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No love lost: how the Otto-Entenza race became the most contentious campaign in Minnesota

Well-known Democrat Matt Entenza has a shot to unseat incumbent State Auditor Rebecca Otto in the DFL primary. Why he wants to do so is another matter. 

Earlier this summer, the mailboxes of likely Democratic voters in Minnesota began filling up with political pamphlets. Party activists spent hours making phone calls and knocking on doors. And candidates crisscrossed the state, even while slick campaign ads popped up on television and the web.

All this for an office that even the candidates admit few people have heard of.

Welcome to 2014 Democratic primary for the Office of State Auditor, where two-term State Auditor Rebecca Otto is facing a last-minute challenge in the Aug. 12 Democratic primary from the DFL’s bête noire, former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, who threw his name into the race just minutes before the filing deadline this year.

What the auditor does is pretty straightforward. The office is constitutionally charged with the task of auditing the more than $20 billion spent each year by local governments.

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Why it’s become the most contentious race in the state this summer is more complicated — and depends a lot on who you ask. 

For Otto and her backers, the race is vintage Entenza. He served as DFL minority leader in the state House from 2003 to 2006 before leaving that position to run for attorney general. When it was discovered he had commissioned negative research on then Attorney General Mike Hatch, he left the race. Four years later, Entenza challenged DFL-endorsed candidate and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher in a three-way primary for the governor’s office. Neither won that contest, with the nomination instead going to current Gov. Mark Dayton.

Otto also believes that Entenza’s interest in being auditor has nothing to do with actually being auditor. Rather, she says, he simply wants to use the office as a springboard to run for one of the two jobs he covets, attorney general or governor. (Both Dayton and former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson previously served as state auditors.) “There isn’t an interest in this office,” Otto said. “He did run for governor, he appears to be running for governor again. … He’s doing mailings talking about policy issues for governor. That should cause great concern for the voters and Democratic activists.”

If you ask Entenza, though, a little competition is good for the DFL Party, which has let the office of the state auditor slip into obscurity, he says. And he has little concern for the hard feelings his run has fostered among DFL leadership, who are not pleased (to put it mildly) that one of their own would launch a surprise challenge to an endorsed incumbent. “I think this is been the most active any auditors race has been in a generation,” he said.

A path to victory?

Entenza likes to mention how both Dayton and former U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone — when he ran for state auditor in 1982 — had visions for the office that were more active than passive.

“[Wellstone] ran as the DFL candidate on the idea that the auditor’s office is bigger than doing accounting,” Entenza said, noting that he’d take a bigger role than the current auditor in protecting the state’s pensions from things like privatization.  “I think it’s a funny argument that we should have a candidate who is not very ambitious and who doesn’t want to really get out there and work hard. What DFL voters want is an auditor who is active and who will raise the profile of the office back to what it was when Dayton held it. If we just want someone to balance the books, let’s not make this an elected position and hire an accounting firm.”

Matt Entenza
Matt Entenza

Whatever anger he’s stirred among party activists, many political operatives agree that Entenza’s bid isn’t a long shot.

The August primary is expected to be marked by low turnout for Democrats, given the absence of other big-ticket races on the DFL ballot. Someone with enough money and name recognition could take advantage of that to upset an incumbent.

Given his decades in politics, Entenza is well-known among Democrats in the state. In 2010, he spent $5 million on his campaign for governor, helped in part by his then-marriage to UnitedHealth executive Lois Quam. This year he has rejected public subsidy in the auditor’s race, meaning he isn’t bound by campaign spending limits.

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Campaign finance reports for the two candidates aren’t due out yet, but Otto said she’s concerned by his unwillingness to abide by spending limits. “[State auditor doesn’t] have to run on big policy issues,” Otto said. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to do that.”

Entenza said he’s had less time to fundraise and campaign than Otto, but his spending totals will not touch the amount he spent in 2010. 

Entenza is also trying to chip away at Otto’s support in two key parts of the DFL base — progressives and Iron Range laborers. The latter are in the midst of a battle over the nonferrous mining project PolyMet, which Rangers say will create jobs but environmentalists say could damage the area’s rivers and lakes for hundreds of years to come. Otto drew the ire of Iron Range Democrats last fall when she used her position on the state’s executive council to vote against approval of a handful of mining leases. She then sent out a fundraising solicitation noting her vote.

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“Dump Otto” signs quickly popped up in Range towns after the vote. “The Iron Range is the only part of the state where, when I say I’m running for auditor, they seem to know anything about the auditor at all,” said Entenza, who’s earned the backing of a handful of labor unions, including the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association and the hospitality union, UNITE HERE Local 17.

At the same time, Entenza is also trying to attack Otto’s progressive credentials, noting her vote in favor of photo identification-type legislation and an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment during her brief stint as a state legislator in 2003 and 2004.

“His pathway to victory is very narrow and very complicated,” DFL operative Darin Broton, who works with the Tunheim consulting firm, said of Entenza’s strategy. “How many voters does that actually get him? No one has a clear sense.”

Distaste from the DFL

Nothing exemplifies the intensity of the race more than the complaint Entenza filed against Otto soon after entering the race. Filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings, it argued that Otto misled voters in a Facebook post about her past photo identification vote. Though the complaint was dismissed last week, Congressman Keith Ellison, a longtime friend of Entenza, cited his opposition to issues like photo identification when he made his endorsement of Entenza.

Otto is banking on her record and people’s distaste for Entenza’s style to help win out at the end of the day. Otto said she has been a good steward of public funds — and that’s what the job is. “I work really hard to make sure people can trust their government and that we have transparent financial transactions,” Otto said. “Our local governments provide us with things like fire fighters and police officers and parks. It’s the stuff that’s closest to us in our communities, and I work to help our local officials understand how to do things right.”

State Auditor Rebecca Otto
State Auditor Rebecca Otto

If she’s re-elected, Otto wants to commission a massive report to identify infrastructure needs around the state. “I have a very strong record and strong credentials and there has never been a scandal under my watch,” she said. “Matt doesn’t understand the job. You don’t hand out money. It’s oversight. It’s not glamorous. You don’t have the press corps chasing you with cameras.”

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DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin has been particularly unhappy over the whole affair, and the party is doing everything it can to prove their endorsement matters. Activists have been doing phone banking dropping campaign literature on Otto’s behalf — resources that could have been spent on other tough races this summer and fall, said Martin.

“It just goes to show that Matt Entenza is so blindly ambitious that he would put his own party into that position,” Martin said. “It’s really disgusting in a lot of ways. Matt might think he’s helping himself out, which he is obviously trying to do, but he’s hurting other candidates up and down the ballot.”

Democrats aren’t unfamiliar with primary races — it’s been a part of DFL politics in Minnesota for years. Entenza noted that after he lost the DFL primary to Dayton in 2010, the governor pulled him on as a senior advisor on economic issues.

But activists say the way Entenza went about challenging Otto this time is different. He filed with little warning and time to spare instead of being open about his intentions. His history of hard-knuckled campaigning also doesn’t help. 

DFL activist Nancy Larson is supporting Otto and ran for state auditor once herself. “It’s a race where you generally get no attention,” she said. “I don’t think this is going to be something that will just slip away…if he wins we will do what we can to get him elected, but it’s going to be hard and people will still have a bad taste in their mouth.”