The Republicans and the DFL are fielding the finest slate of legislative candidates they’ve ever had. All of their candidates are bright, hard-working, innovative, stellar members of their communities, who have the best interests of Minnesota in their souls.
It’s been ever thus.
Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, the House majority leader, and Michael Brodkorb, deputy chairman of the state’s Republican Party, laughingly agree with the assessment of the outstanding quality of candidates of their respective parties.
“We’ve got more talent than the 1980 Olympic hockey team,” says Brodkorb.
Sertich added that not only are all DFL candidates fabulous but “Don’t forget this is the most important election of our lifetime.”
Cliches aside, what’s happening in the door-to-door campaigns being waged throughout the state for control of Minnesota’s House and Senate? All 201 seats are up for election Tuesday.
Republicans still hold hope that they can move from minority to gavel-wielding majority with a sweeping victory. That’s a huge order, given the DFL’s current 87-47 House majority and 46-21 Senate majority.
Meantime, DFLers seem to accept the notion that they’re likely to lose seats but still expect to hold onto their majorities.
Sertich, who because of his House position is sort of coach/mentor for DFL House candidates, urges his charges to forget such things as national mood (which has been favoring Republicans) and gubernatorial politics (neither DFLer Mark Dayton nor Republican Tom Emmer offer much in the way of coattails). Instead, he says, DFL candidates must pound on local issues: schools, nursing homes, jobs, jobs, jobs.
The weakness of the Republican approach, Sertich believes, is that it’s attempting to make local races referendums on “Obamacare,” Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
Brodkorb agrees that Republican candidates are tying federal policies to state legislative races.
“We learned that from the Democrats,” Brodkorb says. “In the last few elections, you would have thought that George W. Bush was running in every legislative district. I guess you could say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Besides, he says, what’s happening in Washington is being mimicked by DFLers right in our own backyards.
One other overview: In recent elections, the DFL has managed to pull off victories in surprising places.
“We’ve won every close race,” says Sertich, implying that likely won’t happen again.
For example, since the elections of 2006 and 2008, the DFL has managed to win all of the legislative seats in Senate District 56 (the eastern suburbs, including Woodbury) and District 38 (Eagan and Burnsville).
Brodkorb says those should be Republican seats. “Rental seats” is how he describes the DFL’s current hold.
This election is filled with nail-biter races that will ultimately decide which party is in control next January. Here’s a look at a few particularly interesting races, two House races and two Senate ones:
House District 17B
The district, made up of Chisago County, includes such communities as Center City, Chisago, Taylors Falls and Wyoming. The seat has been held for two terms by DFLer Jeremy Kalin, who knocked out a Republican, Pete Nelson, by 1 percentage point in 2006. Kalin announced he was leaving during the 2010 session.
This open-seat race offers the classic showdown between a Tea Party conservative, Bob Barrett, and a more traditional candidate, DFLer Cindy Erickson.
Barrett has only one dispute with that description of the race: “I represented Tea Party values before there ever was a Tea Party.”
An accountant by trade, he isn’t hesitant to bring national politics into the district.
“He [President Obama] and his group of people are throwing a lot of money at issues, but nothing is being solved,” says Barrett, who also stresses his conservative social values.
People in the district, he says, are angry over falling home values and rising property taxes. They’re angry over foreclosures and school cutbacks. (The North Branch school district is among those in the state now on a four-day week.)
The problem isn’t enough money — it’s the way it’s being spent, Barrett says. The school funding, for example, could be solved simply by creating equity in funding across the state. If state funding for schools were more equitable, he argues, the North Branch school district would have ample funds to hold classes five days a week.
As for the rest of the state budget problem, he believes that there are simply too many public employees — and too much government.
Barrett says that he’s “pretty well known” in the area because of the letters to the editor he’s been writing for years denouncing big government.
