St. Paul soldier/candidate treads fine line

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 7, 2010 - 10:26 PM

DFL Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul says his campaigning from Fort Benning, Ga., via Facebook and Twitter isn't violating military regulations.

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Rep. John Lesch, center, DFL-St. Paul, talked with a colleague on the House floor in March.

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Military figures go on campaigns. So do politicians. Usually, they aren't one and the same, but state Rep. John Lesch is testing whether they can be.

The four-term House DFLer joined the National Guard and, at 37, is blending his military role with his candidacy for reelection to his St. Paul seat.

Before he left for Officer Candidate School this summer, he held a reelection fundraiser touting his military plans. Suggested donation: $50. From Officer Training School in Fort Benning, Ga., he has been tweeting and blogging about his experiences and mixing in suggestions about which events for fellow DFL candidates his supporters should attend.

Last week, under the heading "Greetings from Fort Benning," the Lesch campaign e-mailed supporters an update of his military activities. In the first person, Lesch recounted how hot it was during training and that he ranked in the top 31 percent of his class. He encouraged followers on his Facebook and Twitter pages to offer their support. In the next paragraph, he wrote about plans for a lawn sign kickoff for his campaign and other endorsed DFLers on the following Saturday in St. Paul.

"My time down here has only reinforced my belief that this is the greatest republic the world has ever known," he wrote.

It's not unusual for state legislators to be in the National Guard. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson was a general in the Guard. But Lesch, an unpredictable legislator who once flew to Baghdad on his own without any official approval, "to get a feel for the war," may be blurring the line of soldier/politician. He is having lawn signs placed for him, updating his Twitter and Facebook pages, and raising money for his campaign while completing schooling to become a second lieutenant.

He joined the National Guard in 2009 and has completed boot camp and combat infantry training. Lesch, who is an attorney, said he researched restrictions on campaigning while on active duty, conferred with several other Minnesota legislators who are in the Guard or Reserves, and carefully reviewed Defense Department directives.

"The spirit of the directive is the most important thing," Lesch said after a day of training. "You are not to be suggesting as a military member there is a military endorsement of your candidacy, or anyone else's candidacy. I'm confident that I don't have any reason to believe I'm wrong."

Lesch has two Facebook pages: one featuring a picture of him with newly shaved head in an Army uniform, the other of him speaking in tie and shirtsleeves on the House floor.

Last month, a National Guard captain just back from Afghanistan was forced to put his campaign for the Minnesota House on hold because of questions on whether he violated military rules by running for office while on active duty. Mark Martin, a 20-year military veteran who also served in Iraq, was running as a Republican in a suburban Minneapolis district and was ordered to stop campaigning immediately.

Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard, said that regulations for soldiers on active federal military duty are different from those in the Guard or Reserves. After being presented the scenario of Lesch's dispatch from Fort Benning while at Officer Candidate School, Olson said it was unclear whether the posting would be a violation and whether Lesch is on active duty.

"The topic of political activities by military members is a sensitive and complicated one. Unintentional failures to comply with the rules can easily occur," Olson said.

The head of the state's Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, which monitors campaign irregularities, said there are no restrictions on campaigning while in the military and the subject would be addressed only if someone files a complaint.

Bruce Anderson, an eight-term Republican member of the Minnesota House who served more than 22 years in the Minnesota Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, said he tried to maintain a firewall between his work at the Legislature and when he was in uniform. But he said the lines can easily be blurred with the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

"When we went to Camp Ripley for four or five days [of Minnesota Guard training], we'd do our job and that was it," Anderson said. "I think [Lesch] has to be careful with blogging and Facebook and things like that."

Lesch, who was reelected in 2008 with more than 76 percent of the vote, faces no primary opposition.

Lesch's GOP-endorsed opponent in November, Chris Connor, declined to talk about Lesch's military involvement. But in a statement he issued to a St. Paul political blog, Connor said he is concerned that Lesch might be deployed during his term and be unable to represent the people of his district.

"We need a full-time representative. I wish Lesch would have chosen one or the other, the Legislature or the Guard," Connor told the Saint Paul Republican City Committee blog.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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