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Downey-Franzen Senate District 49 race: Money pours from the sky in Edina

Paul Demko//October 24, 2012

Downey-Franzen Senate District 49 race: Money pours from the sky in Edina

Paul Demko//October 24, 2012

Melisa Franzen has some big-name support in SD 49. U.S. Sen. Al Franken headlined a fundraiser at the home of Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and his wife, Faegre Baker Daniels lobbyist Nancy Hylden. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The Senate District 49 contest will almost certainly be the most expensive legislative race in the state. In pre-primary campaign finance filings, DFL challenger Melisa Franzen and GOP state Rep. Keith Downey reported raising roughly $115,000 – easily the highest statewide total.

The final campaign finance reports of the season won’t be available until next Tuesday. But according to Downey, he’s taken in roughly $140,000 this campaign cycle. Franzen’s campaign declined to release a specific figure, but said its final tally would be “competitive” with Downey’s total, and over $100,000 for the cycle.

The money hunt isn’t over. On Tuesday night, U.S. Sen. Al Franken headlined a fundraiser for Franzen at the home of Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and his wife, Faegre Baker Daniels lobbyist Nancy Hylden.

But the fundraising by the candidates hardly presents a complete picture of the political cash flowing into the district, which includes Edina and parts of Bloomington, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. Independent expenditure groups and the state political parties have been flooding the districts with mailings for weeks. At least a dozen lit pieces targeting each candidate have landed in mailboxes there.

“You walk neighborhoods and you can see that the mail is sticking out of the slots, and you see how much is coming into people’s homes,” Downey said. “It is literally an attack piece a day against me.… I have never seen anything like this.”

The DFL-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota has placed TV spots attacking Downey, while the Freedom Club State PAC has bankrolled spots criticizing Franzen. The gist of the attacks? Downey is caricatured as beholden to corporate interests and impervious to the plight of the poor, while Franzen is ridiculed as a union stooge.

Tom LaForce, founder of the website Politics in Edina and a Franzen supporter, points out that she works as an attorney for Target Corp., a company that is notoriously hostile towards organized labor. “What’s the odds of her being this big union person?” LaForce asked. “But that’s exactly what they’re trying to say. They’re just trying to create this story.”

Barbara Sutter, co-chair of the SD 49 GOP, thinks the attacks on Downey as an extremist are also laughable. “I would suggest they don’t know Keith Downey and probably have not sat down and talked to him,” Sutter said. “I find him personally to be a man of principle.”

A theoretically competitive district

The area has traditionally been a GOP stronghold. In the past two decades, Democrats have won just one legislative race in the area, when Paul Rosenthal triumphed in a 2008 House contest, but that gain was given back just two years later. Still, the 2008 federal election results highlight the area’s status as a swing district: In that cycle, Barack Obama won by double digits in the presidential contest, but Republican Norm Coleman was easily the top choice in the U.S. Senate contest, winning by 9 percentage points.

Franzen won the DFL endorsement in April over two strong challengers in Bloomington School Board member Cynthia Bemis Abrams and Edina City Council member Ann Swenson. A native of Puerto Rico, Franzen has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota and a law degree from Hamline University. She’s served on the board of the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys and as president of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association. Franzen portrays herself as a pro-business moderate who will fit the district’s political ethos. “At the end of the day, we need more moderates on both sides,” she said.

Downey is a former partner at Virchow Krause Consulting, where he advised government agencies and other organizations on operations and technology. He has deep roots in the district: His father has coached the boys swim team at Edina High School for more than five decades.

Downey initially won election to the House in a tight three-way contest in 2008. Two years later, he won re-election by 3 percentage points over DFL challenger Kevin Staunton. During his two terms at the Legislature, Downey has been a key point person on GOP efforts to streamline and reform government services. But he’s also antagonized organized labor officials, who have repeatedly accused him of wanting to roll back collective bargaining rights.

GOP state Sen. Geoff Michel, whose retirement after three terms left the seat open, thinks DFLers and their allied group are deluding themselves into believing that they can win the seat. “October of every election year, Democrats get excited about winning districts in the western suburbs, and they pour in outside money, and it usually does not work,” Michel said. “Edina, Bloomington — these are first-ring suburbs. There are strong bases of DFL support not far away, just across France Avenue. They look at the western suburbs as a real gem, and that’s exactly what they are. But I think they inflate their ability to win in that kind of a district. ”

Amendment votes a factor

Looming in the background of the contest is this year’s pair of constitutional amendment initiatives, particularly the proposal to prohibit same-sex marriages. The wealthy district is widely viewed as socially moderate and fiscally conservative, which makes the divisive issue of gay marriage potentially problematic for Downey, who voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot. “You walk around here and the town is just painted orange with those ‘Vote No’ signs,” said LaForce. “It is the most popular sign in Edina.”

But Michel believes voters opposed to the marriage amendment won’t necessarily hold it against Downey in the voting booth. “I don’t think there’s a lot of spillover into the legislative races,” Michel said. “These are smart, well-educated voters. They tend to vote for the person, rather than the party.”

Downey and his allies have been critical of Franzen for shirking some debates, including events proposed by local news organizations and the Rotary Club. The dynamic is unusual in that usually the lesser-known candidate – in this case Franzen, who’s never run for elected office before – is the one complaining about a lack of face-to-face encounters. “In a case where she is new to the entire district, and I’m new to half of it, I think it’s important for people to have a chance to hear a full debate of the issues, especially with so many misleading attacks,” Downey said.

Franzen points out that she’s attended seven different candidate forums, including debates put on in Bloomington and Edina by the League of Women Voters. “It’s unfortunate, because I think it’s another political gimmick to hide from his record,” Franzen said. “It’s quite ridiculous that this is even an argument.”

Even with all the money circulating in the district, the candidates emphasize that they’re not overlooking the shoe-leather parts of campaigning. Both stress that they’ve been out knocking on doors nearly every day. “For a state Senate race like this, you stay focused on your district, meet as many people as you can, and see what the outcome is on November 6,” Downey said. “We feel like we’ve done what we wanted to do. We’ll trust the voters of our district to make a good decision.”
Franzen says she’s hit more than 6,000 doors so far during the campaign. During one visit she got bit by a dog. “The owner was right there,” Franzen recalled. “It was unfortunate.”

On Monday afternoon Franzen was working the neighborhood surrounding the Edina Community Center. Most of her targets were households that she’d already visited and identified as likely supporters of her candidacy. The purpose of the visit was to make sure they were aware that Election Day is November 6 and intend to make it to the polls. At three doors, Franzen encountered individuals who affirmed that they would be voting for her; another said that he was still undecided.

Franzen hopes that her dedication will pay off on Election Day. But she’s also wary of what else is coming from independent expenditure groups. “We’re just bracing ourselves for the last two weeks of nastiness,” she said.

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