Erickson’s message is far more nuanced. She and Barrett do agree that the North Branch school issue is brought about by the lack of equity in state funding for schools, but as she knocks on doors, she tries to connect the dots between Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s no-new-taxes policies and the rise in property taxes.
“I’m trying to get the message out on how so many of the costs have been shifted to property taxes,” she says. “I don’t know how many people are aware of the connection between the policies [of Gov. Tim Pawlenty] and the property taxes.”
She says her political tent is far bigger than Barrett’s.
“He talks about business, making our business climate like South Dakota’s,” she says. For her part, she’s trying to reach out to moderates — “people in this district didn’t like Franken, but they love Klobuchar” — as well as the environmentalists who so enthusiastically supported Kalin.
By the end of this campaign, Erickson, a businesswoman, says she will have knocked on more than 8,000 doors in the district.
House District 57A
The district, located in the southeastern portion of the metro area, includes Newport, St. Paul Park, the western half of Cottage Grove and a portion of South St. Paul. The seat has been held by DFLer Karla Bigham, who decided to step down after two years. It has traditionally been a seat controlled by the DFL.
Whenever Republican legislative candidates tell Brodkorb how hard campaigning is, he points to John Kriesel, the party’s 29-year-old candidate in his race against DFLer Jen Peterson.
Kriesel is a vet who lost both his legs in a bomb blast in Iraq in 2006. And yet, he’s pounding on doors at a furious pace, using a Segway to move from house to house.
“I don’t get near cliffs,” says Kriesel, a reference to Jimi Heselden, the British owner of Segway, who died recently when he went over a cliff while riding the vehicle on his property.
Kriesel, an attractive conservative candidate in all ways, is a Vikings fan (he’s a regular voice on a morning sports radio program), the author of a book (“Still Standing: The Story of SSG John Kriesel”), funny, self-deprecating, empathetic and low-key on rhetoric.
“The thing I hear people say is they’re tired of the ‘mad’ tone in politics,” Kriesel says. “I’m different. I think the tone can be changed. It starts with one guy. It’s like the military. When you’re on a mission, you work together to get the job done. … I tell people, it took two parties to drive us into the ditch. It’s going to take us all working together to get out of the ditch.”
That said, Kriesel does believe that the unified mission should be to reduce the size of government.
Unlike many Republican candidates, Kriesel isn’t spending much time campaigning against Washington.
“I’m running for the Minnesota House,” he says.
In the process, he’s getting national support. Even Karl Rove wrote a check for Kriesel.
Jen Peterson, the DFL’s candidate, also has a compelling personal story to tell. Following a divorce from her first husband, she was left with four young children, little education and virtually no child support from her ex. With the help of public assistance, she got her degree in physical therapy, founded a nonprofit advocacy group of single moms, was elected to the Cottage Grove City Council and became president of the board of directors of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium.
While Kriesel speaks in general terms on such issues as transportation funding and health care, Peterson pounds on the specifics of government programs. Republicans counter her knowledge of issues by calling her a career politician.
Clearly, DFLers are concerned about going up against a “rock star” veteran. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher have made visits to the district in support of Peterson, who admits it can be frustrating running against a celebrity.
“Basically, he doesn’t talk about the issues in the district,” she says. “I think he’s afraid to talk about the issues.”
Transportation is one of the many issues she talks up at her doorway stops.
“We’re so far behind in transportation,” she says, “and transit is about jobs. I try to put it in the context of jobs.”
Additionally, she talks of the difficulties faced by single women, who often are heads of households. Among other things, she said she would push legislation that would demand more financial accountability from fathers who leave behind spouses/partners and their children.
She says that the Republican Party has spent heavily in the district, mailing out “five pieces of hit literature” against her.
Ultimately, though, she says she’s confident that the district will be true to its DFL roots.
Senate District 15
The district includes Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties and the city of St. Cloud as well as such communities as Rockville, St. Augusta and Waite Park. The seat opened when DFLer Tarryl Clark, who first won the seat in a special election in 2005, stepped down to take on U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.)
