A political melee erupted in DFL circles on St. Paul’s East Side when state Sen. Mee Moua abruptly announced in May that she wouldn’t seek re-election to District 67 seat after nine years on the job.
She’d already been endorsed by local party officials, and it was too late, they decided, to restart the endorsement process to pick a new candidate. So the gates were thrown open, and nine DFL candidates jumped in the race.
Now, without an endorsement in a solid DFL district and party leaders divide among several candidates, it’s considered a toss-up in an election where, given expectations of a very low turnout, 1,000 votes might be enough to win.
Because of the district’s solid DFL history, Tuesday’s winner should have an edge in the Nov. 2 general election, when he or she faces Republican candidate Krysia Weidell and Independence Party candidate Dino Guerin, a former St. Paul City Council member and Ramsey County commissioner.
Because Moua was the first Hmong elected to a state legislature in the nation, it’s not surprising that four of the nine DFL candidates seeking her job are Hmong. With so many in the race though, there’s a likelihood that votes from the large Hmong community will be split.
And even though Moua represented the district for nine years, the district can’t be categorized as a Hmong stronghold, party officials say. The two incumbent state representatives in the district — both DFLers — are Tim Mahoney and Sheldon Johnson.
“I’d have trouble saying one previous incumbent creates a tradition,” said J.P. Barone, the DFL’s 4th Congressional District chair. “St. Paul’s East Side has always been a multicultural neighborhood: the Swedes were in Swede Hollow, and when they moved out, in came the Italians and three or four other ethnic groups have been there to tell the American Dream story.
“The East Side has everything, and in this election, anything can happen.”
The nine candidates, in alphabetical order, are:
• John M. Harrington
• Foung Hawj (Heu)
• Tom Hilber
• Chai Lee
• Vang T. Lor
• Jim McGowan
• Trayshana Thomas
• Avi Viswanathan
• Cha Yang
With the late announcement that the seat was open, lots of hopefuls saw an opening, Barone said.
“They realized they wouldn’t have the benefit of the party backing in the primary, but they also did not face the ethical dilemma of running against an endorsed candidate … It’s unique, and kind of a strange situation,” he said.
“And the party basically said: ‘Go see who’s best — we won’t spend a penny on the primary, but we’ll marshal our resources, and when it’s over, if the winner is deserving of our support, that’s who we’ll put our resources behind.’ “
Barone said DFL supporters in the area have lined up behind their favored candidates and now are working to drum up support from neighbors and friends. Without the party money — and with no candidates throwing money around — the leading candidates are working hard on the traditional door-knocking and phone-calling.
“It’s been very interesting to watch,” Barone said. “And for them, very exhausting.”
Paul Sawyer, the new DFL District 67 chair, says he thinks it could take a few more than 1,000 votes to win the race. He thinks the winner might take 15 to 20 percent of the overall vote. “I’d be surprised if it’s higher than 20 percent.”
Turnout will be low. Barone wondered if only about 6,000 people go to the polls.
“It’s going to be difficult to get people to the polls with the early August primary,” Sawyer agreed. “People don’t seem to have adjusted to the change [from the usual September primary]. Candidates are hearing that many voters aren’t even aware that it’s in August.”
With that many candidates in the race, no one is expecting anything close to a majority of the vote. In theory, a winner could have only12 percent. But four of the candidates — Harrington, Hawj, Lor and Viswanathan — seem to be emerging as leaders in the race, say those watching closely.
Here’s a look at the field:
The Chief: Harrington spent his career as a St. Paul cop and just finished a six-year term as St. Paul’s police chief. After stepping down, he made an unsuccessful run for the top cop job in New Orleans. He then stepped into the Senate race, saying he still has some years of public service left in him. With perhaps the best name recognition, he has to be considered a front-runner, although some say he hasn’t been out on the street as much as some others. He’s endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the teachers union.
The Multimedia Man: Hawj has strong DFL roots in the area and has a multimedia firm called Digital Motion. He’s been on the boards of the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the District 2 Community Council. Supporters include state Rep. Cy Thao, City Council Member Lee Helgen and School Board Member Kazoua Kong-Thao.
The Organizer: Lor is on the DFL’s Affirmative Action Commission and works with TakeAction Minnesota’s Hmong Organizing Program, helping to get Hmong geography and history incorporated into the curriculum of the St. Paul Public Schools. He’s endorsed by TakeAction.
The Former Franken Staffer: Viswanathan had worked as a constituent services staffer for Sen. Al Franken but resigned to run for state office. He’s also been political director for NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota. He was president of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council. Supporters include City Council President Kathy Lantry, School Board Member Vallay Varro and County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. He’s endorsed by the DFL Stonewall Caucus and NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota.
The other DFL candidates
• Hilber is a perennial candidate and political activist.
• Lee works as a constituent service representative in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office. He’s supported by former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel and Pakou Hang, who ran Moua’s 2002 campaign.
• McGowan is a small-business owner and advocate for people with diabetes.
• Thomas has worked in the office of U.S. Rep. Keith Eillison and had served as a legislative assistant to state Sen. Higgins. She lists both as supporters.
• Yang was Minnesota DFL Hmong Campaign Coordinator for John Kerry in 2004.
The general election picture
The DFL winner may face some competition from Guerin, well known from his City Council and County Board days. But he lost his county commissioner job in 2000, when he served 15 days in jail and was fined for writing $35,000 in bad checks.
A St. Paul firefighter, Guerin returned to the public eye last year when he was named a district fire chief.
Sawyer thinks the winning DFL nominee will have a unique challenge facing Guerin, who despite his problems, has strong name recognition in the district.
“[Guerin’s] name is known, but I don’t think it will be insurmountable for the DFL candidate. All nine have pledged to get behind whoever wins the primary, and that’s going to give us great momentum,” he said.
Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politic and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.