For the last 10 years, state Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, has lived at the northern end of his north central Minnesota district. When the redistricting maps were announced last winter, the powerful chairman of the House Capital Investment Committee found himself on the southern fringe of a new district that reaches farther north into a substantial amount of turf that wasn’t in his previous district. And the new map paired him with incumbent Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who, since he was first elected in 2008, has represented a much bigger swath of the district.
“I certainly don’t consider it a disadvantage,” said Persell, a two-term House member, of the redrawn district.
The area appears to have a slight DFL tilt. A partisan voter index prepared by Common Cause Minnesota calls it DFL +4. Tony Petrangelo, a DFL blogger and statistician, ranks it as even. But Howes has amassed one potent rejoinder to Persell’s perceived advantages in turf and demographics: Republican Howes, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, has garnered an extensive slate of union endorsements this year.
“My endorsements are very broad and very personal, and I think they are exceptional,” Howes said.
The Minnesota Nurses Association, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 have all endorsed Howes. The Education Minnesota teachers union is staying out of the race altogether, but a spokesman says the union holds both Howes and Persell in high esteem: “Both Rep. Persell and Rep. Howes have been strong supporters of public education and we’ve worked closely with both of them in the past. Our members have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them. We will be happy to work with whoever returns to St. Paul in January.”
Howes fundraising strong
Howes, who is seeking an eighth term, was among a handful of Republican legislators this year who opposed putting the so-called right-to-work amendment on the ballot that would allow workers to opt out of paying union dues. Traditional DFL-aligned groups also see him as a valuable player on the opposite side of the aisle in that he has formed coalitions with DFLers to get bonding bills passed.
None of this is good news for Persell, who raised only $5,468 as of the pre-primary campaign finance deadline on July 23, with just $1,675 of that sum coming in individual contributions. That compared with Howes’ $21,000 pre-primary haul.
Persell’s fundraising from labor so far has been from smaller shops like the Interfaculty Organization and Duluth Firefighters PAC. Besides the DFL Party, Persell has tribal support from the Prairie Island Indian Community and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Persell said the carpenters’ endorsement in particular was a “big disappointment” and that he still expects to receive votes from individual carpenters.
“I think you take the endorsements with a little bit of a grain of salt,” Persell said. “It’s like signs, endorsements don’t vote. Signs don’t vote. Larry can have the endorsements and I’ll take the votes. And I’m going door to door to work for the votes, and that’s how I feel about it.”
Of course the race hinges on more than Twin Cities-based PAC spending. Former GOP Rep. Doug Fuller, who represented Bemidji in the House from 1999 to 2004, noted that DFLers in the area benefit from a significant public-sector workforce and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribal members.
“Bemidji is a government center, it’s an educational center, it’s a retail center, it’s a wood-products center. Quite a diverse economy,” Fuller said. “The voters tend to be fiscally liberal and socially conservative. Because a lot of people are getting a government paycheck, if you will, obviously that would tend toward fiscally liberal, which the left tends to be. The right tends to be more socially conservative. There’s a split right down the middle.”
Persell has Leech Lake ties
If 2010 is any indication, the district is a tossup. Persell won a second term in 2010 by defeating former Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehman despite that year’s GOP wave, which saw Republican Chip Cravaack outpoll veteran incumbent Jim Oberstar in the congressional race. (Bemidji, which is just over the border in the 7th Congressional District, supported conservative DFL Congressman Collin Peterson over Republican Lee Byberg in 2010.)
“[Persell] has got good connections with the Leech Lake community, which makes up a big part of that district,” said Steven Nelson, the chairman of the Beltrami County DFL Party. The DFL legislator works part-time as an environmental policy analyst for the tribe; his wife, Teresa, is a tribal member.
One issue that Persell and Nelson said could backfire on Republicans in HD 5A is the proposed constitutional amendment question on the November ballot that would require photo ID at the polls. Persell said tribal members have concerns about how tribal IDs will fit into the new registration and voting system if it passes. He also said photo ID would be a burden in remote precincts that do mail-in voting rather than in-person voting.
“I think [photo ID] works at a disadvantage to those who supported it,” Persell said.
The issue of tribal IDs at the polls is nothing new to Howes, who was chief author of a bill that was signed into law in 2002 that authorized tribal identification cards for voting. He said the photo ID requirement proposal isn’t creating ill will among tribal members.
“The Leech Lake tribe has always wanted their ID to count,” Howes said. “I would say it’s 60 percent on the reservation that support that issue. I have no reservations about this being a hindrance to Republicans whatsoever.”
Howes became chairman of the powerful Capital Investment Committee in 2010 after Republicans wrested control of the House from the DFL. As chair, he has pushed back against conservatives in his caucus that oppose increased borrowing, and he accurately predicted the central role of bonding in the global agreement between Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders that ended the 2011 government shutdown.
“My reputation down there is I work with everybody as long as we can get something done,” Howes said. “I don’t compromise but I negotiate. If we can’t find a common ground, then we work to find a common ground and do something rather than nothing.”
Observers say lit pieces from outside groups started to hit mailboxes in HD 5A a couple weeks ago. One piece questioned Howes’ trustworthiness in his statements about the state’s fiscal condition. The piece is rooted in the back-and-forth between Republicans and DFLers when state finance officials in February reported a $323 million surplus for the current biennium and more than $1 billion in deficits for the 2014-2015 budget period. Howes said the DFL applied his statements about the surplus to 2014-2015 deficit.
“I didn’t even have to retaliate,” Howes said. “People thought it was mud. There is so much mud out here, even if you report the facts that look bad against somebody, people aren’t going to believe it because of all of the mud.”
Persell said he’s seen lit pieces attacking him on the issue of the school aid payment shift that was used to solve the 2011 government shutdown. Republicans in 2012 proposed to pay back some of the shift by using budget reserves, which DFLers opposed and for which they are now being criticized.
“I think some folks think our constituents may not see through it, but believe me, they do,” Persell said.
Both candidates note that the partisan tone that is shaping up around the swing race in HD 5A is at odds with the district’s sizeable contingent of independent voters. The search for independents is a key reason that both campaigns are leaning on the retail politics of door-knocking as the ads and lit pieces proliferate around them.
“We have to have balance, and that seems to strike a chord,” Persell said. “Most of the people, the vast majority of people I talk to, are neither party. The independents are sick and tired of the divisiveness between the Democrats and Republicans, and I am too.”