The last remaining DFL-controlled legislative seat in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District might be up for grabs this fall, as a well-known former legislator from the Pawlenty era returns to challenge a freshman representative to represent St. Cloud.
Zachary Dorholt, a St. Cloud State University graduate and mental health counselor, is seeking his second term serving in the seat that a community giant, the late Larry Haws – Dorholt’s political mentor – held for four years before illness forced him to retire in 2010.
Dorholt won the seat back from Republican King Banaian, a St. Cloud State University economics professor, in a race marked by nearly $600,000 in independent expenditures from both sides that nevertheless ended in a one-sided DFL victory, as Dorholt received 56 percent of the votes.
But instead of a rematch of 2012, St. Cloud area Republicans have endorsed former State Rep. Jim Knoblach, once a central leadership figure in the House of Representatives, who represented a more suburban part of the area from 1995-2006.
They hope Knoblach’s record and name recognition, plus anticipated Republican gains in a non-presidential election year, will propel him to victory in the only remaining DFL stronghold in the St. Cloud area.
“It’s a tossup district at best,” said Dave Gruenes, a former Republican state legislator who gave Knoblach’s endorsement speech at the local GOP convention last month. “But Jim is a citizen-legislator in the best sense of the term. He and [his wife] Janet have done a lot for this community, both in and out of office.”
Dorholt’s supporters hope that his emphasis on education as vice-chair of the House Higher Education Policy and Finance committee during his first term and the district, which includes much of St. Cloud State University, will help him weather what promises to be a tougher race than 2012.
“Zach is in it for his children, and for all the children in the community,” said Bruce Mohs, a St. Cloud School Board member and Dorholt supporter. “He has also shown that he’s in this for all of the families in the community. I think that’s going to be significant in this election.”
From student to leader
Dorholt proved himself a capable political organizer as a student at St. Cloud State, where he studied community development and helped turn out student votes for DFL candidates including Tarryl Clark and Patty Wetterling in the early 2000s.
“He was a good foot soldier and came up through the trenches,” said Aspasia Rigopoulou-Melcher, director of the Community Development program at St. Cloud State and one of Dorholt’s mentors. “He was extremely dedicated and one of my best students. You knew this guy was going places.”
Dorholt became campaign manager for Larry Haws when the former St. Cloud Parks and Recreation Director and Stearns County Commissioner ran for the open seat vacated by DFL Rep. Joe Opatz in 2006.
“I learned a lot from Larry Haws, including that focus on children and their future that he always had,” Dorholt said. “He also taught me that you have to cut through the noise. I’m a professional listener, and I try to bring the insights I’ve gained to how traditional approaches don’t always work.”
Dorholt made his first run for the seat in 2010 after Haws stepped down, but was defeated in a DFL primary and saw the Republican Banaian go on to a narrow 13-vote victory in the general election.
In his first term, Dorholt cites last year’s tuition freeze across Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses as a major accomplishment.
“As someone who saw his tuition double over the course of my education at St. Cloud State, it’s nice to be part of a state that’s leading on the issue,” he said.
Another key accomplishment was this year’s successful campaign to allow certain outstate school districts, such as St. Cloud, to approve local option school levy increases without a referendum – a mechanism that only Twin Cities districts had access to in the past, Mohs said.
“Zach didn’t shy away from fighting for us, even in the face of skepticism from people in his own party,” he said. “We feel like he listens and understands schools and education, which is a different feeling than we got when Jim was representing St. Cloud at the Legislature.”
Successfully repealing the business-to-business sales tax increases approved in last year’s tax bill was also a high priority for the St. Cloud business community, Dorholt said. Finally getting funding in this year’s bonding bill to complete the improvements to the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud would be another, he said.
Dorholt’s priorities for the next term include transitioning from a degree-oriented approach to higher education to a skills-oriented one and working on mental health reform, especially regarding treatment of military veterans, he said.
Returning to politics
Knoblach made his name in politics as one of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s chief Republican allies in the Legislature, alongside now-U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis.
Knoblach, a real estate investor and certified public accountant, had a talent for numbers and budgets, and rose to become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, charged with crafting the House Republican budget each biennium.
But his political rise hit a ceiling in 2006 when he sought, and lost, the Republican endorsement to run for Congress. Michele Bachmann won the endorsement and the seat, while Knoblach left the Legislature, and politics, for a time.
Knoblach served as the local party co-chair until announcing his candidacy, and came back into the public eye last year when he filed a lawsuit seeking to halt construction of a proposed office building for state senators authorized in in the 2013 omnibus tax bill.
“I just thought it was a huge waste of money and unneeded,” he said. “But what upset me the most was the way they violated the state Constitution and good government processes to fund it. The biggest violation of all is to mix appropriations and taxes in the same bill.”
The lawsuit was rejected, and a subsequent petition for an expedited appeal has also been turned down, but Knoblach said the experience confirmed his interest in returning to the political scene.
He won endorsement over another candidate, Paul Brandmire, in three ballots at the local party convention last month. Brandmire did not return requests to interview him about whether he might file a primary challenge against Knoblach, but he criticized Knoblach’s role in organizing the convention before declaring himself a candidate.
That knowledge of how to pull the levers of power is one of Knoblach’s central selling points, and he emphasizes that he would become the senior legislator representing the St. Cloud area and could be in line for another committee chairmanship, should Republicans retake control of the House this fall.
“Jim’s very organized and known as a steady hand and leader in the community,” said Banaian, who decided not to run again after accepting new responsibilities at St. Cloud State. “People also know what he accomplished in the Legislature.”
Knoblach said that, if elected, he would work to undo all of the tax increases passed by the current DFL-controlled Legislature, though he also acknowledges the DFL lean of the district and emphasizes his ability to work across party lines.
“I guess one area where I would go across party lines is that, if we can’t return all of the money from undoing the new taxes, which would be my preference, I’m comfortable with putting some of it into the budget reserves, as DFLers are proposing,” he said.
Under the microscope
In 2012, the Banaian-Dorholt race saw a flurry of negative flyers, radio ads and even cable television ads from outside sources. With control of the House in question and this seat in play, both sides say they expect to see a similar result again this year.
“I hope we can have an open debate on the issues and a meaningful campaign,” said Gruenes. “But the public has to demand it.”
Dorholt won’t have the presidential turnout boost or the benefit of an organized statewide marriage amendment opposition campaign to rely on this year, but Mohs said he believes people who got involved in the Vote No campaigns in 2012 will stay engaged and return to the polls this fall.
“People will remember where Zach stood on marriage, and they will know that Jim stood on the other side, and he’ll have to explain himself on that,” Mohs said.