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3A field turns ‘whole race on its ear’

Running for the House District 3A seat is a lot like trying one’s hand at honest-to-God exploration. Detailed maps and an oriented compass will come in handy, as will a guidebook to how the locals talk, and where their loyalties lie. Be sure to speak well of their recently fallen hero, and always beware the area chief, a leader in the local congress, who says he plans to keep his peace — for now, anyway.

The special election to find a replacement for David Dill, who died suddenly earlier this summer, has produced a number of twists and turns and seems to grow stranger by the day. Try these developments: The Republican was once a Democrat; one of the Democrats was once a Republican; the lobbyist is an independent, lowercase “i,” meaning she’s not even running with the Independence Party; rumors of dogs and cats living together could not be confirmed.

It’s a lot to take in, but digestion will have to happen fast for participants, especially the four DFL candidates, who will face-off firstly in an endorsement convention — date and location to be determined — and then in a Sept. 29 primary. Whoever wins out in that contest will go on to face Roger Skraba, former mayor of Ely, who has registered as a Republican despite previous membership in the DFL Party, and Kelsey Johnson, a registered lobbyist who has launched the rare candidacy as a truly independent candidate, unaffiliated with the Independence Party (IP).

Rob Ecklund, a Democrat and Koochiching County commissioner who was first to declare a 3A candidacy, confessed that he cannot predict how the presence of Skraba and Kelsey Johnson might affect the Dec. 8 general election in what is, in theory, a safe DFL seat.

“I don’t know what the makeup of this field will do,” Ecklund said. “It has kind of turned the whole race on its ear.”

The surprises include one for the Democrats themselves. Eric Johnson, a business owner based in International Falls, has joined the DFL field, despite being the last GOP challenger to Dill, who won handily: Johnson received 34 percent of the vote in 2014. Johnson expects his DFL opponents to bring up that recent history during his current campaign, and said he’s ready for it.

“If you don’t have thick skin,” he said, “you sure as hell shouldn’t be running for office, especially not in this area.”

If anything, Eric Johnson thinks his 2014 campaign gives him an advantage over other candidates on both — or, in this case, all three — sides, as voters already have familiarity with his name and ideology.

“I don’t know if anyone has been traveling the district more, in the last three years, more than I have, with the exception of the late Representative Dill,” Johnson said.

The other Johnson in the race, Kelsey, said her registration as an independent is in keeping with her political history. Kelsey Johnson declined to give specific names or years, but said she has worked on campaigns for both GOP and DFL candidates.

“I think I can attract a lot more attention, and a lot more help than people would think, if I’m not affiliated with either party,” she said.

Asked how she would categorize her politics, Johnson said her feelings about small businesses, like the one her parents owned in rural St. Louis County, probably fall on the economic conservative side, but her positions on “family” issues are more aligned with the Democrats.

Kelsey Johnson acknowledged that, to some, “lobbyist” has become a dirty word, and said both of her election opponents would likely use her career against her. When they do, she has an answer at the ready.

“I want to be a lobbyist for the people … and pour myself into advocating for the people around me, that I love so much,” Johnson said. She added: “I’m very good at what I do, otherwise I wouldn’t be employed by anybody. I’d like to use those skills for the people in this area.”

Kelsey Johnson’s registration required 500 verified petition signatures, a sign that she has some connections and relationships in that area, according to Iron Range blogger and DFL insider Aaron Brown. Brown said the chances for Kelsey Johnson or Skraba, a diehard backer of mining interests, could depend on the DFL’s primary victor.

“It’s a really interesting case, because there’s such a broad, ideological spectrum in that district, from the ‘classic liberal’ to the sort of ‘light-blue’ Democrats,” Brown said.

Heidi Omerza, a DFL candidate and Ely City Council member, said she is undeterred having that city’s former mayor in the race, observing that Skraba has over the years, labeled himself as a Democrat, independent and a Republican.

“Anything Roger does doesn’t surprise me,” Omerza said, laughing. “I guess I’ll leave it at that.”

Omerza plans to push beyond a party endorsing convention, and is already reaching out to likely primary voters, who she says are concerned about the region’s economy as the tourism season winds down.

“As people start leaving, we’re all wondering, is broadband coming, or isn’t it?” Omerza said. “Are we stuck here? What’s going to be happening with mining, especially copper-nickel mining? These are the questions people have.”

Brown thinks the candidate with the most at stake in an endorsing convention is Bill Hansen, a committed DFL activist who owns Sawbill Canoe Outfitters. Hansen, who twice won the DFL endorsement against Dill but lost in primary contests, said Tuesday that he still plans to abide by the party’s endorsement. He is the only candidate making that promise, though it comes with one caveat.

According to Hansen and Paul Fish, chair of the Senate District 3 DFL unit, there is some question over the presence of party delegates from Cook County — where Hansen lives and works — who have not attended meetings in recent years. (A certain attendance rate is generally required for a party member to maintain active delegate status.) If those delegates are not seated at the convention, Hansen said, he, too, would run in the DFL primary.

“Obviously if something like that were to happen, I wouldn’t consider it a fair convention, and I wouldn’t abide,” Hansen said. He added, describing his hopes of winning the endorsement: “Really, that’s who I am. I’m a proud member of the DFL.”

Ecklund, a labor organizer with United Steelworkers, has already garnered the nod from that union, as well as the Iron Range Building Trades Council, and is still aiming for the support of the Education Minnesota teachers union.

There’s one endorsement that everyone would want, but no one can get, according to press reports. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, whose Senate District 3 includes the open seat, has told the Pioneer Press that he would let the race play out on its own, but would offer advice to anyone who sought it.

Brown suspects that the Senate leader would stick to his word publicly, but figured he, and others, might still look to swing the outcome one way or the other.

“I don’t believe anybody in this part of the state is going to be neutral, at least privately,” Brown said. “Everybody’s got an interest in this one.”

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