Local GOP’s internal divisions could be factor
If misleading ads are one index of a hotly contested political race, then the battle for House District 11B is surely among the most vigorous in the state. During the past couple of weeks, partisan lit pieces from both sides have scored abysmally in Minnesota Public Radio’s PoliGraph fact-checking series.
The station swatted down a mailer from the conservative Minnesota’s Future independent spending group that attacked DFL candidate Tim Faust for supporting state spending for bird houses in Latin America during his previous tenure in the Legislature from 2007 to 2010. The mailer insinuated that the spending helped cause a $6.2 billion state budget deficit but failed to mention that the spending for habitat for birds that migrate to and from the Midwest was paid for by dedicated proceeds from the Minnesota Lottery, not general fund money.
“When someone asks me what’s the deal with the birdhouses,” Faust told Capitol Report, “and I explain to them what it is, every one of them is like, well, that’s a good thing.… And the point is that, if that’s the worst thing I did, then I must have been even better than I thought I was.”
This past Wednesday, PoliGraph likewise put its “false” stamp on a mailer from the Minnesota DFL Party that claimed the Republican candidate Ben Wiener would vote against Medicare. The station examined the accusations about the state’s role in the federal prescription drug program but noted that the issue is ultimately a federal matter.
Amid the welter of partisan fictions from both sides, what’s incontestably true is that well-heeled outside groups and House caucuses are spending large amounts of money in HD 11B in the interest of tilting the two parties’ battle for control of the Minnesota House.
Pine County DFL activist Thom Petersen notes that legislators from both sides of the aisle, including House Speaker Kurt Zellers, have brought volunteers to 11B to knock on doors in recent days. Redistricting improved the outlook for DFLers by shaving off some conservative townships in Isanti and Kanabec counties. The new map also added friendly DFL turf in northern Pine County that had belonged to Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson. But redistricting didn’t come close to sealing the race for the DFL, if GOP-aligned spending is any indication.
“It’s a good duke fest going on right now,” Petersen said. “You see two candidates who are working hard, but I really see two caucuses that are working hard.”
Both candidates primary-tested
The contest pairs Wiener, a Minnesota Army National Guard soldier seeking elected office for the first time, against Faust, a pastor who served two terms in the House before losing in 2010 to Rep. Roger Crawford, R-Mora.
Both Wiener and Faust won primaries in August to advance to the general election. Crawford experienced heart problems in late May and announced one day before the end of the candidate filing period that he wouldn’t seek a second term. Wiener, of Finlayson, and Pine County commissioner Mitch Pangerl of Pine City quickly jumped into the race. In the primary, Wiener barely beat Pangerl in Pine County. Wiener devoted much of his time and energy to Kanabec County, where voters turned out in comparatively large numbers to vote in a school levy referendum. The Kanabec County vote gave Wiener the support he needed to beat Pangerl by nearly 15 percentage points.
Faust faced two DFLers for the endorsement: Pine City planner Nathan Johnson and Quamba Mayor Tom Ladwig. After the convention deadlocked, Ladwig dropped out and Faust and Johnson faced off in the primary, which Faust won by 25 percentage points.
Faust represented Mora for much of his time in the Legislature and used to be a farm supply dealer. He changed residences and vocations when he moved to Cloverdale and became a Lutheran minister. His church in Cloverdale usually has about 50 people on Sunday and another congregation in Markville draws about 20 to 30 people. Faust racked up a pro-life voting record while serving in the Legislature, which is a good fit in 11B; Wiener, however, received the coveted endorsement of Minnesota’s main anti-abortion group, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Faust said he’ll be voting against both the gay marriage and the voter ID constitutional amendments on the ballot this year.
Faust openly supports Gov. Mark Dayton’s goal to increase income taxes on the state’s wealthiest earners. He said the income tax approach would have been less financially burdensome than the 2011 budget deal reached between Dayton and Republican legislative leaders, which included the elimination of the state’s market value homestead credit.
“Our choice was, either we spend another $3 or $4 million on property taxes or we increase the tax on the wealthy,” Faust said. “And in this district there are so few [wealthy people], it costs us $50,000. It would be $100,000 max. We’ve got a 30-1 ratio on what we save by increasing the tax on the wealthy compared to elimination of the homestead tax credit. Holy smokes: How can you not say that’s not a good return on investment?”
Wiener grew up in Hinckley, where his dad worked as an electrician. His adult life has been spent in the Army National Guard. Currently a major, he’s been deployed twice to Bosnia and twice to Iraq. He and his family also run a berry farm near Hinckley.
“Being that I’m not an elected representative and I’ve never held elected office before, that kind of is my resume of public service,” Wiener said.
Wiener argues that Faust started in the Legislature with a surplus. But by the time he was defeated, the budget was projecting a massive deficit.
“That fiscal responsibility is one way I separate myself,” Wiener said. “As a small-business man, a farmer, and military officer who’s been entrusted with the government’s dollars, I don’t spend my money foolishly. Why would I spend other people’s money foolishly?”
Wiener said he will be voting in favor of both constitutional amendments on this fall’s ballot, referring to the marriage and voter ID ballot initiatives as “common sense proposals.”
Internecine GOP fight
Faust isn’t Wiener’s only obstacle in getting elected to the House. He’s also up against a nasty intra-party fight centered in the Pine County GOP that’s lasted for years and has persisted since the primary. His antagonists are a collective of arch-conservatives who have made Pine County a preeminent spot for Tea Party activism. In 2011, Wiener ran a losing campaign for Pine County GOP chair against the leader of the Pine County Tea Party movement, Rudy Takala. Prior to that, Wiener had also supported Crawford in his bitter House primary fight with Takala in 2010.
Despite the party’s decision not to endorse in 11B, this summer Takala and others organized a “winner-takes-all fundraiser and mail-in endorsement,” which Pangerl won. The move drew a rebuke from Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, in the form of a phone call to Takala.
Things erupted again last week when Takala’s father, Matt, published a letter to the editor in the Pine City Pioneer demanding to know why Wiener receives a disability check from the government, noting “Wiener does not make his living off a berry patch.”
Wiener wrote a reply in the Pioneer noting that because the farm isn’t financially self-sustaining, he relies on pay and benefits from the Army. His wife also teaches science at a school in Sandstone. Wiener then took aim at Takala the younger.
“It is also no secret that I have opposed Matt’s son, Rudy Takala,” Wiener wrote. “I have repeatedly stood up against Rudy based on his actions and on how he treats people.”
That exchange, coupled with the marriage amendment issue, was producing such unsavory comments on the Pioneer’s website that the paper closed its comment fields on the opinion page until after the election, said editor Mike Gainor.
Commenters “were definitely crossing the line,” said Gainor.
While there were some vicious GOP primaries this year, HD 11B appears to be the only race where Republicans are slinging mud at each other in a swing district as Election Day draws near.
Assessing the situation from the next county over, Kanabec County GOP Chair Jim Evenson tried to sound an optimistic note about the feud.
“If anything,” he said, “it might be helping Ben because it brings those things to light … Anybody who knows anything about it can see through what’s going on.”