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Could trains and Trump decide one of Minnesota’s most watched state Senate contests?

Photo courtesy of Jody Russell Photography
Steve Cwodzinski: “For all those years, I’m preaching civic virtue and political efficacy. I wanted to walk the walk.”

Steve Cwodzinski spent more than 30 years teaching civics and American government, but when he retired from Eden Prairie High School earlier this year, he thought it was time to practice what he was preaching.

So Cwodzinski filed to run for a state Senate seat. 

“For all those years, I’m preaching civic virtue and political efficacy,” he said. “I wanted to walk the walk.”

On paper, Cwodzinski, who is running as a Democrat, should be a competitive candidate. Senate District 48 covers most of the southwest suburb of Eden Prairie and part of Minnetonka. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in a dead heat there back in 2012, the same year voters soundly rejected a conservative-backed amendment attempting to ban gay marriage in the state. In the House, the district is represented by both a Republican and a Democrat. 

But Cwodzinski, 57, is taking on incumbent Sen. David Hann, the chamber’s minority leader and its highest-ranking Republican. A former Eden Prairie School Board member and one-time candidate for governor, the GOP lawmaker has held his seat for nearly 15 years. “[Democrats] don’t like me,” Hann said. “They think I’m Public Enemy Number One and I would say it’s because we’ve been very effective” in the minority. 

Still, Senate Democrats are bullish about their chances in Eden Prairie, a suburban district they think will reject Donald Trump and welcome construction of the controversial Southwest Light Rail Line.

The civics teacher 

Cwodzinski was born in California and was raised by his mother and his grandfather. In middle school, his mother got married and moved the family to Superior, Wisconsin, just across the border from Minnesota. “It was a labor town. I never saw a guy go to work with a briefcase,” he said. “It was always lunch pails.”

Growing up, Cwodzinski said he was “visionless.” It was a careless attitude that culminated in a car accident when he was 17 that crushed his left leg. In the hospital, where Cwodzinski spent weeks, he decided he wanted a different life.

He traveled to California to meet his biological father and moved to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota. Eventually he ended up with a teaching degree and landed a job as an American government teacher at Eden Prairie High School, where he’s stayed for his entire career. He’s popular with students and parents, who call him “Cwod.”

“People for years, parents at conferences, said why don’t you run for public office?’” Cwodzinski said. “I thought, why would I leave this place?” 

The thing that pushed Cwodzinski over the edge was Hann’s support for the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2012. Only four in 10 voters in Eden Prairie supported the amendment that year, and Cwodzinski was one of the people who voted “no” to the ballot initiative. “That was the tipping point,” Cwodzinski said. “That’s when I said, ‘I think I could run against this guy and win.’”

From religious scholar to politician

Hann, 64, grew up in South Minneapolis and went to high school in Bloomington. When it was time to go off to college, he picked Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, where he planned to study religion. But his time there was cut short by the Vietnam War, in which Hann served as Army chaplain’s assistant. After the war, he was able to finish his bachelor’s degree and started working toward a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School. 

Hann wasn’t trying to become a pastor — he was more interested in the study of religion and religious scholars. Yet before he could finish his doctorate, he married and moved back to Minnesota, where he ended up going into business consulting, providing analysis and advice to help organizations improve productivity.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Minority Leader David Hann said he’s not taking his own seat for granted.

In 2002, he won a  three-way race for a state Senate seat in Eden Prairie against a Democrat and a popular Eden Prairie City Council member who ran as an Independent. At the Capitol, Hann stood out as a social conservative — supporting state laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman — who specialized in education and health care policy. He also became interested in the legislative process, serving on the Rules and Administration Committee. By 2007, he had climbed the ranks to become assistant minority leader, but stepped down from the role to make a run for governor in 2010. 

Hann eventually exited that race after polling showed him falling behind other candidates. But in 2012, after they lost a two-year hold on the majority, Republicans in the Senate elected him to lead their caucus.

Trains and Trump

Situated 12 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis, Eden Prairie attracts many people who work in the city but want to live in the suburbs to raise a family. The district is 81 percent white with a median age of 40, according to 2014 census data, and the median income is $95,075.

With one of the top public school systems in the state, education has always been one of the biggest issues for voters in the district. But Cwodzinski said he’s also hearing a lot about the Southwest Light Rail Line, a controversial transit project that failed to secure needed state funding in the final moments of the 2016 legislative session. (Funding for the project is being discussed as part of a possible special session of the Legislature.)

