Editor’s note: This is the third installment of an occasional series examining key legislative races in the Minnesota House and Senate.
If he is re-elected, House District 5B Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, hopes to institute legislative term limits.
GOP challenger Sandy Layman would like to accommodate him by defeating Anzelc on Nov. 8 and limiting him to the five terms he has already served. Layman is campaigning, in part, on reforming the MNsure health insurance exchange.
Long a DFL stronghold, District 5B is a seat Republicans think they can flip. Ben Golnick, the House Republicans’ majority caucus executive director, told an audience at an Oct. 12 Minnesota Government Relations Council legislative forum that 5B is among the handful of state House races where the GOP is playing offense.
The odds there are improved, Golnick said, by the ballot presence of Green Party candidate Dennis Barsness, a Bovey environmentalist. He is at best a long shot — in Barsness’ most recent campaign filing he had just $46 in the bank. But if he can collect even a small percentage of the vote, Golnick said, it could determine the outcome.
“Our candidate can win with maybe 47 or 48 percent of the vote,” Golnick said.
GOP-leaning independent groups clearly share his optimism. Independent expenditures backing Layman, a former Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board commissioner, totaled $72,742 at the Sept. 27 independent expenditures filing deadline, according to Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board data.
Almost $40,000 of that money came from Pro Jobs Majority, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s PAC. The House Republican Campaign Committee, chaired by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, spent another $19,400. The rest came from the Northstar Leadership Fund, a group chaired by Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver.
Anzelc has significantly less outside money working for him. The DFL House Caucus spent $19,600 on his behalf as of Sept. 27, while the Planned Parenthood of Minnesota Political Action Fund spent $8,156. The candidate had just short of $11,000 cash on hand at the July candidates’ financial disclosure deadline, though he said he has raised more money since then. The next disclosures are due Oct. 31.
Potential GOP pickup
Asked why he thinks he isn’t getting big money backing from the Alliance for a Better Minnesota or other pro-DFL independents, Anzelc said they probably don’t think he will lose. He thinks he knows why so much money is being thrown behind Layman.
“They want her and they don’t want me,” he said. “Big business and the corporations know what they are going to get if Sandy Layman is the representative from this district.”
Barbara Headrick, chair of the Department of Economics, Law and Politics and Minnesota State University, Moorhead, thinks Anzelc might be right that outside groups are confident of his victory. Then again, maybe that’s not why he has yet to benefit from their largesse.
“Those groups might just be missing this one,” she said. That Layman has so much more money behind her is significant to Headrick. “Somebody thinks that the Republican can win,” she said.
The wild card in the race, Headrick said, is Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and whether its impact will help or hinder either candidate. She thinks that the Republican nominee’s intraparty fights with his ostensible GOP allies, combined with his lurid scandals and other controversies, are more likely to hurt Layman.
“It starts to look like Trump is really going to lose badly,” Headrick said. “That is going to discourage his supporters from turning out because they won’t think voting really makes a difference.”
Over the summer months, there was some talk that the Trump effect would play as a blue-collar bonus for Republicans on the Iron Range. Anzelc acknowledges that, until about eight weeks ago, that seemed true. Lately, he said, he gets a different impression.
“I think that has ebbed,” Anzelc said. “Independents, blue-collar Democrats and libertarians — women in particular as a subset of all of those groups — have come to the realization that their flirtation with Donald Trump is not wise.”
As Anzelc competes for his sixth term, economic diversification on the Iron Range is a core issue. Forestry and mining have been good to the area, the former union official said. But they are not enough in today’s global commodities market to sustain the region. As a member of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, Anzelc has recently worked to attract an aviation manufacturer to Grand Rapids.
Asked what legislative initiative he might press for if re-elected, Anzelc described a draft bill that has been sitting in his desk for some time, though never introduced.
It would enact legislative term limits and eliminate some legislative districts while increasing the population that each remaining legislator represents. Currently, House members represent 40,000 citizens while senators represent 80,000. Anzelc thinks that is archaic. With modern communications technology, he said, politicians could adequately represent many more citizens — though he is not prepared to say exactly how many more.
The bill’s true aim, he said, would be to balance rural and metro legislative power by reducing the number of districts, particularly those concentrated around the Twin Cities, Anzelc said.
“If we continue to have the exodus of rural young families moving to the metropolitan area,” he said, “the Legislature is going to be overwhelmingly dominated by the metropolitan area.”
He won’t commit to introducing his bill in 2017, but plans to keep building a bipartisan coalition to support it. “This is very deliberative,” he said. “You can’t just lob something into the process and expect that the Republicans are going to give you a hearing.”
GOP challenger Layman insists that the so-called Trump effect rarely comes up as she campaigns. Partly, it would seem, that is by design. “I am not asking voters about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and they are not bringing up the subject,” she said.
Instead, she said, she is focused on her main campaign theme — putting a business-friendly face on the Iron Range. That is relevant to the capstone legislative initiative that she said she would work on if elected, reforming the MNsure health insurance exchange to extend aid to the self-employed.
Those frequently are people, she said, who make too much money to qualify for subsidies, but not nearly enough to pay the inflated rates now offered among MNsure’s self-purchased insurance plan options.
Gov. Mark Dayton recently acknowledged that the Affordable Care Act was no longer affordable for many Minnesotans. To Layman, that was good news. It means Democrats might now be open to bipartisan MNsure solutions.
To Layman, the self-insured represent a core group. Many run small businesses, she said. One she knows personally is the director of a small nonprofit.
If elected, she said, she would help craft legislation to extend tax breaks or other subsidies to help such people afford health insurance. If needed, she would push for federal waivers to make that possible.
Layman would also work to change state rules to allow insurers to re-enter Minnesota’s self-purchased market sooner than the current five-year waiting period once they leave.
“I would like us to see the Department of Commerce give flexibility to companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield to re-enter sooner, if we can make the conditions more favorable,” Layman said.
All in all, Layman feels good about her election chances. In part, she said, that is because redistricting several years ago pushed her district’s borders a little farther west, where Minnesotans tend to be more conservative.
DFL leadership inadvertently helped her cause, she said, by denigrating the mining industry. When the governor rebuffed the Twin Metals Minnesota copper mine proposal in March, she said, it proved that DFL leaders are anti-mining. That has turned off a lot of Iron Rangers, she said.
“That is a big problem for the DFL in this region,” Layman said. “And it is influencing this race. It is why this race is one to watch.”
Rep. Tom Anzelc
Lives in: Balsam Township
Occupation: Retired labor official, former teacher
Family: Widower (wife, Jane, died in 2000). Partner, Wendy; three daughters, six grandchildren
Lives in: Cohasset
Occupation: Retired consultant; adjunct instructor, College of St. Scholastica; former IRRRB commissioner
Family: Married, husband Bill; two sons, one grandchild