Last summer, Ron Erhardt campaigned for the first time as a Democrat. The temperature and humidity were oppressively tropical as Erhardt made the rounds, door to door, soliciting votes. A friend, perhaps concerned that a man in his 80s is door knocking in sweltering heat, wonders aloud whether this is the hottest weather Erhardt has ever campaigned in.
Erhardt explains that he did not measure heat according to degrees on a thermometer. “What I do is count the number of people that are naked when I ring the doorbell,” Erhardt says. “And this is a very hot summer.”
A suburban moderate, Erhardt long annoyed the GOP orthodoxy with his pro-choice and pro-gay-rights stances, but he was at least was fairly dependable on taxes. However, the self-described “last of the Republican moderates” found himself permanently on the outs with his native tribe after voting to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2008 veto of a $6.6 billion transportation bill. Challenged afterward for endorsement by Tea Party favorite Keith Downey, Erhardt lost.
He did not just roll over and go away.
First Erhardt tried and failed to secure a DFL endorsement. Then he ran and lost the general election as a member of the one-man Moderate Independent Party — dubbed the MIPs by WCCO radio reporter Eric Eskola. In a tight three-way general election, Erhardt finished second, ahead of DFL nominee Kevin Staunton.
Erhardt sat out 2010 after securing a promise from Staunton that, should the DFLer lose his 2010 rematch against Downey, the Democrat would not run in 2012. Staunton lost and was a good as his word. In 2012, Erhardt switched parties and won the DFL endorsement unchallenged.
As fortune would have it, he faced no incumbent in the general election. Downey tried to upgrade to a Senate seat and ran into the buzz saw of Edina DFLer Melisa Franzen’s upstart campaign. Erhardt and Franzen both won handily, as did 49B’s Paul Rosenthal, creating an ultra-rare trifecta—all three Edina legislative seats are in Democratic hands.
Watching from the sidelines, former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson thinks Erhardt — who always remained popular with voters if not his own party — had a lot to do with sweeping DFL dominance into Edina’s former Republican stronghold. “If I were the Democrats,” Carlson says, “I’d be groveling with gratitude.”
The Democrats have hardly groveled, but Erhardt indicates he has been treated well by his new party. He had been out of office four years, but DFL leaders recognized his nine terms of seniority upon his 2012 election. They denied him a cherished Transportation Finance committee chairmanship, but he got the gavel on Transportation Policy — a possible after-the-fact dig at Republicans who punished Erhardt for his veto override vote.
Erhardt had to do some tough negotiating to be included on the Taxes committee, something he says House Speaker Paul Thissen was reluctant to do. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve already raised more taxes than you guys will ever raise by those transportation bills — those are billion-dollar things,’” Erhardt recalls. “And finally Thissen says, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’” He got the appointment.
Erhardt admits that switching teams has created something of a culture shock. DFL caucus meetings are particularly strange. The Republican caucus sessions he was part of always were disciplined affairs, he says. Few members spoke and agendas were drum tight.
DFL caucus meetings, by contrast, are circus-like. “The Democrats talk a lot,” he says. “Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. I go to a caucus and everyone has to say something.”
Well, not everyone. Old pros are the least loquacious during those serpentine sessions, Erhardt says. “I noticed that in the first couple of caucuses,” he says. “They just sit. [DFL Rep.] Ann Lenczewski is doing constituent work, somebody else is knitting. They never say a damned word.”
The itch to be heard can delay consensus. “Democrats don’t move toward direct coalition very easily,” he says. “They kind of squish around. They get there eventually. Or maybe I don’t even know that they got there — but all of a sudden, they have a policy.”
Is that to say he misses the structure and single-mindedness of his old Republican colleagues’ caucuses? Not particularly. “I was at odds with my caucus on 80 percent of the things they put forward,” he says.
That being said, Erhardt admits now that he was opposed to some things he voted for in the name of GOP party unity. Namely, he voted twice for Twins stadium packages offered after 1996. He finally voted no on the successful 2006 Twins bill. “I thought they were screwing the people in Hennepin County,” he says.
His defiance sometimes reached the public sphere. In 2005, Erhardt wrote a toughly worded Star Tribune editorial that took to task all three legislative leaders — Republicans Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum as well as DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson. “I chewed them out and said get off the dime and make some decisions here or we’re going to go into overtime,” he says.
On their next meeting, Sviggum was a “very frosty” toward his rebellious colleague, Erhardt recalls. But Erhardt was hardly conciliatory: “I said, ‘Look, unless you guys get your act together and get something done, there are going to be more articles like that that.’”
Dennis Maetzold is a former Edina mayor who has known Erhardt for at least three decades. He describes Erhardt as “a pragmatist, not an ideologue.” And though Maetzold considers Erhardt a nice guy who is fun to speak with, “Ron is not a pushover.” That could make Erhardt an irritation to his new party, too, Maetzold says.
“He does what he thinks is best for the community and best for the state,” Maetzold says. “That’s just Ron. He’s an independent.”
No clear path
Erhardt has already bucked his new party. In his first session as a Democrat, he voted against the DFL tax bill—though he had company. Edina’s entire DFL legislative team voted against it.
“I did not think it was well balanced,” Erhardt says. “It had items that hit business too hard and it hit higher income too hard. There were better ways of doing it. So I voted no.”
In another instance, he pushed for a greater tax increase than even Democrats could stomach. Erhardt offered a combination $800 million increase to the gas tax, metro area sales taxes and vehicle registration fees in March, which would have paid for four years’ worth of road and bridge construction. Gov. Mark Dayton declined to sign on while pushing his own tax overhaul.
That failure has Erhardt worried about the future of both roads and mass transit in the state. “We do not have a clear path to doing the next bite of the apple,” he says. “That is, to build out the transit system with increased money and repair, and to restructure the road stuff.”
Matt Shands, the director of MnDOT’s Transportation Economic Development program, sees things in a slightly brighter light, partly because of Erhardt’s own influence.
Shands says Erhardt was one of the first legislators to understand the long-term economic benefit of an effective statewide transportation network. As Shands reaches out to other legislators these days, he says, he senses that more are beginning see things Erhardt’s way.
“He is one of the first who really went out on a limb to advance the notion that we really need to fund transportation in this state to become the kind of state that everybody wants us to be,” Shands says. “I think he has been persuasive to his colleagues over there.”
At 83, it’s fair to wonder how long Erhardt will wish to exercise his powers of persuasion in the Legislature. The reason he declined to run for Senate in 2012, he says, is because he did not want to commit to a four-year term. “I’m planning on running again,” he says. “I don’t know how many times.”
Nonetheless, it is clear that leisure is calling out his name. He complains that it has been so long since he has visited his cabin on Woman Lake near Walker, Minn., that he can’t remember the last time.
“I was just sitting here thinking — the sun is out, it’s not going to rain,” Erhardt says. “Can I get a couple of people to go up there today?”
The Erhardt File
Name: Ron Erhardt
Job: District 49A state representative, first elected in 1990, 10th non-consecutive term
Grew up in: north side Minneapolis
Lives in: Edina
Family: Single (wife Jacquelyn died of bone cancer 12 years ago after 32 years of marriage; he never remarried). No children.
Education: B.A., psychology, B.B.A., general business, University of Minnesota
Hobbies: Visiting his cabin near Walker
Random fact: As a newly married financial planning consultant, Erhardt purchased a home in Edina for $29,000. Before the market crash of 2008, the same house — where he still lives — was appraised at $700,000.