planned to run for reelection, but he reversed that decision only hours later after facing a virulent backlash from leaders within his own party.
DFL activists in House District 7B plan to meet at the Denfeld High School in Duluth Saturday morning with one item on the agenda: Endorse a candidate to try and replace Gauthier this fall. And while several names were rumored to be in the mix for the endorsement early on, DFLers and labor groups in west Duluth seem to have unified behind Duluth Fire Department Deputy Chief Erik Simonson in the weeks since the incident.
Simonson, president of the Duluth Fire Fighters Local 101 and a newcomer to state politics, was the first Democrat to declare his candidacy in the days after news of Gauthier’s indiscretion broke. Former 8th Congressional District candidate Daniel Fanning, who currently works in Duluth Mayor Don Ness’ office, had shown interest in the seat initially, but has since been quiet as to his intentions. Fanning did not return a call for comment. Duluth Sen. Roger Reinert said he has heard of other potential candidates interested in the post, but added that most of that talk has now quieted.
“It looks like Erik Simonson will be the only candidate I’m aware of,” Reinert said, noting that he has chosen not to endorse a candidate prior to the convention. “There have been a couple other names in the mix, and I’ve talked with most of them, and they’ve said they will step aside and will not be putting themselves forward. It’s should be pretty smooth sailing for Erik on Saturday.”
Simonson himself feels fairly confident about his endorsement chances. “It’s been an absolute whirlwind, but we’ve been going about 100 miles per hour since it started,” Simonson said. “There’s a lot of the support in the community right now and we are feeling really good about it.”
But Simonson and other Democrats acknowledge that the endorsement is only one step in what will be a hard fight to win the general election this fall. A more than 20-year-old provision in state law does not allow legislative candidates to get off or on the ballot after a two-day window immediately following the candidate filing deadline in June. Democrats in St. Paul, led by House DFL Minority Leader Paul Thissen, are exploring a possible legal challenge to that state law.
“I don’t know yet what the process is going to be yet, but there appear to be options in statute for replacing candidates who withdraw,” Thissen said. “That would probably require some administrative actions by the local party in coordination with the state party.”
But local Democrats say they are operating under the assumption that they will be waging a write-in effort on behalf of their endorsed candidate. No write-in candidate has won election to the Legislature in the last 30 years, according to the Legislative Reference Library, and prior to that there is no record of any successful write-in bid. That could put a traditionally safe DFL seat up for grabs in a year when control of the chamber is at stake.
“We are endorsing for a reason, and that’s to galvanize public support behind one person,” said John Schwetman, chair of the local Senate district DFL. “That’s going to be crucial.”
As the situation currently stands, Gauthier’s name will be joined on the ballot by Republican-endorsed candidate Travis Silvers. Silvers ran and lost to Gauthier in 2010, earning only 22 percent of the vote, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Simonson will be joined by at least one additional write-in candidate in City Council member Jay Fosle, who has said he will run as an independent. Fosle has served on the council since 2007, when he beat a longtime incumbent DFLer for the post. While Fosle doesn’t associate himself with a political party, most local Democrats note that he votes primarily with the conservative bloc of the council. A recent letter in the Duluth News Tribune from Duluth Republican Megan Kuelbs expressed concern that Fosle would pull votes away from the GOP-endorsed candidate, not Democrats.
“In a district where the incumbent’s Republican challenger has been an afterthought, this could be an unlikely pickup for conservatives,” Kuelbs wrote. “I was very disturbed by Jay Fosle’s announcement he would run a write-in campaign for this seat. He is a Duluth Democrat’s dream: a conservative candidate who will split the vote between Silvers and himself, allowing Duluth progressives to keep their stranglehold on the west end of the city. Twin Ports’ conservatives shouldn’t let this opportunity go to waste. Jay Fosle should end his write-in campaign for this seat and stand behind Travis Silvers to send a true conservative leader from Duluth to St. Paul.”
Others could enter the fray, too; the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office gives write-in candidates until October 30 to fill out the appropriate paperwork.
Simonson knows the challenges, and plans an aggressive voter targeting and education effort ahead of the general election.
“Our key to this campaign will be to identify and target the voters that are going to vote Democratic and try to do a face-to-face with each one of them and talk them through a write-in campaign,” he said. “It’s primarily going to be about education.”
DFL Duluth Rep. Tom Huntley says he plans to be more active in the neighboring House district than his own this fall. “It’s going to be a very unusual campaign,” he said. “You are going to have to go the nursing homes and explain to people what a write-in candidate is. That can be pretty difficult.”
But he’s encouraged by Simonson’s campaign so far. Simonson already has law signs – directing voters to write his name in on the ballot – across the district, and the local firefighter union he represents is aggressively involved in local politics, Huntley said. He adds that Simonson is personable and will do well in face-to-face meetings with voters.
“[Simonson] understands city government, which is a plus when you go down to St. Paul, and he’s been a very effective union leader, both in Duluth and statewide,” Huntley said. “But more than that, I’ve known him for years and he just has a really good personality. He’s the kind of guy that voters would love.”
I am appalled at Simonson’s parenting values. To say that he’s fulfilled his parenting obligations because he always paid his child support is absolutely offensive. Does Simonson realize how much pain his abandoned daughter has lived with because she never had her father’s love? Sending a check is not parenting, and children do not associate money with love. I am a Democrate, but I would not support a man with such appalling character!