Jack Suttor, in his Marine Corps sweatshirt, stood outside under a deep blue sky, the leaves exploding with autumn color, but he looked saddened when he talked about the upcoming election.
“I got turned off by politics, to be honest,” he said to Ginny Klevorn, a first-time DFL candidate who was hoping to get his vote in her battleground state House race.
Suttor had already voted, leaving much of the ballot blank.
Klevorn wished him well, checked her list and moved along in the older subdivision in Plymouth. For weeks, Klevorn has spent her days and nights methodically working her way through legislative district 44a, the once solidly Republican suburban area where she hopes to topple Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, a powerful committee chairwoman running for a sixth term.
The battle for controlling the Minnesota House is being fought largely in the suburbs. Outside a handful of districts in greater Minnesota that are in play, Republicans control the state’s rural areas, while the DFL has a solid lock on the Twin Cities.
That leaves the suburbs: Once the site of nuclear families but which now are home to young couples with more liberal social views as well as megachurches, fourth-generation Minnesotans and new immigrants, commuters and telecommuters and stay-at-home moms and dads.
The stakes of about a dozen suburban races are significant: If DFLers can flip seven districts, they will control the House after losing it in 2014. If they retain control of the Senate, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton will have fewer obstacles for an agenda that includes universal pre-kindergarten, a robust transportation plan backed by a gas tax increase and new employer mandates like a higher minimum wage and paid family leave.
If Republicans can keep the House and possibly win control of the Senate, they can thwart Dayton initiatives and be better able to drive down taxes and government spending.
For Dayton, a Klevorn victory over Anderson would be doubly rewarding. Anderson, who did not respond to several interview requests, heads the committee charged with oversight of key state government agencies and has confronted Dayton on pay raises and severance for his commissioners.
Republican colleagues say she has deep policy knowledge and keeps her eye trained on whether government is delivering services effectively and efficiently.
“She wants to know, are we delivering value for people? Should we be doing this in the first place? What are we really getting?” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. “She pushes the value proposition for the taxpayer and for the people of Minnesota.”
Dean said Anderson is unafraid to take on the caucus when she thinks Republicans are moving in the wrong direction.
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, sat next to Anderson after being elected in 2012.
“As a new legislator, you’re looking to understand things, and her background is steeped in working policy and legislation through the House,” he said.
Dean said Anderson, who is married and has a son in the third grade, is a strong voice for suburban voters, even as the Republican caucus takes on an increasingly rural and outstate cast.
Klevorn and the DFL are trying to make the case that they are the party of the suburbs, focusing on education, college affordability, property taxes and transportation.
“Education. That’s the reason most of us have moved out here,” Klevorn said of suburban school districts.
Klevorn said local school districts are increasingly on their own, requiring property tax increases to pay for improvements.
Meanwhile, parents worry their kids will face mounting debt to pay for college. In the four years separating the youngest and the oldest of her three children, tuition had increased $5,000 at the University of Minnesota, she said.
“The incredible shift … on to young adults and families, that’s created a terrible burden, especially for millennials,” Klevorn said.
“I’ve heard so many stories at the doors,” she said.
That’s a frequent refrain from Klevorn, and no wonder: DFL Minority Leader Paul Thissen told a group of volunteers that he tracks how many doors the candidates knock on, and Klevorn is in the top three.
Every day, noon until dark, she takes what she calls the “hard doors” — voters who refused to commit to her the first time she knocked.
Klevorn seems genuinely to enjoy the conversations, which can last for 15 minutes or more. She takes notes by hand to help her remember their key issues, much to the consternation of the data-centric party operatives who want spreadsheets, she said.
She saw a nail on a driveway and picked it up: “I do this all the time. No reason for someone to get a flat tire,” she said.
Her family lived in Belgium and later Brazil, where Klevorn volunteered for Catholic relief agencies in the favelas — the impoverished, makeshift slums on the edges of Brazilian cities — fundraising and helping organize work programs for young people.
Back in the states, Klevorn became a volunteer and later professional mediator, a skill she uses talking to voters, and that she hopes will be useful at the Legislature, even if all evidence points to continued sour partisanship.
Al Levine, a no-nonsense New York transplant, answered his door with a blunt question: “Are you a donkey or an elephant?”
Cheerily, without a hint of irony, Klevorn replied, “I’m a human.”