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For some House candidates, waiting is hardest part

Several heavily partisan districts will bring new faces to 2015 Legislature

The past week brought a couple of crucial deadlines for Minnesotans considering a run for the State House of Representatives.

Tuesday was “last in” day, with a 5 p.m. deadline for any candidates seeking state-level office. Thursday marked the “last out” deadline, giving candidates until day’s end to withdraw their names from the ballot. Some 14 districts are headed toward primaries, which are expected to be fought out with varying degrees of competitiveness.

In another batch of districts, candidates seeking to fill the seats of retiring legislators have, at least by appearances, punched their tickets to St. Paul just by making the ballot. If those districts hold to their political profile and last cycle’s election results, the following five candidates seem destined to spend the summer and fall biding time before their eventual trip to the Capitol in early 2015.

House District 46B

No potential candidate for a safe seat has waited as long to learn his or her fate as did Cheryl Youakim. Youakim, a Hopkins City Council member who doubles as committee administrator for the state Senate Judiciary Committee, had declared her intention to run in this district back in December 2013. But the local DFL party unit’s decision was delayed until this past weekend, as incumbent Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, sought the party’s endorsement for Secretary of State. His victory in that contest cleared the way for a Sunday endorsement convention, where Youakim bested Eric Margolis, the state DFL Party’s outreach coordinator.

Youakim was familiar with the campaign trail, having volunteered on each of Simon’s five successful bids, and said she entered the convention with an organized “persuasion team” that helped secure victory on the first ballot.

Serving at the elbow of committee chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, Youakim has learned much about the state’s court and penal systems, and said she is an advocate for “second chance” re-entry programs for the incarcerated.

But her major issue of interest is early childhood education, especially in light of her background organizing a grant-funded advocacy group in 2003, when, she recalls the issue itself was in its infancy.

“Now, 10 years later, it’s really amazing to see how far support has come for [early childhood education],” she said.

Opponent: Bryan Bjornson (GOP)

House District 19B

Jack Considine has been trying to get Democrats elected in the Mankato area since 1980, when it was his own father, John Sr., whose candidacy inspired Considine’s activism. The elder Considine, also a Democrat, lost two consecutive races, but his son had evidently caught the bug, and has been aiding local DFLers for the last three-plus decades.

Most recently, he worked on behalf of Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, who announced her intention not to run again during the 2014 legislative session. Brynaert’s departure opened the door for a two-way endorsement contest that saw Considine, a Mankato City Council member, running against Karen Foreman, his colleague on that municipal board.

In campaigning with delegates, Considine stressed his 16 years of experience on the council, and his extensive knowledge of its political make-up. After trailing on the first ballot, Considine came back to win on the fourth vote count.

Considine’s said his main interests lie in the areas of transportation and economic development, and he points to a “renaissance” that has taken place in Mankato over the last 15 years. Considine said those advances were achieved through a combination of infrastructure investments and economic incentives “without going overboard,” and appreciated seeing a similar approach taken by the DFL majorities in the Legislature.

On transportation, Considine hopes to see continued focus on assistance to growing “hub” cities like Rochester, Duluth and Mankato.

“I want to see more comprehensive transit policy, and not just everything centered on getting into the Twin Cities,” he said.

Opponent: Dave Kruse (GOP)

House District 26B

Rochester-area Realtor Nels Pierson entered this legislative race with something of a verbal agreement from Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, who was then running for the GOP endorsement in the 1st Congressional District. Benson told Pierson he “didn’t intend to run” for his House seat, even if his attempt for a seat in U.S. House failed; the answer was good enough for Pierson, who filed with the campaign finance board in July 2013.

Benson eventually lost the endorsement to Aaron Miller but stuck to his word, leaving Pierson a straightforward path to the local party’s endorsement. Though he dislikes being characterized as an “activist,” Pierson does not shy away from his experience in politics: He served as a staffer for Republican U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, and is a past campaign manager of current Republican Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

Aside from those roles, Pierson has been an active player in the local chamber of commerce, and worked with the Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance, a group that sought to bring together city, county and business leaders to negotiate a plan for rail transit around the city of Rochester.

Pierson grew up on a dairy farm, and said he is also interested in implementing policies that will help farmers and southeastern Minnesota dairy processing operations.

“We’re starting to see an environment that is not really friendly to animal agriculture, specifically,” he said.

Opponent: Richard Wright (DFL)

House District 53B

Kelly Fenton didn’t tell her conservative activist friends about her possible candidacy for the state House — rather, it was the other way around. To hear Fenton tell it, news that incumbent Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, was leaving the Legislature after just two terms set off a barrage of calls, emails and texts. Each of the messages was either asking Fenton if she planned to run for the seat, or simply telling her that she must.

As deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, Fenton was a well-known figure in GOP activist circles, and prior to that, had gained campaign know-how while managing multiple efforts by former state Sen. Ted Lillie. That resume was sufficient to scare off any other competitors, and Fenton coasted to the party endorsement unopposed.

Even so, Fenton said she approached the local convention seriously, calling every single delegate to ask for their support prior to the event.

Though she is plugged in with GOP politicos, Fenton said she is more likely to get her advice and input from regular constituents. She said she’s heard numerous complaints from residents wanting a more “efficient, effective government” that offers more accountability to its taxpayers.

Fenton is also concerned about the condition of Minnesota’s education system, which she said could learn from the one in her own district.

“Woodbury does have one of the state’s best school systems,” Fenton said. “But statewide, the existence of the achievement gap [between white and non-white students] is alarming to me.”

Opponent: Kay Hendrickson (DFL)

House District 57A

Jon Koznick was a conservative activist as early as high school, and spent 24 years working behind the scenes for Republicans and causes. But it wasn’t until this year, after the announcement from longtime Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, that she would not seek re-election to her seat, that Koznick got his own chance to appear on a ballot.

Koznick was Holberg’s campaign manager over a number of election cycles, and held the same title for Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville. Connections made in those roles helped Koznick rally delegates in a short-term endorsement campaign: Holberg announced her pending departure on the day of the original convention, and the process was rescheduled for just a few weeks later.

The subsequent convention lasted just one ballot, with Koznick winning over David Bares.

Koznick, who works as a loan originator at a mortgage bank, said he planned to focus on issues like lowering taxes and granting more control to local school districts. He also said access to major thoroughfares is a key issue in the suburban district.

“Being off the freeway,” Koznick said, “we want transportation that works.”

Opponent: Amy Willingham (DFL)

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