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The 9 stories that shaped the year in state politics

From rise and fall of the new Tim Pawlenty to the fall and rise of Keith Ellison, the year in Minnesota politics has been nuttier than a Pearson’s roll.

Gov. Mark Dayton
When Gov. Mark Dayton gathered the children of St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Elementary around him and asked them to count down from three, it wasn’t a math lesson.

From rise and fall of the new Tim Pawlenty to the rise and fall and rise of Keith Ellison, the year in Minnesota politics has been — as the natives like to say — interesting. Here, a look at nine stories that shaped the year in state politics, for better or worse:

1. Anybody wanna be lieutenant governor?

No one really thought Gov. Mark Dayton appointed his lieutenant governor to a U.S. Senate seat solely to throw the Minnesota Senate into chaos, did they?

Tina Smith was likely to get that appointment for lots of other reasons, but the decision did have the side effect of throwing the state Senate into chaos. That’s because the state constitution says that whoever happens to be the president of state Senate becomes lieutenant governor if there is a vacancy.

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The problem? The president of the state Senate at the time was GOP state Sen. Michelle Fischbach. If she resigned her seat to become lieutenant governor, the one-vote majority the GOP had in the Senate would have disappeared — just as the 2018 session was beginning.

That’s what DFL lawyers said she had to do: resign a seat she’d been elected to and take a job that would likely have few duties. GOP lawyers, however, argued she could fill both jobs and that an elected member of the Legislature couldn’t be forced to give up that seat and forced to take another job.

Ultimately, the courts sided with the Republicans and Fischbach waited until the session was safely adjourned before resigning. That act did trigger a special election for her seat, an election that technically put the Senate up for grabs. But despite DFL spending that topped $750,000, Republican Jeff Howe easily retained the seat.

Fischbach, meanwhile, became a candidate for lieutenant governor as Tim Pawlenty’s running mate.

2. #MNtoo

On Election Night 2018, one of the seats captured in the DFL sweep of contested House races was 56B, where Republican incumbent Roz Peterson was defeated by DFL challenger Alice Mann.

Mann’s presence on the ballot was something of a surprise. Earlier in the year, Peterson’s likely DFL challenger was Lindsey Port, a rising star in the party who also ran a non-profit meant to support newcomers who want to run for office. But Port dropped out of the race earlier this year because of what she described as backlash within DFL circles over her accusation that she’d been sexually harassed by then-incumbent state Sen. Dan Schoen.

Support for both her campaign and her non-profit, she said, began to dry up after her she became one of the first people in Minnesota politics to go public about her experience with harassment.

It wasn’t Schoen’s departure from the Senate that caused the reaction, Port said. Rather, somehow she had became a symbol of the effort to force U.S. Sen. Al Franken to resign, even though she had nothing to do with Franken. She suffered from a belief among some DFLers that he shouldn’t have been forced to step down. “This is the price for being loud,” she said in January.

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The Legislature continues to grapple with the issues raised by the movement, from updating its own policies to changing the way complaints in public and private employment are adjudicated. That work will continue in the 2019 session of the new Legislature.

3. Parkland

Just before the beginning of the 2018 session of the Minnesota Legislature, a gunmen entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and killed 17 students. Determined to keep it from becoming yet another “thoughts-and-prayers” moment for policy makers, students across the country and in Minnesota became activists.

Students regularly rallied at the state capitol, met with students at other schools and tried to engage members of the Legislature and Congress about gun safety measures such as universal background checks and red-flag warnings that would block people who are known threats from buying guns.

Republicans in the Legislature prevented votes on gun safety measures though there was support for funding to help schools install safety equipment and structures. Post adjournment, the issue was prominent in the 2018 campaign with Tim Walz supporting additional laws and many of the successful suburban DFL House candidates – both congressional and legislative – taking similar positions. The issue will return in 2019.

4. “1, 2, 3, Veto!”

When Gov. Mark Dayton gathered the children of St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Elementary around him and asked them to count down from three, it wasn’t a math lesson. Instead, Dayton was adding their voices to his stamping a major Republican tax bill with a red VETO message.

It was the first of two significant vetoes by Dayton – the other was a 1,000-page omnibus bill that contained nearly the entire work product of the 2018 Legislature. Only a bonding bill remained of the big three bills.

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Dayton didn’t exactly like the tax bill before he tied it to his demand that emergency funding for 59 struggling school districts be adopted. But it became the most-prominent reason and when it wasn’t, it took just a day for him to venture to Vento. The later omnibus bill became a three-inch-thick symbol of the disturbing trend to put all sorts of bills into one bill that few read and fewer know all that it contains. Both Tim Walz and Jeff Johnson pledged to end the practice should they be elected to replace Dayton.

