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Over the past decade, Senate District 47 — stretching around north metro area cities like Champlin, Coon Rapids and Brooklyn Park — has been a place where moderate Democrats could prosper despite the district’s slight GOP tilt.

Both parties eye pickups in District 36 contest

Anoka-Hennepin school board member John Hoffman is challenging incumbent Sen. Benjamin Kruse for the SD 36 seat. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Republicans aim for Dittrich seat, DFLers go after Kruse

Over the past decade, Senate District 47 — stretching around north metro area cities like Champlin, Coon Rapids and Brooklyn Park — has been a place where moderate Democrats could prosper despite the district’s slight GOP tilt.

While voters have swung for statewide candidates like GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tom Emmer and former GOP U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman in the past, middle-of-the-road DFLers like Denise Dittrich and Melissa Hortman have held on to the area’s two state House seats since 2004, and DFL Sen. Leo Foley had been there even longer, representing the district in the Senate since 1996. But the 2010 Republican wave election saw GOP newcomer Benjamin Kruse, a real estate agent from Brooklyn Park, sweep in and oust Foley by 5 percentage points.

Now, in the wake of 2012 redistricting, which shuffled political boundaries across the state, operatives from both political parties are closely watching all three races in the new Senate District 36 to see whether the area will have a friendlier tilt toward one party or the other for the next 10 years.

Democrats and business groups alike are paying attention as Kruse defends his seat from Anoka-Hennepin school board member John Hoffman. Political indices rate the full Senate district at anywhere between GOP +2 and GOP +4. And with the retirement of Dittrich after four terms, Republicans are likewise eyeing her old House seat as a likely pickup. Their candidate in that contest, Mark Uglem, is the mayor of Champlin and a former business executive. On the 36B side of the district, Hortman and her GOP opponent, Andrew Reinhardt, are in a contest that currently is not targeted by either party, but DFLers worry that a third-party candidate could siphon votes from her total.

“It’s a tough district. It’s really a tough district,” Kruse said this week as he took a break from knocking on doors. “It’s a place where if you don’t get out and knock on doors and meet people, you are going to have a difficult time winning. We are one of, if not the most diverse district in the state. You have some homes that are selling for $40,000 and some for $600,000. You have a lot of blue-collar workers and some CEOs. You really have to get out and know the community.”

Kruse on defense

Education will be at the center of all three races, as the area is home to the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in the state. In defending his first term at the Capitol, Kruse is focusing on the work he did on education, particularly his work to pass a school trust lands bill that shifted some authority over the lands away from the Department of Natural Resources in the interest of generating more logging income for school districts.

“My messaging has been about jobs and about education,” Kruse said. “Those are two areas that I’m extremely passionate about and worked hard on over the past two years, and my intention is to continue working on those issues moving forward.”

Kruse will also be defending a focused line of attack from Democrats portraying him as part of a claque of hard right-wing Republicans that forced government into a shutdown in 2011. One newspaper attack ad from liberal advocacy group Alliance for a Better Minnesota went after Kruse for accepting a paycheck during the shutdown.

But all told, Kruse said he had nine bills signed by Gov. Mark Dayton during his first term, one of the highest totals for any senator. “I do try to talk about how hard I worked to reach across the aisle and build consensus on those issues where we could build a consensus,” he said. “A lot of folks are frustrated with government and partisanship. They are looking for us to get things done, and I try to let them know that I’ve tried by best to do that these last two years.”

Kruse is also, by most accounts, taking his campaign more seriously than he did his first election cycle, when some attributed his win to the massive GOP wave and a weak incumbent in Foley, who was said to have done little campaigning. Kruse raised meager funds in 2010, pulling in about $4,555 in individual contributions. With public subsidy and a few political party unit contributions included, Kruse had about $20,000 for his campaign in 2010 and spent almost that much, according to his year-end campaign finance report.

But when he filed his pre-primary report with the campaign finance board this year, Kruse had a beginning cash balance of about $10,600 and had pulled in $3,000 in individual donations. All told, Kruse was sitting on a $14,000 war chest ahead of the August primary election. The district has been peppered with mailers pertaining to the Senate race, including several put out on Kruse’s behalf by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and one from Kruse himself. He says he has another lit piece on the way focusing on his education accomplishments.

“I’m told a few years ago there had to be a fire lit under him, but I’ve heard it’s been a dramatic improvement from then,” said GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who is leading the Senate Republican campaign effort. “He’s really getting out there.”

But Hoffman has proven a deft fundraiser. He started the year with a $3,600 cash balance and managed to pull in about $8,000 more by the preprimary campaign finance reporting deadline. And with help from political committees, Hoffman has spent more than $12,000 on his campaign so far.

Hoffman has lived in Champlin for the past 12 years and currently sits as the vice chairman of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board. He’s been a member of the board for about seven years. Professionally, he co-founded Consumer Credit of Minnesota and is the marketing and public relations director for Midway Training Services.

