As this year’s legislative session has spun toward its sunset, it’s been notable how often state Sen. Julianne Ortman has popped up on the Senate floor, microphone in hand, to deliver one of her trademark from-the-right punches on a variety of topics.
Ortman isn’t doing anything new. She’s been a leading voice for Republican views for all of the 12 years she’s represented the southwest metro exurbs.
What’s notable is that she’s still doing about as much floor-talking as she always did, even though she’s in a full-tilt fight for her party’s U.S. Senate endorsement. And that contest is due to be decided in less than two weeks at the party’s state convention in Rochester.
Through the years, plenty of legislators have gone AWOL from the Capitol when they seek higher office, for understandable reason. Just dialing for dollars can be a full-time occupation when the price of a U.S. Senate bid that runs through November has climbed to the $20 million range.
(Rep. Jim Abeler, the other Republican legislator vying to replace DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken, also cannot be accused of excessive absenteeism. As I write these lines, I’m watching Abeler in a live video shot of the House floor — up and down, in and out, chatting with colleagues of both parties, per his peripatetic pattern for the past 16 years.)
Ortman confesses that she’s made one legislative concession to the demands of her U.S. Senate campaign. She withdrew from the Judiciary Committee — though one might not have guessed that from her floor speeches on judicial topics. Otherwise, she’s been a force as usual as the ranking minority member of the Taxes Committee, and also serves on the higher ed/workforce development panel.
It’s not in Ortman’s nature — nor in her political interest, by her calculus — to neglect one set of public responsibilities in order to pursue another. Legislative work plus her prior two-year stint as a Carver County commissioner are good and proper qualifications for the U.S. Senate, she contends.
“Senate readiness for me boils down to: Are you prepared to advocate for the best interests of Minnesota, and how do you determine what they are?” Ortman told me recently. “I’ve been a student of Minnesota for the last 14 years. I’ve learned about the needs of this state. … I’m prepared to be that spokesperson.” What’s more: “I’ve taken 14 years of public votes. That builds confidence and public trust.”
Her one-rung-at-a-time approach is the old-fashioned way to build a political career. If she wins endorsement on May 30, among the questions her candidacy will pose to rank-and-file Minnesota Republicans is whether they are old-fashioned in that way, too.
Ortman’s chief rival for endorsement is the other candidate who has said he will abide by the convention’s decision, Chris Dahlberg, a five-year member and current chair of the St. Louis County Board. Abeler isn’t a strong convention threat, since he says he won’t let convention delegates decide whether or not he takes his candidacy to the Aug. 14 primary.
But regardless of whom the convention chooses, political newcomer Mike McFadden will be waiting in the primary weeds with a big stockpile of cash. He raised more than $2 million by the end of March and boasted last weekend that his current tally is nearing $3 million.
By comparison, Ortman’s total reported take on March 31 was slightly north of $611,000. Incumbent Franken reported nearly $6 million in cash on hand as of March 31.
If Ortman can be said to be treading a traditional insiders’ path to federal office, then McFadden is on the outside trail.
Ortman, 51, is an attorney, alumna of Minnetonka High School and Macalester College, and a Chanhassen mom of four. She found a political ladder within reach in 2000, grabbed it and started climbing. She reached the Senate Taxes Committee chair in 2011 and deputy minority leader’s post in 2012. As much as any legislator, she was responsible for extending the “no new taxes” era initiated by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty into the first two years of Gov. Mark Dayton’s term.
Her interim job also involves public service. She’s a legal and financial adviser in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
McFadden, 49, is an Omaha native and University of St. Thomas grad. He has lived in Minnesota since 1993 and makes his home in Sunfish Lake with his wife and six children. He, too, is an attorney, but his pre-campaign career has been in the mergers-and-acquisitions business, not politics. He was co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market, a firm that specializes in the buying and selling of private companies, until taking a leave to campaign.
Some of that buying and selling has led to job losses. That evidently was enough to prompt the McFadden campaign to recently reassure potential Washington backers that his career and Mitt Romney’s as a private-equity mogul are not parallel.
They’re not, for another reason: Romney had been a governor. McFadden’s résumé includes no elective office at all.
McFadden’s fundraising prowess reveals his appeal to the GOP business/political complex, both in Minnesota and nationally. It also betrays the disdain of the GOP donor class for this state’s party endorsement process, which two years ago served up the ineffectual Kurt Bills against DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar won re-election with 65 percent of the vote.
In 2012, Bills was little-known and ill-prepared. He had spent just one term in the state House, had no record of legislative or community leadership, and was given to spouting Tea Party talking points rather than displaying real knowledge about public policy or Minnesota.
McFadden may be no Mitt Romney. More’s the point: Ortman is no Kurt Bills.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.