Dayton also vetoed a second version of a tax bill — ostensibly meant to align the Minnesota tax code with the new federal tax reform act but with so much more included – because the attempt to help school districts the GOP did include was deemed inadequate.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, the Brooklyn Park DFLer who led the party’s House caucus, summarized the session this way: It was, she said, “a heap of nothing.”

5. Swanson changes everything

It all seemed settled: Three-term Attorney General Lori Swanson would forego a run for governor and seek a fourth term instead. That sent all of the wannabe-AGs back to their current offices.

But then came June and that all changed. After losing the DFL endorsement to a challenger from her left – Minneapolis attorney Matt Pelikan – Swanson reentered the DFL governor’s race that already had two major candidates. Suddenly the open AG office was very popular, drawing candidates including 5th Congressional District Rep. Keith Ellison. That made his safe DFL seat equally popular. And when state Rep. Ilhan Omar entered the race for Congress, her House seat drew a crowd.

All of this happened in one day in and around the filing window at the Secretary of State’s office in St. Paul.

6. The Pawlenty Comeback

After acting all reluctant and undecided for months, former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty did what everyone knew he would: declare his campaign to run again. And pretty much everybody figured he would at least win the nomination and might just win the office – except this one guy from Plymouth.

Pawlenty raised a ton of money, had a skilled staff and well-placed advisors. He had high name familiarity. He was wise enough to know that he wouldn’t resonate with the kind of conservative Republican who gets themselves selected for the state GOP convention. So he skipped the convention with the knowledge that those folks were more likely to be enamored of this one guy from Plymouth.

What Pawlenty didn’t figure was that the same type of voter who would dominate the GOP convention would also dominate the GOP primary 10 weeks later. And Pawlenty was easily defeated by Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.

The upset caused a lot of GOP money and lot of GOP talent to give up on the governor’s race and turn their sites to retaining the state House. As it turned out, none of it may have mattered. Pawlenty would have had a hard time surviving in what was a pretty good year for the DFL. And that money that shifted from Johnson to the House races did not block the DFL from gaining 18 seats and the majority.

7. Independents’ Day

One of the perhaps unintended consequences of Minnesota’s campaign finance reforms is that they create incentives to create independent expenditure committees. House candidates can raise and spend between $66,500 and $86,460 depending on whether they are a first-time candidate and how contested their primary was. And individual contributions are capped at $2,000.

Yet there are no caps on how much donors can give to an independent expenditure campaign and no limit on how much can be spent to help or hurt individual candidates. The numbers have exploded and the amounts spent sets records each election. Tim Walz and Jeff Johnson together spent $5.7 million through the October filing period. Independent expenditure committees spent $11.7 million aiding and harming the pair.

The same imbalance was true of the many campaigns for all state House seats and the single state Senate seat on the ballot.

8. The trouble with Keith

By about 10 p.m. on election night, all of the worries about state Rep. Keith Ellison faded away. He won a pretty easy victory over Republican Doug Wardlow to keep the office of attorney general in DFL hands for its 13th straight four-year term.

But from the week before the primary to that night, there were many questions and plenty of angst over Ellison. The weekend before the primary, a former live-in girlfriend – Karen Monahan – went public with allegations that Ellison had emotionally – and on one occasion, physically – abused her. Ellison denied the allegations but struggled throughout most of the campaign to respond to them.

Other DFL candidates were less likely to use Ellison – a skilled campaigner with a solid voter base in the Metro – in their own campaigns. And there was even some fear that he could drag down other DFLers in Greater Minnesota.

Three weeks from election day, however, a DFL-commissioned investigation didn’t clear Ellison but announced it couldn’t validate the accusations either. Then a court-ordered released of divorce records found that while there were allegations of abuse in his marriage with Kim Ellison, they involved her abusing him while struggling with depression.

That was enough for DFL and independent voters to become open to a campaign that Wardlow was just too conservative for the state and the office. The risk of Wardlow winning even led third-party candidate Noah Johnson to announce his endorsement of Ellison after Ellison emphasized his support for legalization of marijuana.

9. Life in the ‘burbs

Meet the Hillary 12 and the Donald 7. Not a pair of caper movies, these labels describe the state House districts that drew the first attention and a lot of campaign spending by DFLers trying to regain control of the House and by Republicans trying to hold on.

The Hillary 12 are the districts that delivered majority support to Hillary Clinton in 2016 but then elected Republicans to the state House. The Donald 7 had the opposite ticket splitting. Democrats needed to gain 11 seats so looked first at those 12 and then expanded their map to give their effort a margin for error.

It wasn’t happenstance that the DFL targets were primarily in the Twin Cities suburbs. The Trump-led national party was showing weakness there, especially among women. And it also wasn’t happenstance that the two Congressional seats Democrats targeted included big swaths of the same suburbs.

Democrats lost two congressional seats in the north and south of the state that became vulnerable from both changing political demographics and the loss of well-known DFL incumbents. But Democrats won just about everything else. And a big contributing factor were those suburbs.