The Apple Valley-area seat is open due to Chris Gerlach’s retirement
About four years ago, Democratic activists came calling on Greg Clausen, then a veteran school administrator, and asked if he wanted to mount a 2010 run for the Legislature in Senate District 37. Clausen ultimately chose not to challenge Republican incumbent Sen. Chris Gerlach, who had won each of his two Senate elections and three House races prior to that.
Gerlach announced his retirement in March of this year after news broke that his direct mail company sent out literature that criticized some of his fellow GOP senators. Gerlach’s unceremonious exit left an open Senate seat. This enticed Clausen, who declared his candidacy just in time to win the DFL endorsement later that month.
In Gerlach’s absence, Republicans in Senate District 37 (now SD 57, thanks to the 2012 redistricting map) delayed their endorsing convention, and opened up the contest to find a new candidate. The endorsement ultimately went to Pat Hall, who is trying to join his brother, Sen. Dan Hall of neighboring SD 56, in the 2013 Legislature.
Activists on both sides see the district as reliably conservative, and partisan indices give Hall a natural edge. But Clausen has proven his acumen as a fundraiser, and maintains the many connections he made through the local school system.
Because the two first-time candidates have known each other on a friendly basis for decades, and are closely aligned on some of the key issues, the campaign does not lend itself to negative attacks. Instead, the election seems poised to hinge on sheer effort and contrasting personalities.
Clausen a vet of local school system
Clausen’s most recent major work experience came as a principal at Apple Valley High School, a position he held from 1995 to 2008. When campaigning, he can easily converse with voters about education issues, including school financing, the state’s academic achievement gap and the rising cost of higher education.
But Clausen also said his experience in that role has prepared him to take on the state budget as a whole, with the looming $1 billion-plus deficit that awaits legislators in the 2014-15 biennium.
“Half of my life as an administrator in public schools, I’ve been in situations where I’m cutting the budget,” Clausen said.
Clausen is not campaigning with a set plan to fix the budget, and said he would examine all options, including tax reform and less spending. His willingness to consider cuts will play well in a district made up largely of Apple Valley and Rosemount, according to SD 57 DFL chairwoman Marcee Kaine.
“Greg is a little more fiscally conservative, which fits well with the district,” Kaine said.
The constituency changed only slightly in redistricting, though Kaine said the disappearance of friendly precincts in Burnsville will be tough for the DFL, especially given the addition of new precincts in Lakeville and Coates. Grassroots activism in those areas has been scarce, Kaine said, reporting that a precinct meeting in Lakeville drew only a couple of people, and another in Coates went unattended.
Kaine still likes Clausen’s chances, pointing to his connections throughout the district and willingness to pound the pavement. Working those angles paid off for Clausen, who reported $13,320 raised by the July preprimary deadline.
The campaign has disclosed thousands of dollars in donations from labor organizations, including the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Police & Peace Officers Association Legislative Fund. On the campaign trail, Clausen credits labor unions with the growth of the American middle class and the creation of safer work sites for employees.
Kaine, who originally pushed Clausen to run, says his depth of knowledge and analytical approach to issues will make an impression on voters.
“I think we have an incredible candidate,” Kaine said. “He’s the best [DFL] candidate I’ve ever seen south of the river.”
‘Common sense conservative’
Pat Hall has noticed a difference from his early campaign in June, when his first door-knocking efforts were greeted with mild disinterest. Lately, something’s changed.
“I can’t believe it,” Hall said. “It’s just, like, all of a sudden we’re excited about it.”
Hall’s brother Dan, who won his seat in 2010, tried to warn the first-time candidate how hard the campaign season would be. Hall said his brother was right, but he has not only weathered the hard work, but embraced it, having personally knocked on 14,000 doors to date.
“It’s been a fabulous experience — I mean, fabulous — knocking on doors, meeting these people,” Hall said.
The work reminds Hall of his day job, where, like his brother, he works as a Lutheran pastor. Five years ago, Hall started True Light Covenant Church, and found himself knocking on doors in south Minneapolis in an effort to draw a crowd. Today, Hall’s weekly sermons bring in 80 to 100 people, many of whom are low-income or recovering substance abusers.
The work has taught him up-close lessons about helping the less fortunate, he says — an experience he plans to take to the Legislature if elected.
“There are people on both sides of the aisle that need help, and I could care less what side of the aisle they’re on,” Hall said. “I want to help them get on their feet, I want to help them get jobs, get education.”
Though that language brings to mind social welfare spending, local GOP chairman Pat Staley said Hall’s brand of compassionate conservative will register with the district, which Staley described as largely middle-income “common sense conservatives,” with pockets of strongly conservative evangelical voters.
“I think [Hall] has a real balance with regards to, government has to spend within its means, but understanding the problems that people are having,” Staley said.
On education, Hall, himself a former teacher, said he and Clausen are probably not far apart, and that both candidates “love teachers.” The difference, Hall posited, would likely come in how, and how much, they might fund education initiatives. Like Clausen, Hall was not ready to lay out specifics on where he stands on taxes and spending needs.
With the candidates so close on economic issues, the race could turn on which candidate’s style connects more often and more closely with voters. In conversation, Clausen is methodical, and often pauses to collect his thoughts before broaching a complex issue. By contrast, Hall’s words flood out loudly, and in abundance.
“We’re relying on the personality and character of the candidate,” Staley said.
Clausen, too, is comfortable with the progress he’s made in convincing voters, though he admitted it’s hard to predict how things will end up in November.
“I’m feeling good,” Clausen said. “At least, today I am.”