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Primaries brewing in some legislative districts

Mike Mullen//May 30, 2014

Primaries brewing in some legislative districts

Mike Mullen//May 30, 2014

Activists in the two major parties will come out of their respective conventions ready for a partisan face-off. Included in that vigorous crowd are hundreds of House candidates, including incumbents and first-timers, with most observers on both sides conceding that control of the lower chamber is up for grabs in this year’s elections.

In at least a handful of cases, though, a period of intraparty wrangling will have to pass before a general election race takes shape. A number of upstart candidates have blocked incumbents from winning the party’s endorsement, lost narrowly or, in the case of Dayton City Council member Eric Lucero, won the party nod outright. Those endorsement battles have left lingering uncertainty and varying degrees of bitterness, and set up a series of contested House primary campaigns that will play out between now and the August balloting.


House District 8B

As of Thursday, Sue Nelson was still not sure whether she will challenge Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, in a primary. But if Nelson does, it wouldn’t be solely her idea: According to the longtime party activist, a number of GOP insiders have approached her in recent weeks, asking after her plans and encouraging her to run for office.

Those people, Nelson said, are “making some pretty compelling arguments,” as she considers the looming filing deadline of Tuesday, June 3.

Franson needed seven ballots at the local party endorsement convention to reach the required 60 percent threshold, and did so by a single vote. That narrow margin of victory stands against the backdrop of an even narrower escape: Franson won re-election in 2012 by just 12 votes, a razor-thin victory in a decisively conservative district.

Nelson said her supporters are worried that Franson, an outspoken legislator who is now in her second term, could put the seat in jeopardy yet again this year.

“I don’t want to see us lose the seat,” Nelson said, adding that the 2012 election was “too close for comfort for a lot of conservatives.”

Nelson said she planned to make her decision over the weekend. Franson was unavailable for comment.


House District 30B

The sudden withdrawal of Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, shortly before the start of his district’s endorsing convention seemed to pave the way for an easy victory for Eric Lucero. Lucero, an IT manager and Dayton City Council member, had challenged FitzSimmons over his vote in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Rather than face an almost certain defeat, FitzSimmons withdrew, ending his House political career after a single term.

Lucero’s highly critical approach rankled some of the district’s insiders, including Kevin Kasel, a St. Michael City Council member, who was disappointed to see FitzSimmons ousted in what he described as a “messy endorsement process.”

In almost all cases, Kasel said, he prefers to see candidates abide by the party endorsement. But he was put off by what he saw as a highly negative case put forth by Lucero’s camp, and also expressed hesitation about Lucero’s ability to be a well-rounded legislator.

“Some people were looking at the candidate and seeing there was no understanding or position on school funding, or transportation,” Kasel said. “It was pretty much single-issue, and that’s one of the reasons people were saying we need a better candidate.”

Kasel knows the endorsement of Lucero — who has granted few media interviews since his endorsement — leaves him at a disadvantage, but pointed out that he had been elected to the City Council twice in St. Michael, which makes up about 40 percent of the district’s total population.


House District 44B

DFL activists in this district, where Rep. John Benson, DFL-Minnetonka, is retiring, were deadlocked in the endorsement contest, setting up a three-way contest on primary day. Though he failed to convince delegates, Jon Applebaum, an attorney and DFL activist, has since gained the backing of Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Freeman and Gov. Mark Dayton’s sons, Eric and Andrew. Earlier this month, Applebaum picked up another major endorsement, with the announcement that the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) had anointed him its preferred candidate.

Applebaum said he felt he screened well with the labor union, explaining that he argued that employee pensions are “deferred wages” and must be paid. Aside from racking up endorsements, Applebaum has been door-knocking the area with a group of more than two dozen volunteers and “about a half dozen” paid staffers.

Jon Tollefson, one of the other DFL challengers, has also been crisscrossing the district’s doorsteps, and said he had taken a leave from his job with the Minnesota High Tech Association to focus on the campaign. Tollefson’s pitch to voters invokes his experience with the U.S. State Department, where he was posted in Nigeria and Mexico, and his current work, which focuses on using technological advances toward economic development.

“If [my opponents] do come up in conversation,” Tollefson said, “if people are following the race, I’m happy to talk about that, and about how my experience is the right experience for the job.”

Also seeking the seat is Tony Wagner, a three-term Minnetonka City Council member and vice president at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a business travel company.


House District 48B

Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, tried to keep her head down and work right through the end of session, relegating her tumultuous experience at a March endorsing convention to the back of her mind. Suburban delegates denied Loon the endorsement, and in fact favored local activist Sheila Kihne, though ultimately the convention broke without a decision in either’s favor.

The result was commonly traced to the 2013 legislative vote on same-sex marriage, in which Loon had joined FitzSimmons as one of four Republican legislators to break from the House caucus and vote in the affirmative. Loon reported that the uncertainty of her non-endorsed status led a number of local supporters to contact her “out of the blue,” asking what they could do to help her remain in office.

For some time, it was unclear if Loon would need that help at all, as Kihne remained noncommittal about mounting a primary campaign. On Thursday, Kihne broke her silence, introducing a campaign website that signaled her intention to challenge the three-term representative in August.

Kihne said she is comfortable with the idea of reaching out to voters, and had in fact served as Loon’s campaign manager in 2008. She expects Loon to be the better-funded of the two candidates, owing in part to possible outside spending support from pro-business groups, but said she has drawn from the area’s most committed activists to serve as volunteers on her effort.

Loon is not discouraged by the close-run endorsement contest, pointing out that the event featured roughly 100 constituents compared to about 35,000 district residents, and said she welcomes the challenge.

“It’s good for the voters to have choices,” Loon said. “I’ve always said that — even when it affects me.”


House District 60B

Longtime Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, has faced numerous primary elections during her four-plus decades in office. But this year, Kahn said, feels decidedly different from contests in prior years.

The passion felt by supporters of Kahn and her opponent, Mohamud Noor — who was appointed last fall to a vacancy on the Minneapolis School Board caused by a death — were evidenced by the uproar seen on precinct caucus night earlier this year, when physical altercations broke out and further violence was allegedly threatened. Ultimately, neither candidate won the party’s endorsement at the early-April convention, setting up one of the more highly visible primary contests in the state this election cycle.

Noor has managed to impress a number of prominent liberals, winning endorsements from former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, and former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza.

Kahn counters by saying that none of Noor’s high-profile boosters actually live in the district, and points to her own list of supporters, including Gov. Mark Dayton, DFL U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, and Abdi Warsame, who, in 2013, became the first Somali-American elected to the Minneapolis City Council.

Kahn said she was confident of strong support from Somalis and East Africans, as well as the district’s environmentalists and arts patrons; she currently serves as chair of the House Legacy Committee.

Noor, for his part, is focused on door-knocking efforts with a group of volunteers and a “small number” of paid staff, and said he plans to invite some of his well-known supporters to participate in campaign work starting in June.

“My message hasn’t changed at all,” he said. “This district needs a representative who can bring together the needs of immigrants, students and progressives.”

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