Lori Sturdevant: The gas-tax veto Override Six: Where are they now?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2008 - 4:19 PM

Some have moved on. But others are in tough fights for the soul of the Republican Party. The epicenter: 41B.

Signs of the season -- campaign lawn signs -- popped up in a lot of neighborhoods last week. A bumper crop sprouted in the area an old TV commercial used to call "prestigious west Bloomington."

Red signs tout candidate Jan Schneider for the Minnesota House, without additional driver-distracting verbiage. Brown ones advertise the chance to reelect state Rep. Neil Peterson, and name his party: "Republican."

That may be Peterson's party of choice. But the Republican Party chose Schneider, not him, for District 41B this year. They're facing off on the Sept. 9 primary.

After decades of vigorous public service that include 12 years on the Bloomington City Council, five years as mayor, a stint on the Met Council and four years in the House, Peterson was dumped for endorsement -- right after he voted to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of the big transportation bill in February. He had no prior GOP opposition.

In all, six House Republicans dared to part company with Pawlenty and GOP leaders over transportation funding. For voting to raise the gas tax 5 cents by October, the Override Six were vilified by Republican mouthpieces, stripped of caucus leadership positions and advised to brace themselves for rough treatment by Republican voters. (The retribution was so ham-handed that a Republican congressional candidate felt obliged to disavow it last week. State Rep. Erik Paulsen said at a Thursday debate that he "never would have handled the situation that way" when he was majority leader.)

Two of the six chose to end their legislative service. One is running as an independent. (Stay tuned for a wild fall in Edina.) One, Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake, was embraced by his district's Republicans. They can't understand why anyone would take issue with a vote to fix a highway on which too many of their neighbors have needlessly died.

Anoka chiropractor-legislator Jim Abeler has a primary challenger in risk management consultant Don Huizenga. Neither of them has party endorsement, which means Huizenga can't turn the party's machine on Abeler.

Huizenga allowed last week that he's known as the "Vote No" guy on school levy referenda in his area, and "that's given me a bad rap." He says he's itching to be elected so he can revamp public schools to employ fewer teachers and put parents in charge. During last year's levy campaign, he posted a blog item describing the student achievement gap as "evidence of differing intelligence among different races."

Abeler has five strong terms to his credit. He doesn't sound worried.

That leaves Peterson vs. Schneider -- and makes south Edina and west Bloomington this year's center stage in the long-running Minnesota melodrama, "As the Republican Party Turns."

It's been turning to the right since at least 1980. Is it still? The District 41B primary will set this year's mark on the ideological scale. Judging from the looks of the lawn signs and the edge in both candidates' voices, a dogfight is on.

Schneider, 53, a self-employed business consultant (she won't name her clients) and a former member of the Bloomington Planning Commission, is no neophyte. She lost a primary fight to state Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, in 2002.

In philosophy, politics and personal style, she could be a twin of Sixth District congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She's gunning not only for Peterson's transportation vote, she says, but also for his voting too often with DFLers and for his low rating by the Taxpayers League (home of the "no new taxes" pledge).

In short, her case is that Peterson is not a real Republican. To Peterson, that's tantamount to questioning his birthright.

"I was born a Republican like I was born a Presbyterian. It's who I am," he said. Even his career choices sound Republican: The 67-year-old Peterson is a former commercial banker, now a development consultant.

He could have bolted, switched parties or run as an independent, but he refused. "I am just not going to let them take 25 years of service to this community and cast it aside like a piece of dirt. The Republican Party that I know is much, much bigger than them. I'm convinced that a majority of the Republican voters understood exactly why I voted for that [transportation] bill and are on board with me."

District 41B touches on highways numbered 494, 169 and 100. People who drive there morning and night have to know that gridlock and potholes had become more costly than the few extra pennies of gas tax needed to fix them. Peterson is counting on those same people's ability to find their way to the polls on Sept. 9.

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

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