Culminating a month of harsh criticism of his political tactics, Sen. Satveer Chaudhary was stripped Monday of his DFL endorsement for reelection, jeopardizing the career of one of Minnesota's leading politicians on outdoors issues.
But Chaudhary, standing alongside his attorney after the DFL action, said he would contest the 32-to-12 vote, saying it fell two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to take away his party's endorsement. Promising he wanted to unite the party, but also make sure "the processes are fair," Chaudhary predicted he would win the DFL primary in August.
Moments after jettisoning Chaudhary in a rare action by a state political party, DFL activists endorsed former legislator Barb Goodwin for the senator's seat in a vote accompanied by cheering and clapping. "I'm thrilled to have the endorsement," said Goodwin, who previously served six years in the Minnesota House. Of Chaudhary's threatened appeal, Goodwin said, "I'm running hard, ignoring that."
"In six weeks, I think our campaign is only going to gain steam," said Chaudhary, who nonetheless said Monday's action "certainly didn't help" his campaign.
The three-term senator pleaded his case before nearly 50 local party leaders for more than two hours behind closed doors at a community center in Fridley. Monday's hearing -- which the senator had asked be held in private and which included a court reporter -- came three weeks after a Senate ethics panel publicly reprimanded him for trying to get special fishing regulations for a lake where he owns a cabin and just 43 days before he faces a crucial reelection primary.
Speaking to reporters before the meeting began, Chaudhary appeared confident but serene and said that "what happens is meant to be." He also said that, even with the criticism he has been under, "I think we are well ahead of all of my opponents" heading into the Aug. 10 primary.
The senator said he did not know what his reelection chances would be without the party's endorsement. "That's yet to be seen. It could well be a positive," he said.
Angry on several fronts
Party leaders in the predominantly DFL district that arcs across the northern Twin Cities suburbs seemed to be angry with Chaudhary on several fronts, including his decision to support former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton for governor instead of the DFL's endorsed candidate, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
In an apparent last-minute attempt to make amends, Chaudhary sent Kelliher a letter and a $100 check dated Sunday, informing her that he now is officially supporting her and wishing her "the best of luck." He told Kelliher she could "publicly use my name as a supporter/host/sponsor in any and all publications." As the controversy surrounding Chaudhary has increased over the past month, Dayton has distanced himself from the senator.
Chaudhary's problems began on May 12 -- five days before the Legislature adjourned for the year -- when he inserted himself into a debate on a complex game and fish bill and inadvertently touched a nerve with many Minnesotans. As Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, Chaudhary's House counterpart on outdoors issues, was presenting the bill, Chaudhary entered the House chamber and knelt next to Dill. Chaudhary quietly asked him to insert language for restrictions to improve the walleye fishing on Fish Lake Reservoir, near Duluth.
Chaudhary owns a cabin on that lake but has denied any conflict of interest. He said he was led to believe an overwhelming majority of lake residents wanted the fishing limits. Dill, who did as Chaudhary asked, later said he felt duped by the senator. Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the entire bill -- saying of the Fish Lake Reservoir provision, "there appears to be no fisheries management reason to require this."
The Department of Natural Resources opposed the provision.
Chaudhary has built a reputation in the Senate as a champion of outdoors issues, but also formed close ties with some leading outdoors groups. Earlier this year, Chaudhary hired the marketing director of the Minnesota BASS Federation as an intern and then had him research limits on smallmouth bass fishing -- a provision the BASS federation supported.
The senator included the bass fishing limitation in legislation he co-sponsored.
A rare rebuke
The controversy over the Fish Lake provision resulted in a rare rebuke of a sitting senator by a Senate ethics panel earlier this month.
The panel unanimously agreed that Chaudhary's actions violated "accepted norms of Senate behavior" and "threatened public confidence" in the Legislature.
Though he apologized for his actions -- on Monday he referred to it as a "procedural error" -- Chaudhary said the episode showed that perhaps his biggest fault was that he was too passionate on environmental issues.
"Perhaps what I'm guilty of is being overzealous for the environment, and I need to curb my enthusiasm," Chaudhary said at the conclusion of the Senate ethics hearing.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673