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Under the radar, secretary of state race offers similar names — and big policy differences

Though voters might struggle to remember one from the other, there couldn’t be a greater contrast between the candidates for secretary of state. 

Steve Simon
Steve Simon

Steve Simon, the DFL candidate for secretary of state, understands that many Minnesota voters might be scratching their heads when they step into voting booths across the state in November.

“There are going to be some who are saying, ‘Simon, Severson. There’s something I like about one of those guys. But which one was it?’ ”

Obscurity always has been the reality for down-ticket candidates. Yet, because of tight elections and extreme partisanship, the secretary of state has become one of the most hot-button positions in state government in recent election cycles. “This office doesn’t make headlines until it does,’’ is how Simon puts it.

And even though some voters might struggle remembering one from the other, there couldn’t be a greater contrast than between Simon and his Republican opponent, Dan Severson. Independence Party candidate Bob Helland is also running, and some believe he offers the IP’s best hope for clinging to major party status in this cycle.

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But look, first, at those contrasts between Simon and Severson. Simon is proud of Minnesota’s record of clean elections. Severson believes the system is fraught with fraud, or at least the potential for fraud. Simon believes in election-day registration. Severson opposes it. Simon opposed the voter identification amendment. Severson supported it, and still would like to push for what he calls a “voluntary” voter ID system.

Start with the last contrast first. The voter ID amendment would have required all Minnesota voters to have a photo ID to vote, and was soundly rejected by Minnesotans two years ago.

Severson now proposes a “volunteer’’ photo ID concept. Voters who chose to have a photo ID could move to a separate, speedy line on election days. Others would have to wait in presumably longer, slower lines. “Everybody would still have the same opportunity to vote,’’ said Severson, “but for those who have the ID, they’d have the chance to move past half the crowd immediately.’’

Simon’s response: “I thought we ditched the idea of separate but equal 60 years ago,’’ he said. “I don’t think express lanes for certain people, while others are standing out in the cold, is a good idea.’’

Dan Severson
Dan Severson

The contrasts continue in all sorts of ways. Simon is proud of the fact that as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, he led the way to a law that has led to “no excuse absentee voting’’ this year. That law, Simon notes, was passed with bipartisan approval. His hopes of adding early voting to the voter selection menu in Minnesota this year did not receive GOP legislative support.

Severson sees some benefits to early absentee voting, but also sees it as an opening to voter fraud in the state.

Politically, both seem to have strengths. If recent polls are to be believed (the same polls that show Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken with substantial leads), Simon and other down-ticket DFLers could benefit from the top of the ticket’s coattails.

On the other hand, Severson might have slightly higher name recognition working for him, thanks to his run against current Secretary of State Mark Ritchie four years ago, when he came within three points of a victory.

Though he lost, Severson received more votes than the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer. Another advantage is that he’s preaching to a base that still believes that the GOP was robbed in the Ritchie-led recount that gave Franken a 312-vote victory over Norm Coleman in 2008.

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But losing once, plus losing a U.S. Senate endorsement run against Kurt Bills — who ended up being trounced by Amy Klobuchar in 2012 — made getting into the race again this year a difficult decision for Severson. He talked with a number of other potential GOP candidates; and he and his wife, Cathy Jo, also had deep conversations about the emotional effort it takes to run in a statewide election.

“In the end, I laid it out before the Lord,’’ said Severson. “I asked, ‘What is it we’re called to do?’’’ 

The retired Navy fighter pilot — he frequently wears his flight jacket — got the go-ahead.

Bob Helland
Bob Helland

Simon’s decision to run was a little more wonky. Going back to his youth, Simon’s been intrigued by and involved in politics. Before he was even old enough to vote, Simon worked on the presidential campaign of Paul Simon (no relation) in Simon’s bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Since winning a seat in the legislature in 2004, Simon has worked on the House elections committee, which typically isn’t considered a glamorous assignment. But Simon, who was the committee chair last session, loved the job.

“Election law is the heart and soul of who we are,’’ he said.

In style, Simon likely would be considerably different from Ritchie. He’s more subdued than the intense, glad-to-see-you secretary of state. But in terms of the substance of the job, Simon would be little different. Both are believers that the system works best when it’s open to the most.

And then there’s Helland. At 29, he’s brimming with confidence, if not experience (he’s never sought office before). He seems to be focusing his campaign on the registration of businesses aspect of the secretary of state job. He does say, however, that perhaps it would be best if a third-party secretary of state would be in charge of the recounts that seem to have become almost routine in Minnesota.

It’s probably worth remembering that it’s not just recounts that can put secretaries of state in the middle of dicey political situations, though. Late in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign, the Republicans’ endorsed candidate, Jon Grunseth, was forced, by scandal, to drop from the race. Much to the chagrin of then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, Secretary of State Joan Growe, a fellow DFLer, allowed for the Republican Arne Carlson’s name to appear on the ballot. Carlson went on to defeat Perpich. 

Simon, Severson and Helland do share a common problem: Recognition and limited resources. Raising funds at a time when a governor’s race and a Senate race are sucking up most of the money and virtually all of the headlines is a hard task. It means a lot of miles on the car, a lot of trudging into smalltown newspaper offices across the state. Ultimately, Simon says he’ll be able to air one television ad before election day. Severson says he’s still working out the possibility of a TV ad. 

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The three candidates have held one debate so far, Tuesday night at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, and four more lie ahead: Oct. 17, on Channel 2’s Almanac Program at 7 p.m.; Oct. 20, at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at noon; Oct. 25, at KSTP TV studios, for a debate to be aired at times to be announced; and on Oct. 28 at Augsburg College for the League of Women Voter’s debate at 7 p.m.