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

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.

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.

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.”

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.” 

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/28/2014 - 11:10 am.

    I agree with Entenza

    “If we just want someone to balance the books, let’s not make this an elected position and hire an accounting firm.”

    We could save a lot of taxpayer money by eliminating this constitutional office altogether. If I was the republican candidate, that’s the platform I would run on.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/28/2014 - 01:13 pm.

      Glad to hear from

      the Republican side.
      You and Entenza would make a good match.
      I wonder when Entenza will jump?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/29/2014 - 10:25 am.

      If that truly is what he believes

      If Mr. Entenza believes that the job of Auditor could/should be outsourced to a private concern, then I agree with you, he should be campaigning to abolish the office. He should not be running for the office with the intention of making an extra-constitutional expansion of the office.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 07/28/2014 - 11:17 am.

    Why dump a good State Auditor?

    So far as I can tell, Otto has done a fine job. Entenza builds his negative compaign on insubstantial allegations, and it particularly angers me that Keith Ellison has joined him.

  3. Submitted by Anita Newhouse on 07/28/2014 - 12:06 pm.

    A bad taste

    I still have bad feelings about Matt Entenza from his previous runs for office. He seems to have sociopathic tendencies that, while at first light make him an activated politician, eventually cause one to defend boundaries against his onslaught. Indeed the mailer he sent to my house was hardly a pitch for state auditor. The vast and vague policy language set me back on my heels and at first I too thought that he obviously doesn’t understand the job. The icky feeling of being used to further his personal goals set in and media coverage has only underscored this sense that he’s only in it for Matt. Basically, state auditor is a trust-based position that structurally supports the integrity and credibility of state government from the smallest units to the largest and most integrated. Good government doesn’t work without good oversight. This, of course is why former state auditors can move to the governor’s office and the only reason that I can find-after researching his website and literature- that Matt Entenza is running. I resent his tea party style tactics at the eleventh hour and if progressive platitudes (I am also a progressive), name recognition and fundraising get him through the primary, the DFL stands a very good chance of losing this constitutional office.

  4. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/28/2014 - 12:08 pm.

    How about if he wins I vote for the Republican

    This guy is a self aggrandizing jerk whose incompetence would shine in an office that really has a defined job.

    Time to put Mr. Entenza on the road to political oblivion. He is the kind of politician that gives politicians a bad name.

  5. Submitted by Teresa Holmquist on 07/28/2014 - 01:28 pm.

    I’m watching where his campaign dollars are going.

    On Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this past week, I received a campaign ad from the Entenza campaign. Three, full color, glossy 6.5 x 11″ postcards, one each day.

    The first claims that he “grew up in Worthington in southwest Minnesota”. According to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library (http://www.leg.state.mn.us/legdb/fulldetail.aspx?ID=10163), he moved to Worthington at age 15. Living in a town for 3 years doesn’t really equate to “growing up” there in my book.

    The second attacks Otto’s alleged support of Voter ID laws. The State Auditor’s office doesn’t have anything to do with voter law. Which brings me to the final postcard:

    “I believe the State Auditor should do more than just balance the books…” In this ad, he claims to “work to protect and defend pensions, uncover fraud and end tax breaks for large corporations”. Okay, I can see the protecting pensions, because I think that review of Public pensions are under the responsibilities of the State Auditor. Uncovering fraud, unless it is of a public entity, is more of an Attorney General’s office responsibility. Ending tax breaks for large corporations? That is a job for the State Legislature and the US Congress. The last I checked, tax law was still written by the Legislative branch, not the Executive branch.

    So, how much did these somewhat misleading advertisements cost the campaign? Is this Entenza’s idea of fiscal responsibility? I will be curious to see how much more money he spends on this campaign.

  6. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 07/28/2014 - 03:18 pm.

    Clarification please

    In the following excerpt from the article:

    “…….helped in part by his then-marriage to UnitedHealth executive Lois Quam.”

    What is meant or implied by the phrase “his then-marriage”? Are we to assume he is no longer married to Ms. Quam? If so, why does that matter (other than the fact that I seem to recall she was quite wealthy)?

    If his status as being married to a rich person is included so as to confer some implication as to his ability to self fund a campaign, there must be a clearer way of saying it.

    On the other hand, if it means that he is no longer married to Ms. Quam, then does him not being married to said rich woman make him less or more likely to self fund a campaign?

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/28/2014 - 03:51 pm.

    Entenza’s former marriage was an issue in one of his former failed campaigns; it had to do with whether he could be Atty. General, the office he was seeking, when issues of health care insturance came up. He withdrew, under a bit of a smell. So reminding us of one other of his failed runs for office, at the same time as telling us the former perceived conflicts of interest don’t exist anymore, is efficient.

