Voters are running out of patience

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2011 - 3:13 PM

The winds are shifting, if the campaign experiences of candidates in two state Senate special elections are any indication.

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Representative Jeff Hayden (DFL-61B) talked with a colleague during a long session on Saturday afternoon.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Doris Christopher warmly greeted her state representative and candidate for state Senate, Jeff Hayden, outside her tidy south Minneapolis home one drizzly afternoon last week. But it wasn't long before she exuded heat of another kind.

"Ninety-five percent of us are saying 'We need jobs!'" the retired paralegal supervisor sputtered with surprising vehemence. "The Republicans are saying no to everything Obama wants. They aren't listening to us! I'm angry!"

Anger has been sparking easily at District 61 doors during the run-up to next Tuesday's special election, Hayden told me as we proceeded across Oakland Av. S.

The lament at the next house from artist Anne Brink was typical, too: "I know so many people who are hurting, who don't have work or don't have enough work."

The young mother a few doors down who wouldn't reveal her name said her electrician husband finally has work in the Twin Cities again, after a two-and-a-half-year local employment drought that took him as far away as North Dakota for a paycheck. Keep state building projects coming, she pleaded.

Hayden hopes to be in a position to respond affirmatively to her plea. He's the DFL nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by legislative legend Linda Berglin.

If south Minneapolis voters adhere to their usual partisan proclivities, Hayden will top a field of four candidates in Tuesday's special election and move to the Senate. There, he hopes that Berglin's seat on the Senate Capital Investment Committee will be his.

Similarly favored to win on Tuesday is the other DFL nominee for a vacant Senate seat, nurse Chris Eaton in District 46. She has two opponents. That Brooklyn Center-Brooklyn Park district reliably tilts DFL; it sent the late Linda Scheid to the Legislature 11 times.

These two oddly timed special elections (set for Oct. 18 at the request of local elections officials, the governor's office said) will offer state politics wonks this year's only opportunity to parse legislative district vote tallies. Any statewide conclusions sketched from this pair's results are going to be pretty faint.

Still, what these districts' voters are telling Eaton and Hayden is worth sniffing out and hearing out -- at least as worthy, thought I, as the chants that have been hollered on Hennepin County Government Center's plaza and around downtown's big banks for more than a week.

Some national political observers say they see in Occupy Wall Street and its regional offspring the start of a liberal version of the conservative-populist Tea Party.

That notion could be chalked up to the off-year musings of scribblers already weary of analyzing the wits and wiles of Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. Or -- judging from the edge in the voices on Oakland Avenue, and from what Eaton says she's hearing at District 46 doors -- it could be that the scribes are on to something.

"People are very worried," said Hayden. Voters are more on edge this year than they were when the stock market was in free fall three years ago, he said.

Eaton concurred. "There's a lot of fear," she said. "Some worry about losing jobs. Some have lost jobs and worry about losing their houses. Some worry that the people next door have lost their house, and their property values are going down."

When people learned that they'd likely be paying higher property taxes next year, courtesy of the 2011 Legislature's repeal of the homestead credit, it was as though a match had been struck, Eaton said. Previously unfocused anger honed in on Republican resistance to higher taxes on the rich.

Both said voters are also quick to scold the Democratic president and DFL governor for not winning more battles with the GOP.

"You don't hear any longer about good governance or negotiating or 'try to get along,'" Hayden said. "People are very fed up. They see the Tea Partiers as obstructionists, and they want us [DFLers] to be tougher on them. ... These people see their community starting to erode, and they want to fight for it."

Will that fight be carried into the polling place? Low turnout is typical in special elections. The dearth of lawn signs for anyone but Hayden in District 61 suggests that contest lacks drawing power.

But low turnout this Tuesday could signal something else.

"Some people are just disgusted, and tell me they are never going to vote again," Eaton said.

History teaches that when disillusioned people no longer believe democracy can solve their problems, they try to find solutions via other means. If that possibility doesn't give you a chill, I'd recommend a trek through the Minnesota History Center's new exhibit. It's called "1968."

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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