The trio of finance executives making forays into Republican electoral politics became a duo this week with the abrupt departure of Dennis Nguyen from the race for Secretary of State. And the emphasis belongs on “abrupt”: Last Saturday, Nguyen was avidly pressing the flesh at Republican gatherings around the state; on Monday morning his campaign tweeted a link to a Facebook statement indicating that the demands of work and family compelled him to withdraw. The about-face put an exclamation mark at the end of this sentence from Heather Carlson’s Rochester Post-Bulletin story: “[Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Keith] Downey did not respond to a question asking whether the party had asked Nguyen to withdraw from the race.”
Carlson found herself writing at length about Nguyen’s withdrawal because it seemed to be occasioned, in part, by the wide circulation of an anecdote about a Republican staffer seeing Nguyen at the Seville Club in Minneapolis with Rochester Sen. Dave Senjem on Senjem’s birthday. In the hoopla over the strip club visit, most onlookers seem to have read past the most interesting part of the story, which had less to do with strip clubs than with how the two men came to be there together (our emphasis added):
“Senjem expressed disappointment that Nguyen had dropped out of the race. The former Senate Majority Leader said he first met the businessman when he was a finalist for University of Minnesota regent in 2013.
“ ‘He has a sense of service and he wanted to run. He was a very qualified person from the standpoint of overall intelligence,’ Senjem said.”
“Nguyen had also asked Senjem to consider serving on the corporate board for New Asia Partners, which owns and operates a restaurant chain in Vietnam. The Rochester Republican traveled to Vietnam to see the restaurant operations for himself.”
So a candidate for secretary of state (and, before that, for the U of M Board of Regents) just happened to ask a sitting state senator – who just happened to end up an endorser of that candidate – to sit on the board of one of the candidate’s business ventures? And may have taken the senator on an international business trip? It would be remiss not to wonder whether this detail sheds some inadvertent light on Nguyen’s modus operandi in rising so quickly to political prominence.
We reached Senjem yesterday afternoon to ask more about the connection. Here is that brief conversation:
“Did you help to recruit Senate Republican endorsers for Dennis Nguyen?”
“That’s water under the bridge. I’m not going to talk about that.”
“Who paid for your trip to Vietnam?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, it might…”
“Okay.” Senjem hung up.
Yesterday afternoon, too, we contacted Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, Nguyen’s former campaign liaison, to pass along two questions to Nguyen:
1.) Who paid for Sen. Dave Senjem’s trip to Vietnam to see New Asia Partners’ restaurants there?
2.) Over the past two years, have you discussed a potentially remunerative business arrangement with anyone else who was at the time a member of the Minnesota Legislature?
We haven’t yet heard from Nguyen.
On Friday morning we spoke with Gary Goldsmith, the executive director of Minnesota’s Campaign Finance Board, to ask whether the facts reported in the Post-Bulletin story appear to pose any problems vis a vis state campaign finance laws.
Probably not, said Goldsmith. His analysis: “First, we would look at whether there is a prohibited gift involved. Unless Nguyen’s company is a Minnesota lobbying principal, gifts to officials are not prohibited. And New Asia Partners is not listed as a lobbying principal in our records.
“The next question would be whether this somehow constitutes a campaign contribution, because corporations can’t make campaign contributions. It doesn’t seem that a trip to Vietnam, particularly one that wasn’t made to boost a candidate’s fortunes in a campaign, would constitute a campaign contribution.”
As for the Republican Secretary of State field, former state Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, wasted no time making his candidacy official, and former Eagan Sen. Ted Daley is expected to announce his own decision about running very soon.
[Editor’s note: This item is excerpted from today’s edition of the Politics in Minnesota Weekly Report. Subscription information here.]