The bad blood that has surfaced at times between DFL Reps. and secretary of state candidates Steve Simon of Hopkins and Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center is a matter of long standing, a fact underscored recently by a Hilstrom fundraising mailer containing a message from former DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch.
A similar missive, sent in late January, asked Democrats to support Hilstrom’s bid for the office by coming to a fundraiser at the Minneapolis Club. Hatch, a polarizing political elder in the DFL whose resume also includes the party’s 2006 gubernatorial nomination and a spell as party chairman, has had other public disagreements with Simon.
In the January fundraising pitch, Hatch criticized “corporate Democrats” who side with business and not the middle class when it comes to economic issues.
“We live in an age where too many Democrats, once elected, turn out to be ‘Corporate Democrats’ who are too eager to march to the beat of the corporate drum,” the fundraising email reads. “Deb is a true progressive when it comes to taking on issues of economic disparity.”
Hatch later said in an interview that Simon is one of those corporate Democrats he was talking about. The email was paid for and sent by the Hilstrom campaign, though Hilstrom declined to apply the “corporate Democrat” label to her opponent specifically.
The personal and political dynamics swirling around the DFL contest for secretary of state stretch back to Simon’s 2008 calls for a legislative auditor’s inquiry into personnel problems during Hatch protégé Lori Swanson’s early tenure as attorney general. Back then, Hilstrom publicly criticized Simon for his steps, making him out to be a disgruntled former employee of the AG’s office.
For Democrats going into the state convention a month from now, the race for secretary of state is a matter of keen interest because it’s the Democrats’ lone contested statewide endorsement race and because, by most accounts, it’s still too close to call.
“There is no other excitement for this year,” said James Barone, chairman of the CD 4 DFL. “The secretary of state’s race is all you’ve got.”
Observers credit Simon with a slight apparent lead in delegates — he’s got significantly more money — but they say that could change in the days leading up to the convention in Duluth on May 30.
“These races tend to be decided at the convention itself,” a party official said. “The race is very wide open right now.”
A close race
The race so far has looked to be tipped in Simon’s favor.
Simon has secured the support of more than 35 current lawmakers, as well as former DFL Secretary of State Joan Growe. He raised $137,383 in 2013 and $5,525 in the first quarter of 2014, compared with Hilstrom’s $40,876 in 2013 and $14,173 in the first quarter of 2014. Hilstrom has the backing of a swath of labor unions, as well as Emily’s List and Womenwinning.
Now it’s the final stretch for candidates to contact delegates and organize ahead of the convention, which is key since both candidates have said they would abide by the endorsement that comes out of it.
“I think there’s a big uncommitted pool” of delegates, said one labor activist watching the race. “I think Simon probably has an edge, but either one of them could definitely get the endorsement.”
Simon, an attorney from Hopkins who was elected to the Legislature in 2004, said he’s got the fundraising and organization in place to pivot into the fall general elections effectively. Simon had $60,990 cash on hand as of the last filing deadline, compared to Hilstrom’s $15,624.
Simon has counted on his chairmanship of the House Elections Committee and his opposition to the voter ID amendment in 2012 as key credentials to secure him the party nod.
Hilstrom touted support from labor for her candidacy. She’s campaigning as a progressive opposed to corporate influence in elections, a theme that she says is broadly reflected in her legislative record.
Hilstrom, who has served Brooklyn Center at the Capitol since 2000, also noted that she has worked on a number of statewide election efforts, pointing in particular to her two years as House deputy minority leader and her work on Hatch’s 2006 run for governor. “I think that you need to build coalitions all across the state to win a statewide race,” she said.
But observers say that money isn’t as important in a lesser-known race like secretary of state. “Right now in an endorsement contest, money is not particularly significant,” Hatch said. “What they need to do is talk to delegates and get their support.”
Barone, the CD 4 DFL chairman, said the lack of contested races at the top of the ticket affords delegates more time to make an informed choice in the SoS battle.
“If this is really the only course on the menu where you get the fun of doing it right, you’re going to spend a little more time on that dish,” he said.
Hatch role a wild card
One factor whose impact remains to be seen is Hatch’s effect on the race. Hilstrom has worked with Hatch in the past as an attorney and has worked on at least one of his campaigns.
The widely publicized disagreement between Simon and Hatch in 2008 stemmed from Simon’s request that the legislative auditor look into complaints from staffers in the Attorney General’s Office. At the time, Hilstrom sent out an email criticizing Simon for the move.
But Simon and Hatch both say now that their relationship is cordial.
But Simon called the 2014 fundraising pitches that apparently seek to cast him as a corporate shill “bizarre and puzzling.” He noted that he has received less in contributions from lobbyists and outside committees than Hilstrom. Those sources make up less than 10 percent of Simon’s total cash haul, compared to roughly 30 percent for Hilstrom, according to campaign finance documents.
“I think that [“corporate Democrat” label is] a ridiculous claim to make and it’s just desperate politics,” said DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, who is supporting Simon. “Deb Hilstrom doesn’t have much of a record on any campaign or election issue.
“I’d say this is not the first time Mike Hatch has made personal attacks against Steve Simon,” Winkler added, “and it started when Steve was willing to stand up for employees at the Attorney General’s Office, and Mike Hatch didn’t like it.”
But Hatch isn’t backing off the characterization. He said he’s been impressed with Hilstrom’s work on homeowner mediation to prevent foreclosures and her opposition to repealing a portion of the state’s gift ban.
One DFL official who asked to be anonymous said the race likely wouldn’t be decided by infighting over Hatch’s legacy and influence in the party, adding that it would be unfair to characterize the race as a proxy battle between Hatch and other parties.
“He certainly still has a lot of strong supporters from his years of public service, but I don’t know if he has quite as much of a hold on them as he and others think,” the official said. “I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to portray it as some sort of Hatch-led campaign.”