The line would stretch from downtown Minneapolis through the communities of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka, and Eden Prairie, passing in close proximity to Edina.

Cwodzinski says people in the district want the line built, and so does he. The project is supported by Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens and the local business community, including the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce. But Hann, a staunch opponent of the line, said people in the district offer a different view of Southwest LRT when he starts talking about the details, particularly its more than $1 billion price tag its administration by the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning agency populated by unelected members. 

A bigger factor in the Senate race, Democrats say, could be the presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Cwodzinski said he’s hearing nothing but “disdain” for Trump in the district. Minnesota was the only state to hand Republican candidate Marco Rubio a victory during the Republican primary campaign, mostly through votes in the suburbs.

In Hann’s Senate district, Trump earned only 369 of more than 2,000 votes cast, with Rubio pulling in 1,087 votes. Hillary Clinton earned 1,421 votes in Eden Prairie, polling only slightly behind opponent Bernie Sanders. What’s more, turnout is much higher in presidential years, usually benefiting Democrats. Hann said he’s not sensing an upswell of support for Clinton in the district, though, and that the Trump wild card factor could tap into general dissatisfaction with political elite.

Hann has one specific disadvantage in the race: As head of his caucus, he’s charged with overseeing the Senate Republican’s election efforts in competitive districts across the state. Thanks to that added responsibility, it’s not unprecedented for top legislative leaders to lose their own seats. In 2006, for example, Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson lost his seat to a political newcomer Joe Gimse, partially for his stance on social issues, but also because he wasn’t paying as close attention to his own district. Johnson left the Senate just as the six new Democrats he helped elect were sworn in.

Hann said he’s not taking his own seat for granted. In 2012, he beat DFL candidate Laurie McKendry by nearly 3 percentage points. It was a strong year for Democrats, and outside groups spent more than $400,000 to defeat him. Hann said he didn’t have any help from outside groups to defend his seat.

“I’ve always had competitive opponents. You look at it on paper and you say it’s kind of divided,” Hann said. “They outspent me by a ton, but that’s not going to happen this year. I guarantee it.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/25/2016 - 10:17 am.

    So Senator Hann

    a man who once was on the path to serve God,…

    chose to leave that path in order to serve “mammon” instead,…

    now taking pride in that choice,…

    and regarding with disdain all those who daily make the opposite.

    How is that people,…

    especially those who claim the name of Christ,…

    see this man as someone worthy of trust and admiration?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/25/2016 - 12:14 pm.

      It’s Not Must Locally

      “How is that people,…

      especially those who claim the name of Christ,…

      see this man as someone worthy of trust and admiration?”

      I have the same question about white evangelicals support of Trump. They are not even talking about holding their noses to support Trump; they’re actually enthusiastic.

  2. Submitted by William Anderson on 07/25/2016 - 11:57 am.

    SWLRT as Business Welfare

    Minnesota was the only state to hand Rubio a victory during the Republican primary campaign. Minnesota was also one of the states to give the Democratic primary victory to Sanders. That the leading examples of “people” in the district are local business leaders and the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, tell the story why Sanders, not Clinton won in Minnesota.

    Monies that are purportedly collected from citizens for needed services, such as good transit, become part of the business welfare system of Minnesota. It explains both the shrinking middle class, and the strong progressive judgement to stand back from projects such as SWLRT that are business subsidies.

    The strong business support for SWLRT is another iteration of the failed economic agenda of trickle down economics, no matter how superficially cloaked in progressive jargon. When the DFL is so closely aligned with corporate Minnesota, the actual “people” lose.

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 07/25/2016 - 02:16 pm.

    David Hann is a great representative!!!

    David Hann is a great representative of this senate district! He is for a fiscally responsible and productive state government. Senator Hann wants state government to live within it’s means just like every responsible family must do.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/25/2016 - 07:23 pm.

      False Equivalence

      Equating the budget of a government to that of a family is, for the most part, incorrect. When the economy is slowing, that’s when government needs to spend more. It stabilizes the economy, and by addressing deferred maintenance on physical assets it gets better mileage of public dollars owing to more competitive bidding and finance costs. This at a time when family budgets are hunkering down.

      Hann and his ilk have unfortunately succeeded in holding down total government spending since the Bush Recession started. This is the first time that’s been done in the aftermath of recessions. And yet, we wonder why the recovery was so sluggish. But perhaps it was more important to have a “One! Term! President!”

