Minnesota Senate's only gay Republican faces challenge.
NISSWA, MINN. - It was not exactly what state Sen. Paul Koering needed with a ticklish re-election bearing down on him, but there it was in big type in the hometown newspaper: A front-page account of Koering's dinner with a gay porn star, complete with a listing of the films the actor had appeared in.
So it was understandable that Koering, who as a gay Republican frustrates many conservatives in his own party, quickly stopped talking about it. "I just think I should continue to knock on everybody's door ... and convince them why I should continue to serve them as their senator," said Koering, a former dairy farmer from Fort Ripley who owns a funeral car service in the Brainerd area.
It was also understandable that Paul Gazelka, a buttoned-down insurance agent challenging Koering in the Republican primary, noticeably played up his stance on traditional marriage in the days that followed. "We're different in how we think marriage should be defined," Gazelka said at a small fundraiser in a American Legion hall in Nisswa.
Gazelka, a former legislator and now his party's endorsed candidate, reminded the crowd that he had pushed a so-called "Defense of Marriage" proposal because "we simply wanted a marriage to remain defined as between a man and a woman."
But it is unclear in this land of forests, lakes and expensive resorts whether Koering's eight years in the state Senate are in jeopardy of coming to an end. As Gazelka highlights an agenda that promotes family values and a 28-year marriage to his "best friend" -- his wife, Maralee -- he is hoping to test the tolerance of voters who so far have largely shrugged over Koering's personal life.
"I think it was foolish," Pastor Dave Uhrich of Christ Community Church in Nisswa said of Koering's dinner episode. "[But] will it cost him votes? I doubt it. It might even gain him some votes."
Even Patty Wilczek, who lives in Little Falls and who was already in Gazelka's column because she liked his fiscal conservatism, said she would vote for Koering in November should he win the Republican primary on Aug. 10. She would do so, she said, even though she felt "a person's character" ranks high when choosing a candidate.
Jokingly, she added: "I can't say the last time I went out with a porn star."
Koering's dinner date came to light last month when the porn actor Twittered about it. Koering later explained that his dinner guest was the son of a constituent and has refrained from further discussion about the incident.
He's not the only one with little to say. Little Falls Mayor Cathy Van Risseghem said she was "not interested" in commenting.
Taylor Stevenson, the DFL-endorsed challenger for Koering's seat, issued a press release announcing that he, too, would not be saying much.
"[These] reports are exactly the kind of personal attacks that turn so many off of politics," said Stevenson, a 22-year-old who graduated from college last month. Stevenson said his campaign will focus on unemployment, health care and education.
'He was supposed to be here'
At the annual summer festival in Motley, a town of fewer than 700 just west of Brainerd, Rita Esterl noticed Koering's absence. "I thought he was supposed to be here," said Esterl, the festival's secretary, as she organized volunteers on the fair's first day. There were pickles on a stick for $1, a tractor parade and a scheduled visit from Mrs. Minnesota, Susie Overvold.
"Every year, he [Koering] sends in for a booth," Esterl said.
In spite of the high-minded calls to stick to the issues, there were indications that people were plenty interested in figuring out how Koering's race was being affected by the disclosure. Sue Hilgart, Gazelka's campaign manager, said she noticed an "uptick" in hits on Gazelka's website as soon as Koering made headlines. Todd Strohschein, a construction worker in Motley who backs Gazelka, said his mother -- who was in the hospital -- was the first to mention Koering's dinner to him.
There were, however, just as many signs that it would all blow over. In Crow Wing County, where Brainerd is located, unemployment still hovered at 7.4 percent in May and jobs may still determine the outcome of any election.
"I see it easing a little bit, but maybe [only] because it's summer," said 30-year-old Doug Ross, who supports Gazelka and works at a Culver's restaurant.
Gazelka is careful not to come across as overconfident. He knows other Republicans have tried to unseat Koering and failed. A year after publicly announcing he is gay, Koering easily pushed aside a Republican challenger in the 2006 primary and cruised to re-election with 55 percent of the vote.
"I don't think anybody is feeling the least bit [like] we can kick back," Hilgart said.
'A very caring senator'
James Wallin, Brainerd's 12-year mayor, said he likes Koering, who grew up in the area and attended Brainerd High School.
"I think he's a very caring senator," Wallin said, sitting in his office. Koering, he said, understands the financial predicament that state aid cutbacks have created for cities like Brainerd. Besides, the mayor said, he has helped Koering on occasion by driving one of the senator's hearses when he needed help.
"I see him as a hardworking person for the area he represents," said Wallin. "I think [what happened] hurt [him] to a degree. And like I said, No. 1 -- it should have never made the front page of the paper .... It's his personal, private life."
At the end of Gazelka's Nisswa fundraiser, Chris Kellett stood up, grabbed the microphone and urged the crowd to get involved in the election.
"We don't want to become socialists," she said, referring to President Obama and the Democrats. "We're right there."
But after Kellet sat down, and was asked whom she was choosing between Koering and Gazelka, she hesitated.
"We support whoever makes it," said Kellett. "[Koering's] a really wonderful guy .... I think we're into a more tolerant [age, but] it wasn't a good time" for him to be the subject of more controversy.
"Timing," she said, referring to the upcoming primary, "is everything."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673