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Embattled Sen. Satveer Chaudhary faces two DFL primary opponents: a former legislator — and himself

The suburban race between him and Rep. Barb Goodwin is shaping up as one of the election’s most interesting primary races — largely because of his political problems. He’s been stripped of party endorsement and faces a big tax bill.

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary faces two big opponents in his suburban re-election bid in what may be the most interesting legislative primary race in the state this year.

There’s former state Rep. Barb Goodwin. Tough as she is, his bigger opponent may be himself.

A DFL committee stripped Chaudhary — a three-term senator, two-term House member and the state’s first Asian-American legislator — of its endorsement a month ago and bestowed it on Goodwin.

The action came after Chaudhary got his wrist slapped by a Senate ethics committee for quietly — in the last days of the session — arranging to add new walleye regulations to a DNR bill that would affect fishing on a Duluth area lake where he has a cabin.

Even more damaging headlines followed. The Duluth News Tribune reported that the senator owed $250,000 in taxes for the years 2007 and 2008.

Differing views of where things stand
So, given all that, how goes the campaign?

“I’m more positive than people think I would be,” said Chaudhary, whose Senate District 50 covers such north suburban communities as Columbia Heights, Fridley and New Brighton. “There are some people who are mad at me, but those are the people who were against me anyway.”

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary
Sen. Satveer Chaudhary

The “revocation” of his endorsement — a rarity in Minnesota politics — “has worked both ways.”

“From what I can tell, the larger base of DFLers didn’t feel it rose to the level where that should have happened,” Chaudhary said. “They’ve stuck with me. I’ve been so blessed by people who are coming out to support me.”

Since he lost the endorsement and faced the other negative headlines, he’s received endorsements from Minneapolis police and firefighters, Chaudhary says.

Goodwin, though, says she also is pleased with the amount of support she’s quickly picked up. She had said she would get into the race only if Chaudhary lost his endorsement.

The winner of the DFL primary will face the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, Gina Bauman, a small-business owner and a two-term member of the New Brighton City Council.

Goodwin says that while campaigning, she frequently is being thanked for offering district voters an alternative, she said adding that people in the district are “embarrassed and angry” about Chaudhary’s problems.

A three-term House member who stepped down in 2006, she says even the recent negative headlines about her opponent don’t tell the whole story about Chaudhary’s political problems.

Goodwin says that the incumbent has weakened himself over the years by failing to doing the basics of politics. Her claims: He frequently fails to show up for meetings both during session, and, more importantly, back at the district. And he’s slow to return phone calls.

“I wasn’t shocked that he was in trouble,” Goodwin said. “It [political office] has been all about him.”

Chaudhary makes his case
Chaudhary denies he’s got St. Paul Fever, the affliction many legislators suffer after they’re elected. The disease includes such symptoms as a belief that the Capitol is the center of the universe, a loss of humility and an inability to listen.

Chaudhary says he’s been a model of “collaboration” both inside and outside the Capitol.

“Sometimes, when you help make changes, some people get upset because they want things done the way they’ve always been done,” Chaudhary said.

He points to his work in support of the Legacy Amendment and the citizens’ committee as examples of working effectively inside and outside the Capitol. Additionally, he said, he’s worked to bring together such disparate groups as ATV riders and bird watchers so that meaningful environmental legislation can be passed with support from a cross-section of Minnesotans.

It is his enthusiastic support of conservation and environment, he says, that led to the insertion of the Fish Lake walleye language in a bill that eventually was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“I accept responsibility [for taking shortcuts on the Fish Lake language insertion],” Chaudhary said, “but I’ll never apologize for fighting for conservation.”

It is that lack of a total apology — “I was wrong!” — that didn’t help his efforts in holding onto his endorsement.

But he likely will maintain at least much of the support of the outdoor organizations — hunters, anglers, ATVers and snowmobilers — he’s enjoyed in the past. It’s not so clear whether the environmentalists, who have supported him in the past, will stick with him on primary day.

In fact, he and Goodwin have similar stands on most issues.

Goodwin stresses her strengths
Goodwin, a member of the Columbia Heights Board of Education, is stressing her longtime community activism and her personal style as reasons to support her. She has a reputation as a strong legislator who is not afraid to tackle some unpopular issues. Goodwin, for example, was a critic of the high amount the state spends on consulting contracts.

She is well known on the east side of the district, which she represented, Goodwin said, and therefore is spending considerable time door-knocking on the west side. Given her late entry into the race, she says she’s pleased with the amount of financial support she’s been able to generate. Her lawn signs and literature are now distributed throughout the district.

Barb Goodwin
Barb Goodwin

Chaudhary says his tax problems — and they seem huge — are the result of his wife’s “wrongful termination” from a biopharmaceutical company, Celgene. A complaint has been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

That termination, the senator said, forced him and his wife to make some complex transactions in order to exercise some stock options. The couple, he said, has been working closely with the IRS and that the problem soon will be resolved.

“I love the IRS,” Chaudhary said.

He has had an extraordinary career. Born and raised in Fridley of parents who emigrated from India, he’s accomplished a number of political firsts among people of Indian descent. U.S. citizens of Indian descent have strong national organizations that have been strong financial supporters of candidates such as Chaudhary. He said he will continue to receive that support.

Chaudhary also noted that with the retirements of two Hmong legislators from St. Paul (Sen. Mee Moua and Rep. Cy Thao) if he loses the primary, the Legislature could be without any lawmakers of Asian heritage.

“That’s an important thing to consider,” he said.

He believes that one reason he was stripped of his endorsement is because he didn’t originally play the party game in supporting House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL’s endorsed candidate, for governor. Initially, he backed Mark Dayton but switched to Kelliher before the committee meeting where his own endorsement was re-considered.

He made that switch, he said, because “Dayton had distanced himself” from him when Chaudhary’s ethics issues started making headlines.

His feelings toward the DFL now?

“I’ve always been a free-thinking DFLer,” Chaudhary said. “I’ve never considered myself an arm of the party. But I am a living, breathing part of DFL principles.”

But so is Goodwin.

“People worried that voters [in the district] would be disgusted with the whole party,” she said, “and that we could lose the seat. But I don’t think that will happen. Originally, he had some diehard support, but I believe that is coming over. It’s a wild and crazy ride, but I feel good about the way I’m being greeted.”

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