Bruce Hentges, the DFLer running for the seat Clark vacated, has a simple story that underscores education funding problems.
In earlier years when he was a coach (baseball and football at St. Cloud Tech), coaches were prohibited from holding any sort of fundraisers. Now, all coaches and many classroom teachers find themselves holding various forms of fundraisers to keep their teams and classes functioning.
Hentges, running in what Republicans believe is a basically conservative district, calls himself a centrist. Yet, when the issue is education, he’s not afraid to stand up for teachers.
“Some of the reforms people [including his Republican opponent John Pederson] talk about are just covers for not giving education the support it needs,” Hentges says.
A middle child in a family of 10 kids, Hentges said that some of his siblings are conservatives, others progressives. They all have figured out how to get along, although sometimes he chides the conservatives in his family.
“I tell them, ‘Sometimes I wish I was conservative. They have simple answers for everything.’ ”
This is a huge race almost buried from sight by the millions being spent in the Bachmann-Clark race.
But, like so many others, it is a classic in presenting widely divergent views of the role of government.
John Pederson is not a Tea Party conservative — but he is a rock-ribbed conservative businessman who believes “that government spending is clearly a problem.” He also believes that economic recovery is slow because business leaders don’t know “the costs they are going to be dealing with in terms of things like taxes and health care.”
He traces many of the problems in public education to the refusal of the teachers union Education Minnesota to accept reforms and says that because Hentges is a retired teacher and school administrator, “he’s influenced by one of the largest pressure groups in Minnesota.”
A St. Cloud City Council member, he believes that he’s proven that he can “listen to both sides” and that his is the type of personality needed in the Legislature.
“The thing you hear over and over again is that people are tired of the partisan gridlock,” says Pederson, who says that “though I’m endorsed by the Republicans, I’m running as John Pederson.”
Hentges, laughing, agrees with Pederson that people in the district often are complaining about “partisan gridlock.”
“But,” he said, “it depends on your point of view who is causing the problem.”
Key to the race in this district, Hentges says, is who can attract the independent voters.
Senate District 28
The district includes such cities as Red Wing, Cannon Falls, Wabasha and Lake City.
Perhaps no legislative race so clearly underscores the fundamental DFL problem as this one. Going back to 1992, Sen. Steve Murphy was able to post solid, though not overwhelming, victories, in the district that probably leans right of center. When Murphy announced his retirement last session, no locally prominent DFLer stepped up to try to hold onto the seat.
Meantime, Red Wing Mayor John Howe was ready to leap into the fray on the Republican side. Howe — gasp! — doesn’t believe Minnesota’s problems are because “we don’t pay enough taxes.” Rather, he will do everything possible to “reduce the footprint of government.”
Of course. Yet, Howe is well known in the district and is picking up local newspaper endorsements. Old Republicans like to say the reason Murphy retired when he did is because he knew he’d be facing Howe.
Instead of an old pro like Murphy, however, Howe is matched against a newcomer, 29-year-old Joe Fricke, who has completed law school but has not yet attempted to pass his bar.
He isn’t exactly a rookie when it comes to working for the public.
“I picked up garbage for the city of Red Wing,” he says. “I love physical work.”
Not only is he short on name recognition in the district, he’s underfinanced.
“We have quite a few signs,” he said of his campaign, which is focused on improvement of public education and statewide infrastructure. “It all needs help. We’re slipping, and it’s obvious to anyone who pays attention.”
The mayor, he says, is a frustrating opponent “because he changes depending on what group he’s talking to. Sometimes he talks big about ‘no new taxes,’ and then I turn around and he’s talking to another group and saying, ‘I’m running as a Republican, but I’m really an independent.”
Fricke isn’t ready to give up the fight, but he appears to be overmatched.
“It’s not inconceivable that I’ll win,” he said, “but it’s really tough.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.