Pam Wolf is not easily deterred. She first ran for the Legislature in 2004, losing a House race to incumbent DFL Rep. Connie Bernardy by 13 percentage points. Two years later, Wolf took on DFL Sen. Don Betzold, losing that time by 9 percentage points.
In 2010, Wolf was back on the campaign trail, challenging Betzold again. But this time around, Wolf’s hard work was buffeted by the stiffest GOP tailwind in two decades. She prevailed by a surprisingly comfortable 5 percentage points over the five-term incumbent.
“She is an extremely strong-willed person,” said political consultant Greg Peppin, who’s overseeing the Senate GOP caucus’ reelection effort. “She’s been all in on this thing since day one.”
If Democrats are going to win back the Senate, their path will likely need to include taking back the seat in Senate District 37. Partisan indices suggest that the district — which includes parts of Blaine, Spring Lake Park and Coon Rapids — is a wash in partisan terms. But it’s also an area with a fierce independent streak, as evidenced by the 51 percent showing of Jesse Ventura there in the 1998 gubernatorial contest. “Anoka County was the epicenter for the Ventura vote,” Betzold said.
Betzold is dismissive of Wolf’s upset victory in 2010, given the hostile political climate for Democrats. “She happened to get lucky. She happened to run in the right year in 2010,” Betzold said. “It was a year when anybody as a Republican would have won that seat, and she just happened to be the Republican running for the Senate.”
Redistricting put Betzold in a neighboring district, and he had no desire to try to avenge his defeat from two years ago. This time around Democrats are looking to another legislative veteran, former state Rep. Alice Johnson, to win back the seat. Johnson previously served seven terms in the House, including a stint as chair of the House
K-12 Education Finance Division, but last won reelection more than a decade ago. She met her husband, Richard Jefferson, when they were both serving in the House.
Johnson cites the gridlock and lack of civility at the Capitol as chief reasons that she decided to get back into politics. “It’s as much hopelessness as anger,” Johnson said of the public sentiment she encounters while door-knocking. “I tell them I’m not ready to give up hope yet. That’s why I’m here.”
Johnson further argues that the political tone was different when she served in the Legislature under governors from three different political parties. ”We fought and we disagreed and we walked out of the rooms even at times, but we never walked away,” she said. “We came back.”
Johnson is also miffed that two debates — sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the North Metro Mayors Association — were scrapped because Wolf had scheduling conflicts. That left just one forum for the candidates to discuss issues face to face. But Wolf points out that events often conflict during the hectic campaign season and insists that she wasn’t trying to duck the debates.
“I wish I had more opportunities,” Wolf said.
Wolf has spent more than two decades working as a social studies and physical education teacher, most recently at the Pines School on the grounds of the juvenile detention center in Lino Lakes. But in June, oversight of the school was transferred from Anoka County to the Centennial School District, and all 29 employees, including Wolf, lost their jobs.
Wolf argues that her situation shows the need for eliminating so-called “last in first out” policies for making decisions about retaining teachers. Legislation prohibiting such policies was passed by the House and Senate last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
“The next place I go, I will have 26 years experience and I will be a first-year teacher,” Wolf said. “I have zero seniority. Any public school I go to I will be pretty much automatically let go the following spring. That’s just kind of the nature of how it works. Everybody gets the pink slip right away in the spring that aren’t tenured.”
A distinctive district
Heather Todd, chair of the GOP in Senate District 37, notes that the area is unique because it contains pieces of three different congressional districts (the 4th, 5th and 6th) and that redistricting has presented some challenges for the incumbent. Most notably, Wolf has had to reach out to new constituents in Coon Rapids for the first time in her four campaigns. “We’re getting to know the folks from Coon Rapids,” Todd said. “I don’t know that that’s necessarily more of a challenge, as much as it’s just simply an unknown. There’s no relationship there.”
The district is being flooded with lit pieces, TV commercials and online ads. Most regular voters have seen at least two pieces per week over the last month, according to district residents. On the GOP side, the state party, the Freedom Club State PAC and the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses are spending money in the district. Support for the DFL challenger has come from Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the state party.
Wolf was particularly upset by a mailer put out by the state DFL that erroneously referred to Johnson as a “retired teacher.” “You don’t have to look very hard to know she’s never been a teacher,” Wolf said. “I don’t like to call people liars, but they clearly, clearly should have known that she’s never been a teacher.”
By contrast the two House races in the area are attracting very little outside money so far. GOP state Rep. Tim Sanders faces weak opposition in the Republican leaning 37B side of the district. Former DFL state Rep. Jerry Newton and GOP legislative assistant Mandy Benz are squaring off for an open seat in the other half of the district, which tilts in favor of Democrats. But so far, according to both challengers, there’s little evidence of outside money seeking to influence votes. “There’s been absolutely nothing,” said Newton, who lost his re-election bid in 2010. “Nothing from the GOP or any of their organizations.”
Betzold questions how effective mailings will ultimately prove in the Senate contest in the final days of the campaign. “The closer you get to Election Day, my view is the less direct mailing helps,” Betzold said. “When you open your mailbox and there’s all this junk that’s sitting in there, it just goes straight to the recycling bin.”