Education, he says, is issue No. 1 at the doors. “Folks love their schools, folks love their teachers. Education is really the core that we find in all 13 communities that are in the Anoka-Hennepin School Board,” Hoffman said. “Folks recognize the work I did on the school board. Folks are talking specifically about how, ‘You guys [on the board] can actually get something done.”

Hoffman says he sees that missing in St. Paul. “I realized that the finger-pointing and the brinksmanship and that stuff that got government shut down, that was because nobody would talk about consensus-building and compromise,” Hoffman said. “That’s what we really are here to do, and this is what I’ve done my entire life. That really was the tipping point for me.”

Politicos predict party split for House seats

In looking at the district’s two House seats, politicos from both parties are seeing a likely split, with Republicans taking Dittrich’s seat on the 36A side of the district and Hortman maintaining her seat in House District 36B.

Dittrich’s seat, which covers Champlin and the west-central part of the city of Coon Rapids, has generally leaned more Republican than the area’s other two seats, and that hasn’t changed much under the new maps. A political index calculated by the watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota puts the district at a GOP +5, with another index compiled by liberal blogger and number cruncher Tony Petrangelo putting the area at GOP +7.

Uglem, a retired business executive and GOP-endorsed candidate for the district, is hoping to use his name recognition as the three-term mayor and former City Council member in Champlin to capitalize on those numbers. Uglem said he refrained from stepping up to run for the Legislature while Dittrich served. “Denise was a Democrat, but I always had the greatest respect for Denise,” he said. “Every time as mayor I called Denise and needed help, she always responded.”

But with the opening Dittrich has left behind, Uglem says he sees room for a more business-minded lawmaker in St. Paul. Before running for city office, Uglem spent years as the executive vice president of Hirshfield’s paint company. “Government needs to run more like a business,” he said. “Private enterprise is constantly reinventing itself.”

Uglem is also fairly familiar with his DFL-endorsed opponent, Grace Baltich. Baltich’s mother, Joan Molenaar, served on the Champlin City Council and ran against Uglem for mayor. Baltich has training as a social worker and has been a local union leader, serving as president of AFSCME Local 2685 and vice-president of AFSCME Council 65. Baltich previously lived in GOP Rep. Joyce Peppin’s Rogers House district. She ran against her in both 2006 and 2008, losing in both cases by around 30 percentage points. Baltich did not return a call for comment.

“I can’t imagine that one being competitive,” said Ian Marsh, a lead campaign staffer for the House Republicans. “Denise Dittrich — who was a great candidate and had been successful in the district — she won only by about 200 votes last time. Here we have a well-known and well-respected mayor who has a great image in the district.”

Democrats are by no means conceding the seat. “It is a swing district, and it’s one where Democrats have done very well in the past,” said Zach Rodvold, chief campaign staffer for the House DFL. “There’s also a hotly contested Senate race in the area that the Senate DFL is very optimistic about. A lot of work is being done in that district, and it’s not one that we are going to concede to the other side.”

Hortman backers fear third-party spoiler

The other side of the district has been represented for four terms by Hortman, who ran two unsuccessful campaigns before winning her seat in the Legislature. The district, which covers Brooklyn Park and part of Coon Rapids, is also the friendliest to DFLers in the area, with Common Cause putting its political index at DFL +2. Petrangelo puts the seat at GOP +2.

In looking at the race this time around, Hortman says things have been “quiet.”

“I don’t think it’s a targeted race on either side,” she said. “I understand that I’m perceived as a popular incumbent, and I think the community knows that I’m working hard.”

But Hortman notes that her opponent is working hard too. Reinhardt is a Gulf War veteran who served in the U.S. Navy and Army National Guard and has a background in public relations. Last summer he received the key to the city of Brooklyn Park for years of community service.

He’s also familiar with the campaign trail; Reinhardt ran for the seat in 2006 and 2008, losing to Hortman by about 10 percentage points each time. He took time off from campaigning in 2010. “I might have won in 2010 because it was such a great GOP year, but couldn’t run because of personal reasons,” he said. “I was recruited to run again because it was felt that I had great background in the community.”

Reinhardt says he’s seeing a big shift in the community since his last run in 2008. “Four years ago there was so much enthusiasm from people that were Democrats and leaning Democrat,” he said. “This year it seems almost the complete opposite — now a lot of Democrats are sliding over. There’s a big shift.”

Reinhardt attributes that to demographic changes and the foreclosure crisis, which hit Brooklyn Park harder that almost any other city in the state. Things are finally starting to turn around for most people in the district, he said, but voters’ budgets are still tight. He views that economic reality as one that helps Republicans.

But the biggest spoiler in the race could be Andrew Kratoska, an independent third-party candidate registered for the race. Kratoska has not filed a campaign finance report with the board and did not return a phone call for comment, but Democrats say he does not appear to be campaigning.

Kratoska ran as an independent in the district’s 2010 Senate contest, earning slightly more than 5 percent of the vote. Foley lost that race, and Democrats fear he could play a similar role in helping Reinhardt’s vote total this cycle.

“I remember knocking on his door in 2008,” Hortman said. “He said, ‘I’m a Republican and I’m voting the straight Republican ticket.’”

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