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3rd District Democrat Jim Meffert says he's ready for his steep uphill run against Rep. Erik Paulsen

Jim Meffert's got this going for him: He already knows how the Republican Party and 3rd District U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen  will campaign this fall. 

 "They'll ignore me and run against big government," said Meffert, a first-time candidate for public office who won the DFL endorsement for the suburban district last weekend.

So that's the good news. He knows his opponent's strategy. 

The bad news for Meffert is that it's pretty much the same strategy that's worked for Republicans in the 3rd District since 1961, when Clark MacGregor won the seat and held it for a decade before passing it on to Bill Frenzel, who held onto it for two decades before passing it on to Jim Ramstad, who had it for 18 years before passing it on to Paulsen, who is completing his first term. 

That looks a lot like a trend.

Jim Meffert
Jim Meffert

His message: solving problems
But in these heady days following his sixth-ballot endorsement victory over Dr. Maureen Hackett, Meffert is buoyant. He's confident in his message, "I'll talk about what we can do to solve problems."

And he's also confident that 3rd District voters will recognize that Paulsen is not the moderate Republican that his predecessors were.

"Jim Ramstad would never have been playing to that Tea Party crowd," Meffert said, noting that Paulsen was one of the warm-up speakers at the big Michele Bachmann-Sarah Palin rally at the convention center.

Of course, the big congressional race in Minnesota, the one that will draw national attention and national money, is the 6th District race between Bachmann and either DFL-endorsed candidate Tarryl Clark or Dr. Maureen Reed. (Clark, the endorsed candidate, and Reed will meet in an August primary to determine who is going to run against Bachmann.)

But before votes are cast in November, Meffert is convinced people are going to be watching this 3rd District race closely, too.

Certainly, the two major candidates (the Independence Party surely will offer a third option), will present voters with hugely contrasting views of government's role in shaping our culture.

On the issue of the economy, for example, the quiet-spoke Paulsen pounds on the theme that government is the problem, not the solution.

Meffert's views are vastly different. In the area of jobs and the economy, for instance, he says it would take five years of 5 percent quarterly growth to bring the unemployment rate down to 6 per cent.

His solution? "We need to look to what FDR did during the Great Depression and invest in our future while putting people back to work," he writes in one of his policy papers.


Reminders of Wellstone
This race, he said, eventually is going to remind people of Paul Wellstone's come-out-of-nowhere Senate win over Rudy Boschwitz in 1990 and Tim Walz's stunning 1st District upset of  omfortable incumbent Gil Gutknecht in 2006.

Meffert spent considerable time talking to Walz before getting into this race in the first place.

"Does it make sense?" he asked Walz.

"It does," said Walz.

He talked to others, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Democratic members of Congress from other suburban districts in the nation.

"Everybody was encouraging," he said.

But, of course, in other years, other Democrats have been encouraged to run in the 3rd  and all have run into a wall.

Meffert is not a standard-issue Democrat. He was born into a Republican family in Marshall, was president of the St. Olaf College Republicans, a position from which he was purged, he said, for being too moderate.

In 1986, he worked on behalf of Republican candidate - and good friend - Cal Ludeman in a failed race against incumbent Gov. Rudy Perpich.


Perpich meeting inspired party switch
But ultimately, it was a breakfast meeting featuring Perpich in 1990 that began pushing Meffert closer to the Democratic Party.

"Here's this guy I couldn't stand," said Meffert. "I came into that meeting thinking Perpich was crazy. But then, hearing him talk about his vision for the University of Minnesota, light rail, all of these things, I couldn't help but be impressed."

In 1992, he made the switch. He was living in Evanston, Ill., at the time, standing in a voting booth, deciding whether to vote for the incumbent Republican president, George Bush, or Bill Clinton.

He voted for Clinton and hasn't looked back.

In an interview this week, Meffert started talking about the plights of the jobless, the uninsured and impoverished children receiving inadequate educations.

It was noted that he sounded like such classic Democrats as Paul Wellstone and Walter Mondale.

"Don't forget Hubert Humphrey," Meffert responded.  "The Constitution starts, 'We the people,' not 'I the person.' … You're going to get tired of hearing me talk about 180,000 kids in poverty in Minnesota. But that's a fact, and it shouldn't be. We have to help families. That's our calling."

But is that the call that 3rd District voters will hear?

Meffert, 42, and his wife, Karrin, have three young children. He has been an activist, especially in regards to children and education. He's a past president of the Minnesota PTA and led or served on a number of boards pushing education issues. He will continue in his job as executive director of the Minnesota Optometric Association as he campaigns.

Erik Paulsen
Erik Paulsen

The 3rd District is huge and diverse. It runs from working-class east Bloomington, through the prosperous western suburbs to northern suburbs and exurbs. It's the wealthiest district in the state but includes pockets of those struggling economically, including the Hmong, Somali and Hispanic populations.

Like Ashwin Madia, the 3rd District Democratic candidate two years ago, Meffert points out that the stats show the district isn't the reliably Republican district of years gone by. It's almost an even mix of Republicans and Democrats, and it's a district that Obama carried with almost 200,000 votes, while John McCain, former Sen. Norm Coleman and Paulsen each garnered about 176,000 votes. But in races since the presidential election, Democratic candidates have found it difficult to get many of those Obama supporters back to the polls.

"We're going to be everywhere [in the district]," Meffert said.

His supporters, he said, will even be knocking on doors Saturday in the neighborhoods around South View Middle School in Edina, which is where Paulsen will be endorsed by his party for a second term.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

Good article. The composition of many suburban districts in the country has seemed to undergo a sea change in the last election. I'm still a little skeptical on the 3rd District having grown up there and watched it over the last 40 years.