In his corner office on the fifth floor of the State Office Building, Ron Erhardt, the longtime Republican lawmaker who returned to the Capitol in 2013 after a four-year hiatus and a defection to the DFL, prominently displays a souvenir from his rift with his former party: a mock sheriff’s poster with his name, photograph and the caption, “Wanted: Out of Office. These are the Republicans that joined all House Democrats to raise YOUR taxes!”
Produced by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, the poster was aimed at Erhard and five other House Republicans — collectively known as “the override six” — who broke ranks in 2008 to override a veto from then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and helped Democrats pass a controversial gas hike tax.
Although he had been elected as a Republican nine consecutive times, Erhardt was subsequently denied endorsement, spending four years out of office before returning as a DFLer.
While his heretical gas-tax vote may have been the last straw, Erhardt’s relatively moderate views on a range of social issues — from guns to gay rights to abortion — had already put him at odds with an increasingly conservative GOP House caucus.
By 2006, according to Erhardt, he was the last remaining pro-choice Republican in the Legislature, a distinction he earned following the retirement of former representative, Ron Abrams. “We used to call ourselves ‘the caucus of two.’ When he left to become a judge, he said to me, ‘You’re in charge of the caucus now,’” Erhardt recalls with a laugh.
Now locked in one of the House’s most expensive races, the 84-year-old tax and transportation policy guru faces a challenger, Dario Anselmo, who garnered the Republican endorsement despite sharing many of the moderate views that hastened Erhardt’s exit from the party.
That irony is not lost on Erhardt.
“He’s trying to run as if he’s a shadow of me,” said Erhardt, who adds that Anselmo will likely have a tough time with House Republicans should he win in November.
In keeping with his reputation for plain speaking, Erhardt expresses the sentiment in blunt terms. “He’s wasting his time. They’ll put him in the back row and they won’t talk to him,” Erhardt said. “I think he’s in for a pretty rude awakening.”
Anselmo, a businessman and former owner of the Fine Line nightclub in Minneapolis, agrees that there is little in the way of sharp policy distinctions. “From a policy perspective I’m not sure how different we are in general,” Anselmo said by way of an email, though he described himself as “more sensitive” to issues of taxes and government regulation.
Anselmo declined a formal interview with Capitol Report, citing both time constraints and a desire to “go low key on the media stuff.” In a written statement, he acknowledged the politically delicate nature of his candidacy:
“Being a social moderate is not easy for Republicans to embrace over the last decade or so. I try and tell people that you can have conservative family values, but not believe government should be playing a role in all of those decisions. In Edina a number of people have felt left out of the party because of that view point I have been told by voters. They seem to be happy that the party is being more reflective of its voters and community in general.”
In the 2012 election, voters in the longtime Republican stronghold flipped the suburb’s entire Capitol delegation from red to blue. Although Edina had trended Democratic over the two previous presidential elections, opposition to the GOP’s push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage was seen as key factor in the shift.
Ben Golnik, the chairman of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, agrees that the Republicans’ fiscal message “was drowned out by the focus on social issues” in 2012, especially in metro area swing districts like 49A. That’s not likely to be the case in 2014, said Golnik, whose group is targeting Erhardt and 11 other DFLers in such purple suburban districts.
In fact, Golnik said he was not even aware of Anselmo’s position on abortion — an indication of the limited appetite among Republican political operatives in pushing social issues this cycle. Asked what separates Erhardt and Anselmo, Golnik cited Erhardt’s gas tax vote and Anselmo’s status as “a stronger fiscal conservative.”
While Erhardt opposed the DFL-backed package of tax increases in 2013, Golnik said, party affiliation — not policy view — is probably the easiest avenue for attack. “At the end of the day, Erhardt’s first vote if he’s re-elected would be to bring back Paul Thissen as speaker,” Golnik said.
That is predicated on the notion that the DFL will retain its majority in the House — by no means a certainty given that the GOP needs to pick up just seven seats to retake the chamber.
Steve Timmer, a political blogger at Left.Mn and semi-retired attorney from Edina, said Erhardt’s popularity with Edina voters creates a big hurdle for any challenger. Timmer noted that throughout Erhardt’s political career, he routinely garnered more votes than fellow Republicans running on the ticket.
“Ron has huge name recognition. Independents mostly still support him and the DFLers took to him like ducks to water. Personally, I’ve voted for Ron for many cycles,” said Timmer, who has been critical of Anselmo’s coy posture on policy matters.
At Left.Mn, Timmer has penned a series of entries, “Waiting for Dario,” in an attempt to pin down the challenger on specifics. “I have tried very hard to get Anselmo out of his hidey-hole. Starting last May I sent him a list of questions about his positions on things, I’ve never heard anything back,” said Timmer, who described his queries as “very respectful.”
While Anselmo may not care to engage with DFL-affiliated bloggers or the fine points of social policy discussions, the first time office seeker has proven an extremely adept fundraiser: As of the last reporting period in July, Anselmo had raised about $83,000, nearly three times as much as Erhardt, and more than any other House candidates.
Both Erhardt and Anselmo also expect independent expenditure groups will play an important role in the race. In the 2012 election, the battle for Edina’s Senate seat was the priciest legislative contest in state history, as Sen. Melisa Franzen bested Keith Downey (the current Republican Party chairman who, as a conservative candidate for the House in 2008, knocked Erhardt out of office).
For his part, Erhardt said he plans to run much as he has in prior campaigns, relying on fliers and a relentless door knocking routine. He said he is emphasizing his expertise on meat and potato issues important to district voters, particularly transportation policy.
“I’ve got 20 years of experience. I’ve built relationships. And I’ve got things done,” said Erhard, who citied the addition of a third lane on a six-mile stretch of I-494 as just the latest example of his dexterity as a lawmaker.
He is also heralding several Edina-related bills he helped pass, including a $225,000 appropriation for Edina Veterans Memorial, the first Edina-specific project ever included in the bonding bill.
If elected, Erhardt will be 85 when he returns to the Capitol in January, which will make him among the oldest legislators in state history. Erhardt says his age shouldn’t be an issue. “Very few people my age in are in the same state of health, which is excellent. Blood pressure 120 over 62, no known problems,” he said. “I’ve got good genes.”
But what drives him to seek office at this stage of life?
“I’m doing something for the community,” he said. “I think I’m good at this, so why not continue? I’m just going to keep running, right down to the wire. And if they don’t like me, they don’t like me.”