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Crowded contest shaping up to replace Dill

Mike Mullen//August 19, 2015

Crowded contest shaping up to replace Dill

Mike Mullen//August 19, 2015

David Dill (File photo)
David Dill (File photo)


Republicans who have hopes to challenge the DFL’s hold on House District 3A might want to consider the apparent eagerness from that area’s Democrats.

A funeral for David Dill was only held on Saturday, as mourners marked the passing of the seven-term moderate who represented a vast, heavily wooded expanse across Minnesota’s northern and northeastern border.

Observers and participants are predicting a full DFL field in the effort to find Dill’s successor, and have recent history as their guide. Dill first won his seat after surviving a four-way primary in 2002, besting a DFL-endorsed candidate. There’s also some even more recent history: Inside of a week, his House District 3A has already drawn three candidates, with others still expected to spring out of the woodwork before the field is set.

The third candidate, Ely City Council member Heidi Omerza, made her campaign official with a press release Wednesday morning. She joins Rob Ecklund, a Koochiching County Commissioner and labor leader, who told newspapers of his plans on Monday, and Bill Hansen, a longtime DFL activist who had intended to wait for Gov. Mark Dayton’s call of a special election, but confirmed his bid in an interview on Tuesday.

Indeed, several DFL figures in that area were a bit surprised that Dayton had made no announcement about the district’s future since Dill’s death on August 10. State election law dictates that the governor should call a special election “within five days” of the occurrence of a legislative vacancy, but no such announcement has come down.

“It certainly does complicate things,” Ecklund said of the uncertain timeline, “but at this point I just plan to rely on people smarter than me about it.”

The various backgrounds and origins of the three candidates already in the race could serve as a test of the district’s ideology and sources of political power. Ecklund, a machine tender at a saw mill, was formerly the president at United Steelworkers union, and said he hoped to notch “labor assembly” endorsements at the county or regional level, effectively competing for the endorsement of several different unions in one vote.

Hansen, meanwhile, was the DFL candidate who beat Dill for the party endorsement back in 2002, and again in 2004, though he ultimately lost the primary on both occasions. He had served as chair of the Cook County DFL in the 1980s, and inherited some political relationships made through his father, William Hansen, a former Cook County Commissioner who died in 2010.

Omerza, lastly, said she knows local officials from some other towns in the district due to her past position as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), or with the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC), but guessed that she had met nearly as many others tracking her four children through local football, baseball and basketball games.

“Because of the organizations I’ve served with, people know my name, and who I am,” Omerza said. “I think it will just be a matter of them getting to know that I’m running.”

The early entrants represent a fitting spectrum of constituencies in that area, according to Aaron Brown, a blogger and DFL activist, who has previously assisted on campaigns in that area. Ecklund’s home in Koochiching County could help him with more moderate or conservative voters who had backed Dill, a centrist with a right-leaning streak on some topics.

Ecklund, who knew Dill, and worked with him on several legislative issues, described himself as fiscally conservative in the same mold as Dill, but with a more progressive view on social issues.

Hansen’s candidacy would likely gain ground with the more progressive wing of the DFL party in that district. Hansen said he had actually been working to recruit a left-of-center candidate who might run in Dill’s place in the event he retired, instead of sought re-election in 2016. When no viable options emerged, Hansen decided he would take the plunge again. Recalling his previous campaigns against Dill, Hansen, who runs a canoe tourism business in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) said Dill had tried to paint him as a “radical environmentalist” in their primary elections.

“[Dill’s] proof of that was that I thought climate change was real,” Hansen said, with a laugh. “I still think climate change is real.”

Joseph Boyle, an attorney and chair of the Koochiching County DFL, said Hansen had sought to differentiate himself from Dill’s career during an introductory phone call last week.

“[Hansen] wasn’t very complimentary of Dill’s record,” Boyle recalled. “I think he was trying to be diplomatic.”

Brown said the district might actually be more progressive than some would expect, and that voters might simply have backed Dill — he won re-election with about 65 percent of the district in 2014, and sometimes ran unopposed — because they liked him personally. Both Barack Obama and Gov. Mark Dayton held the state comfortably in their re-elections, and the district only narrowly voted in favor of the same-sex marriage ban in 2012, while other Iron Range districts did so overwhelmingly.

“I think more liberal politicians [than Dill] could probably carry the district, and that there’s room for a more progressive, or liberal candidate,” Brown said.

There’s also probably room for at least a few more Democrats to join the contest. Ecklund, speaking Tuesday, said he was aware of “at least four, and possibly six” names that could eventually compete for the DFL’s nomination.

The timing and location of an endorsing convention are yet to be determined, according to Senate District 3 DFL chairman Paul Fish, who said he, too, was awaiting the governor’s announcement of when a primary and special election would take place. Fish was aware that Republicans might attempt to target the district with a moderate option, but said he was confident the DFL would hold it come 2016.

“It’s a very diverse district, but… I’m still assuming it’s a safe DFL district with the right kind of candidate,” Fish said.

That candidate will likely have to survive a packed DFL election ballot: Each of the three announced candidates begged off from committing to abide by the party’s endorsement, and Omerza said she was inclined “to let the voters of the region decide… rather than the [DFL] delegates.”

Brown predicted that most entrants would plan to run beyond an endorsing convention, and expects the primary to be crowded and close.

“I haven’t seen a candidate I’m confident will blow out and get 50 percent in primary,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what happens.”

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