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Tarryl Clark doesn't take no for an answer.
The first time the DFLer ran for public office, she lost. And the second time. And then she ran again and won a seat in the state Senate.
Then she ran for Congress, and lost. It was a bruising, costly battle against incumbent Rep. Michele Bachmann, where Clark shattered fundraising records for a congressional challenger in this state but still found herself outspent by a 3-to-1 margin.
So she pulled up stakes from St. Cloud, moved one congressional district to the north, and ran again in the sprawling Eighth Congressional District. She skipped the DFL endorsement contest -- figuring she'd lose -- but kept right on campaigning.
Now Clark, 50, is in a three-way fight in the Democratic primary Aug. 14. The winner moves on to challenge first-term Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in this traditionally Democratic district.
"You have to keep pushing if you want to make things better," Clark said. "I've learned to be both persistent and patient -- and I think that's a trait that will serve me well in Washington."
Her campaign against Bachmann endeared Clark to national Democratic groups like EMILY's list, which helped her raise more than $1 million for her current campaign, dwarfing the other two Democrats in the race -- former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and former Duluth City Council President Jeff Anderson.
A longtime community organizer, Clark has worked with groups ranging from labor unions to the Girl Scouts. Long before she rented a condo in Duluth and set her sights on the Eighth District seat, she says, she crisscrossed the district for decades for work or for church youth group programs with her husband, Doug.
"As corny as it sounds, I try to figure out, 'Where can I make the biggest difference?' and right now, with Congress forgetting that their priorities are our families and our communities, I think where I can make the biggest difference is there," Clark said.
But on the Iron Range, the spine of the district, they have a word for people who come North looking for work. They call them packsackers, a term stemming from the days when outsiders carried their belongings in a packsack as they sought temporary work in the region's mines.
How will Clark's strengths as a prolific fundraiser and dogged campaigner with strong union ties balance against the packsacker stigma? Political observers are dying to know.
"She's a wonderful woman, she did a great job in the state Senate. On paper, she's just the ideal candidate," said longtime political observer Wy Spano, who directs the Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "The trouble is, she's got this [label] facing her."
Then again, the Eighth District elected non-Minnesota native Cravaack, who has since moved his family to New Hampshire to be closer to his wife's new employer.
Steelworker and native Iron Ranger Ray Pierce Sr., for one, doesn't care where Clark came from. (She was born on a naval base in Norfolk, Va.)
"She's an honest person," said Pierce, who has manned the phone banks for Clark's campaign. "She's being perceived as somebody who's out to help us get our jobs back." Asked why he chose Clark over native sons Nolan and Anderson, Pierce said that "I'd seen the fight that she gave when she ran against Michele Bachmann. In my view, she's always been strong on jobs, always made sure she talked about the economy and getting people back to work."
Despite having been a leader in the state Senate and an associate co-chair of the state party, Clark has drawn heavy criticism for her decision to buck the endorsement process. Party Chairman Ken Martin professed disappointment and recently announced the party will start running ads for Nolan, the endorsee.
Clark is keeping her day job as she campaigns, working part time for the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups. She estimates she spends another 20 hours a week fundraising and the rest of the time making the rounds of the sprawling district she hopes to represent. She hit 10 parades over the Fourth of July holiday and squeezes in an occasional turn as a guest Bingo caller. On Monday, Clark learned she is far outpacing her primary rivals in fundraising, with $260,000 on hand compared to Anderson's $20,000 and Nolan's $50,000.
"Every now and then, the sun, the stars, the moon all align" in politics, Clark said, "and you can make a difference in a way you can't any other way."
Jennifer Brooks 615-925-5049