      What family and government budgets do have in common is that all budgets are moral documents, and reflect the values of the family, institution, or government.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/26/2016 - 11:52 am.

        Role of Government

        Frank, thanks for the Econ 101 lesson–it saved me the trouble of responding to the OP to set the record straight.

  4. Submitted by Ellen Hoerle on 07/25/2016 - 06:46 pm.

    The magic number of $1 billion

    I find it sad that the figure of over $1 billion is being used by David Hann as a reason to oppose SWLRT when the state is being asked to fund only $135 million of that cost, while the federal government will pitch in nearly $900 million and $745 million has already been committed from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, the Met Council and other local funding sources. Yes, I’ve heard his rational! ‘The federal government is running on deficits and can’t afford it.’ Yeah, and David Hann is a state senator, not a U.S. Senator. Try running for U.S. Senate on that platform–“I don’t believe the U.S. treasury can afford to pay for transportation investments in Minnesota so I will personally do all I can to remind my future colleagues in the U.S. Senate that Minnesotans are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the federal budget.” Yes, he would probably have to drop out quickly in that race, too.

    Anyone who has attempted to drive east on I-494 from Eden Prairie between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. understands why we need other options to get in and out of the city. What’s David Hann’s option? Don’t try to leave EP during those hours!! Easy.

    A few years ago when it was time to fund the rebuilding of the I-494 – 169 interchange, both Hann and Jenifer Loon supported the $125 million expense but both have rejected all support for all LRT funding. Yet, soon after the interchange was rebuilt, I drove through the new stoplight-less interchange at 5:00 p.m. to find myself sitting in a parking lot instead of what was supposed to be traffic moving at between 40 and 60 mph.

    The point? We have a transportation infrastructure that is falling woefully behind in being able to accommodate the needs of southwest metro drivers in the year 2016 with no expansion plans on the near or far horizon and yet our state representatives believe they are doing us a favor by rejecting funding for the one sign of hope we Eden Prairie residents have.

    Investment of $348 million for the Vikings Stadium (I know, David Hann didn’t support that either) got us a huge monstrosity of a stadium that a very small percentage of the population will use for entertainment purposes versus invest of $135 million for something that people will use for practical purposes? Why is SWLRT still being rejected by Republicans?

    And yes, residents will use it. Just like they use the SW Transit now in large numbers. I used SW Transit to commute between EP and the U for graduate school. But trains are better. They run on a regular schedule all day long. And young people will use it because young people are eschewing car ownership and living close to where they work or close to public transportation so they can get to work without having to drive.

    Let’s hope David Hann’s ‘fiscal responsibility’ in the name of saving EP taxpayers money will be seen as what it really is–refusal to promote investment that will benefit his district.

    Go Cwod!

  5. Submitted by Murphy Brown on 07/25/2016 - 10:58 pm.

    Cwodzinski is a fraud

    Steve Cwodzinski does not even live in the district. He has a fake address. He basically admits this by listing an address in the district as his “mailing address.” How lame is that? If this is such a “big” race – then maybe a bit more than a “puff piece” is warranted. One make not like Hann’s politics, but at least he is an honest person.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/26/2016 - 11:51 am.

      Fraud, Indeed

      How honest is Hann if he thinks bashing gays is a good idea as well as derailing the SWLRT? Those are both short-sighted positions that pander to a subset of his constituents rather than representing the best interests of all the public.

      We can and should expect more from our representatives. Unfortunately, Hann does not pass that test.

  6. Submitted by Larry Piumbroeck on 07/27/2016 - 02:03 pm.

    No Vision for Minnesota

    I was the DFL’er who ran against David Hann and Sherry Butcher in the 3-way race in 2002. In the past 14 years David has been no better than the Congress, obstructionist in nearly every way. He has shown no vision for our great state and cities that has left us behind cities like Denver, Seattle and Portland in attracting new employment and young people. Sadly, he is more interested in supporting his ideology that solving real world problems and improving lives. This was all very predictable and yet he keeps getting re-elected by people in his district that feel the best government is one that does nothing at all. Nothing at all is what he has accomplished for his district and the State. This what happens when we elect ideology driven, religious evangelicals who listen to the loudest voices rather than representing all people regardless of their religious affiliation or none at all. I hope Steve Cwodzinski is able to prevail and bring change to a DFL majority that will move Minnesota forward once again.

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