    I always worry when a political candidate appeals to voters’ ignorance, as Entenza seems to be doing with his misleading way of presenting what the State Auditor does. He’s hitting “hot” buttons for certain groups, but leading the rest of us to the conclusion that either he doesn’t know what the State Auditor does or that he’s a gutter candidate.

    Poor man.

  8. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 07/28/2014 - 04:43 pm.

    Entenza

    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.” ”

    In your dreams Nancy Larson..I will write in Rebecca’s name if he wins!!

    We don’t need Matts type of slime ball politics..!!

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 07/28/2014 - 04:50 pm.

      Agreed

      I agree hands down on a write-in if he wins… although I don’t think he will. He is persona non-grata in the DFL. Ken Martin said it best… “I don’t know who these democrats are who support him, because it’s no-one I’ve talked to.”

      • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/28/2014 - 11:23 pm.

        I’ve run into a total of one supporter of Entenza’s

        while doorknocking, going to public events, whatever. I likewise will not be helping him if somehow he wins the primary. For a race like this, getting on the sample ballot is big, and getting the DFL endorsement to get on the sample ballot is far from certain.

  9. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 07/28/2014 - 05:09 pm.

    Good Intentions, bad tactics.

    Whatever Rebecca Otto voted for as a legislator a decade ago is as irrelevant to the State Auditor Primary Election as Matt Entenza’s successes or lack thereof as a caucus leader in the legislature.

    And it is probably shooting one’s self in the foot to rant about party loyalty, Chair Martin. The Party should of course roll out legions of volunteers for the endorsed candidate. But general election chances for the DFL winner are diminished by name-calling.

    And animosity lasts. Both major parties have lost general elections by tarring their opponents in a Primary.

    I would not consider voting for Matt in this primary and I’m spending my time asking others to support Rebecca Otto. The auditor’s job is more important than most realize: the State supports its policies for local government by financial assistance, and the auditor feeds-back what works or doesn’t work.

    Mark, Paul, and Rebecca made the Auditor’s role visible, a good thing for citizens in any party.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 07/28/2014 - 09:02 pm.

      Really?

      “Rebecca made the Auditor’s role visible”

      The only person less visible is the Lt. Governor, and that is saying something. Perhaps you are confusing her with the Legislative Auditor Mr. Nobles who does fantastic work.

  10. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/28/2014 - 05:13 pm.

    Now I remember

    Thanks for the reminder of why I have a low opinion of Entenza.

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/28/2014 - 07:23 pm.

    Otto is bold enough…

    to stand up to the Iron Range democratic legislators over Duluth Metals. I would like to see our current governor do the same, now not later. Otto is the kind of future I would like to see the Democratic Party represent, an advocate for people and their health and for work in Minnesota that is not a threat to health and the self worth of the people.

  12. Submitted by Bill Hansen on 07/28/2014 - 11:49 pm.

    Unfortunate…

    I hate to see the DFL in this situation.

    Some would say that it comes down to where you think the sulfide mining issue is going to land in Minnesota’s political landscape.

    I’m putting my money on Otto. She’s on the right side of history and, I hope, a candidate to lead Minnesota in a just and prosperous future.

  13. Submitted by Todd Kolod on 08/01/2014 - 08:58 pm.

    Matt Entenza has already given $482,000 to his campaign. Imagine what the total will be when all the bills are paid after the August 12th primary. I’ll never vote for Entenza again, no matter what race he enters.

    • Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 08/03/2014 - 07:15 am.

      Entenza for Entenza

      As of last reports from Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, Entenza has ponied up $497,000 to date. Other individuals have collectively donated approximately $12,000.

      His campaign lit pieces are filled with distortions, half-truths and — how to say this politely? — creative “facts.”

      He lifted material from MPR without permission, and misrepresented their take on the Voter ID issue. Entenza accused Rebecca Otto of supporting access-denying Voter ID legislation. She didn’t. A state Office of Administrative Hearings panel rejected his claim, but he continued to make that spurious accusation in some of his big, spendy mailings.

      A person like Entenza, who has a long and also recent history of playing fast and loose with truth and transparency, is hardly the person we want safe-guarding the tax-dollars Minnesotans pay into the government.

      Bottom line: Entenza is for Entenza. Rebecca Otto is the candidate of the people. Voila!

  14. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 08/03/2014 - 02:41 pm.

    I support Ms Otto. Mr Entenza appears to be looking for a government job – any government job to keep his name in the political arena. And that’s disturbing because the auditor job is intended to be above politics.

  15. Submitted by MC Mac on 08/08/2014 - 09:00 am.

    A stepping stone to the gov’s mansion

    “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.”

    This is exactly the feeling I get from Mr. Entenza. He only cares about being a politician. I’ve met him in person and it’s apparent just from that one encounter that he’s only looking for means to a higher office. I don’t know anything about Ms. Otto, but she has to be better than this guy.

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