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Voters give political parties a ‘reality check’ Tuesday

Tuesday’s primary election gives Minnesota voters the chance to approve political parties’ endorsed candidates or put a challenger on the Nov. 4 general-election ballot instead.

Party activists have already endorsed their chosen candidates for the U.S. Senate, the highest-profile race, as well as for eight congressional seats and for members of the state House of Representatives.

Several nonpartisan races are up for grabs, too, ranging from local soil and water supervisors to state Supreme Court justices. Six school districts also have funding issues on the ballot.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said election officials expect a turnout at most polls of 10 percent to 15 percent, depending on whether the precinct has any hotly contested local races. That’s about average for a primary election in Minnesota, Ritchie said.

The primary will serve as a trial run for what’s expected to be the usual  large turnout in November for a presidential election. As a result, some polls  will be staffed with more volunteers than usual so that they can test their systems for November.

“We’ll get a lot of feedback based on how it goes tomorrow,” Ritchie said.

Here’s a brief look at some of the key political contests and school-funding referenda:

U.S. Senate
The DFL and Independence parties’ endorsed candidates face the high-profile challengers for the right to face Republican incumbent, Sen. Norm ColemanAl Franken won the DFL endorsement at the party’s convention in June. A former donor to his campaign, lawyer Priscilla Lord Faris, later said she would run against him in the primary, citing Franken’s professional past as problematic for his election chances. Also running in the DFL primary are: Alve Erickson, Rob Fitzgerald, Dick Franson, Bob Larson, and Ole Savior.

Stephen Williams, who won the Independence Party endorsement, is handing out his business cards across the state in an effort to defeat another crowded field of competitors to represent his party in November. He faces competition from two IP stalwarts — former Sen. Dean Barkley (who entered the race after former Gov. Jesse Ventura flirted with the idea but then declined) and Jack Uldrich (former IP chairman). Others in the race include: Kurt Michael Anderson, Bill Dahn, Darryl Stanton and Doug Williams.

On the Republican side, Coleman faces the election’s sparsest — and, perhaps, strangest — primary challenge. His only opponent is Jack Sheperd, a former Minneapolis dentist who moved to Italy in 1982 after he was convicted of drug possession and criminal sexual conduct. He’s also been accused of arson.

Congressional races
The secretary of state’s office is expecting one of the largest turnouts in District 1 in the state’s southeastern corner, where the GOP’s endorsed candidate, Mayo Clinic physician Brian Davis, faces a challenge from state Sen. Dick Day of Owatonna. The winner will go up against the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Tim Walz, in November. In District 7, two Republicans, Alan Roebke and Glen Menze, are facing off to challenge Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson. Two members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation also face low-profile challengers from within their own party. In District 5, Gregg A. Iverson is running against Rep. Keith Ellison, and in District 6, Aubrey Immelman is looking to oust Rep. Michele Bachmann.

State House races
The most-discussed legislative primary races include one for Rep. Willie Dominguez‘s seat in District 58B in North Minneapolis. The incumbent legislator lost the DFL endorsement to attorney Bobby Joe Champion and now faces him in the primary. Also, two DFLers, Jeff Hayden and Harry Grigsby, in South Minneapolis’ District 61B are vying for the seat vacated by Neva Walker.

On the Republican side, a member of the infamous “Override Six,” Rep. Neal Peterson, lost his party’s endorsement to challenger Jan Schneider for the District 41B seat. Another Republican who voted to override the governor’s transportation bill veto, Rep. Jim Abeler, is in a three-way race in District 48B in which the party didn’t endorse. He faces Tom Hackbarth and Don Huizenga. And in District 53A, the endorsed candidate, John Kappler, faces a challenge from former state Sen. Mary (Madelyn) Reiter.

District Court judicial seats are up for grabs in both Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Minnesota Lawyer recently wrote primers for the nonpartisan races. In Hennepin County, Paula Brummel, Elizabeth “Liz” Cutter, David L. Piper, Jane Ranum, Thomas R. Sheran, and Cheri Sudit are vying to succeed retiring District Judge Thomas Wexler.

In Ramsey County, seven lawyers are seeking to replace retiring Judge John Finley. They are: Joy D. Bartscher, Gail Chang Bohr, Richard F. Carlson, Jr, Paul Godfrey, John P. Guzik, Connie S. Iversen, Howard R. Orenstein and James C. Snyder Sr.

School district referenda
Fewer Minnesota school districts will ask voters for money for students or buildings this fall compared with last year, at least in part because it’s a presidential election year.

Only six districts will be on Tuesday’s primary election ballot, including Brooklyn Center, which is trying for the sixth time to coax residents to pass a tax increase.

“Referenda are always lower in presidential years because it’s almost impossible to get your message out when the media is falling all over itself with the presidential elections, senatorial elections and state elections,” said Greg Abbott, spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association. “I think a lot are thinking, ‘We’re just going to wait until the presidential election is over.’ “

A recent survey by the school boards group shows at least 37 districts, including Minneapolis, (PDF) Duluth  and suburban Osseo, will go to voters Nov. 4 asking them to pass tax levies to provide more operating money.  Two districts, Brooklyn Center and Red Wing, are seeking such levies Tuesday, according to the association survey.

Nine districts will hold referendums Nov. 4 to raise money for bonding or capital facilities projects, and four outstate districts will seek bonding authority Tuesday. 

Numbers for the general election are preliminary because school districts have until Friday to alert the state of plans to hold levy and bond referenda.

In the Brooklyn Center district, the need is desperate, according to Superintendent Keith Lester. He notes that 70 percent of about 1,800 students there qualify for free or reduced-lunch rates and that 24 percent have limited English, The district has cut $5 million in expenses since 2001 and needs more money to run its schools, Lester said.

Brooklyn Center’s request for a tax increase — or as officials and others call it a “learning levy,” because the money goes to students, rather than buildings — would cost an average homeowner in the district $5 a month. “Our backs are up against the wall. We have to do something. We’re hoping that this is the thing,” Lester said.

Earlier this year, eight school districts went for a levy vote for operating funds, and 14 sought bonding authority or a capital-facilities request. (Five of the eight levy proposals failed, as did six of the bonding 14 bonding/buildings requests; several other bonding measures passed in part.)

The 2008 totals so far have 47 districts seeking operating funds and 28 looking for money to build or remodel facilities. Last year, levy requests numbered 101 and bond referenda were 45.

To see a complete list of all districts with ballot initiatives, go here.

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