Veteran activist has been a long-time presence in district politics
Greta Bergstrom’s campaign strategy to win the DFL endorsement for the Minnesota House of Representatives seat being vacated by Rep. Michael Paymar next year is simple, according to her campaign co-chair.
“Get out in front and get people backing you right from the start,” St. Paul City Council member Amy Brendmoen said. “This is a wide-ranging field of candidates and that can be tricky, but Greta is Highland Park, and I think she’s going to be the candidate to beat.”
Bergstrom, the communications manager for progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, is emphasizing her connection to the House District 64B neighborhoods of Highland Park, West Seventh and Mac-Groveland as she attempts to get a leg up on a field of candidates that may soon reach double digits.
“I’ve lived in the neighborhood and seen the schools in our district both as a student and a parent,” she said. “It’s still a great place to raise a family. But it faces some of the same challenges as the rest of Minnesota, in health care, economic opportunity and education.”
Bergstrom was born and raised in the affluent DFL stronghold, graduated from Macalester College and lives there now with her husband and two children. She ran against Paymar unsuccessfully the last time the seat was open, and managed former 64B Rep. Howard Orenstein’s re-election in 1992.
A power district
The district is economically progressive and a safe DFL seat that allows its representatives to take on a leadership position, but it also has a socially conservative streak that could make endorsement a tricky tightrope to walk, said Larry Jacobs, director for the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Policy, and a district resident.
“It’s a very stable district. Families don’t often move out and you see houses passed down within the family,” he said. “Personal relationships are very important, and the Catholic churches and the synagogues play a big role.”
TakeAction, which has endorsed in legislative races in the past, will likely do so in District 64B and will be a factor, Jacobs said. If Bergstrom can marshal their support, it will give her an advantage over other candidates, whose ranks already include Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Dave Pinto, US Bank IT Specialist Gloria Zaiger, political pro Matt Freeman, Paymar aide Melanie McMahon, legislative staffer Matt Bergeron and Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser. Several other potential candidates are still weighing runs.
But Bergstrom walks a fine line in identifying herself with her employer, even as she admits her values and priorities as a legislative candidate line up well with TakeAction’s progressive agenda.
“I would have had a tough time working for TakeAction for the last five years if I didn’t share many of the values of who I work for,” she said. “But I’m not the ‘TakeAction candidate’ and I haven’t heard anyone call me that.”
Behind-the-scenes no more
Before TakeAction, Bergstrom worked for North Woods Advertising, the Twin Cities political ad agency made famous by its campaigns for U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in 1990 and for Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1998. North Woods founder and President Bill Hillsman remembers Bergstrom as serious, goal-oriented and proactive during her time there from 1998 until 2008 as director of politics and public affairs.
“Greta has a great sense of the problems facing her district and the state at large, and has the right sensibility to figure out a path that would lead to real legislative solutions that affect real people on a daily basis,” he said. “If I were voting in her district, I’d ask ‘What more could I possibly want from my representative?’”
She was active in DFL politics before arriving at North Woods, and Hillsman said he’s not surprised to see her involved in electoral politics again.
At TakeAction, Bergstrom was essential in creating the message for the group’s successful anti-Voter ID campaign, and is great at boiling down complex ideas to their essence and making them relatable to people, said Dan McGrath, the organization’s executive director.
TakeAction PAC’s board will likely endorse a candidate in this race because it offers an opportunity to elect a “champion” for the progressive agenda TakeAction supports, but staffers there are not involved in the decision, he said.
“In a seat like this, where the chances are whoever gets elected will be there for a long time, you look for someone who can really lead the charge for the kind of change we want to see,” McGrath said.
If Bergstrom won election to the Legislature, she would not be able to continue as a TakeAction employee, McGrath said.
On the issues
Bergstrom said her agenda is topped by support for a “healthy” increase in the state’s minimum wage, increasing accessibility to affordable health care, closing state tax loopholes for top incomes and corporations, and eliminating the K-12 achievement gap between white and minority students.
If elected, she said she would ask House Speaker Paul Thissen (for whose wife she served as campaign manager) and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy (who represents neighboring District 64A and for whose kids she babysat) to be appointed to positions on the Taxes, Elections, Education and Local Government committees.
The future fate of the abandoned Ford vehicle assembly plant in her district is a top concern, both from a jobs perspective and from an environmental standpoint, Bergstrom said.
“It’s right down there along the [Mississippi River], so we’ve got to make sure it stays protected,” she said.
The state must encourage a more diverse mixture of housing development so people who live in districts like the one she wants to represent can continue to live there and get the care they need as they age, Bergstrom said.
Though the Green Line light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul will not run through her district, transit and transportation are also a top issue, including creating more walkable, bikeable communities, she said.
Gender plays a role
Though she is not the only female candidate in the race, Bergstrom notes that the district has yet to elect a woman to the Legislature and that only 32 percent of Minnesota’s legislators are women.
Brendmoen, who worked with Bergstrom at North Woods Advertising and was herself endorsed by TakeAction in her 2011 city council campaign, said she was contacted by Women Winning, the Minnesota-based pro-choice women’s leadership PAC and asked to name a good candidate for the district.
“Without hesitation, the only name that popped into my head was Greta,” she said. “She views politics nationally but is rooted locally in a way I don’t think anybody else can match.”
The campaign ahead of Bergstrom and her competitors will be long and could be mostly under-the-radar, with door-knocking and grassroots mobilization counting for more than advertising and other high-profile activities, Jacobs said.
And while Bergstrom has pledged to abide by the DFL Party’s endorsement, the multitude of candidates makes no party endorsement a possibility, he said. Paymar, who announced his decision not to run for re-election this fall, has yet to endorse a candidate, and more candidates may yet emerge or drop out, further altering the race dynamic, he said.
“At this point, it’s fair to say the race is highly competitive with no prohibitive favorite,” Jacobs said. “Her TakeAction affiliation and local roots give her some advantage, but will she be too far left on social issues? It’s an open question.”