Chaudhary battles on in a race defying easy explanations

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2010 - 10:58 PM

Despite the controversy around the state senator, he is drawing support, and his opponent isn't taking a win for granted.

For most of the summer, embattled Sen. Satveer Chaudhary has been knee-deep in controversy and viewed by many lawmakers as politically radioactive.

That is why it was surprising when Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller recently began door-knocking for the three-term senator. Chaudhary had already lost his DFL endorsement after using his position as one of Minnesota's leading politicians on outdoors issues to improve the fishing on a lake where he owns a cabin. The day after Pogemiller campaigned for the senator, Chaudhary confirmed that he also owed a quarter-million dollars in back taxes.

"I'm a friend of his," Pogemiller explained simply. "Free speech is allowed in this country ... He's a [DFL Senate] caucus member. I certainly feel that I can door-knock for him if I want to."

As Chaudhary fights for his political life in the Tuesday DFL primary, nothing over the past three months can be explained simply.

Bruised by controversy and officially admonished by a Senate ethics panel, Chaudhary still has amassed more campaign money than his challenger, former state legislator Barb Goodwin. As part of a last-minute push, Chaudhary earlier this week lent his campaign $5,000. He also managed to snag the endorsement of Education Minnesota, the influential teachers union.

So it was no surprise that Goodwin, who won DFL endorsement after local party officials took it from Chaudhary, arrived at a senior living complex in Columbia Heights last week and quickly began working the tables at an ice cream social. "I don't want to be overconfident at all," she said. "He's got a lot of money."

Goodwin said that Chaudhary, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, remains a bit of a mystery, popping up at some events during the campaign but noticeably absent from others. "He's been here in the past," Barb Connor, a volunteer at the social, said of Chaudhary. "I'm really surprised he hasn't shown up."

Upon learning that Pogemiller was stumping for Chaudhary, Goodwin immediately confronted the influential DFL leader. "[He said], 'Well, you know, Barb, it's been tradition to support our incumbent[s],'" said Goodwin. "And I said, 'Well, over the endorsed candidate?' And he said, yeah. I said, 'Well, that's a bad tradition, then.'"

Goodwin said Pogemiller promised to stop campaigning for Chaudhary and, she said, admitted to her that he'd been blindsided by Chaudhary's since-paid tax bill. But Pogemiller was far less definitive in an interview. Asked whether he would continue to help Chaudhary, Pogemiller replied, "I don't know. I campaign all the time, though. I door-knock every day for somebody."

State DFL Chair Brian Melendez declined to comment on Pogemiller's actions, though it's rare to have an elected leader campaigning against the party's endorsed candidate.

Goodwin knew she was in for a fight when she talked to Lil Novack, who smiled politely as Goodwin gave her a campaign flier. "Oh, yeah, he's in big trouble isn't he?" Novack said to Goodwin, referring to Chaudhary. After Goodwin left, Novack acknowledged that she had already sent in her absentee ballot -- for Chaudhary.

"I voted for Satveer Chaudhary because my son likes him," she said. Her son, she added, assured her that Chaudhary was "a good man."

At the ice cream social, Goodwin also had trouble winning over Bruce Nawrocki, the former Columbia Heights mayor who now serves on the City Council. Nawrocki, a DFLer, bluntly told Goodwin he was upset with the way DFL officials took away Chaudhary's endorsement and handed it to her. "I'm not saying you're not entitled" to run, said Nawrocki, who said the endorsing decision was made by a small group of party insiders.

"You know I'd do a good job for you," she replied, touching his shoulder.

"I'll vote," said Nawrocki, who said he was still undecided. As Goodwin walked way, he added: "We'll see what happens."

Goodwin got a warmer reception from Republican Gayle Norberg, a former Columbia Heights City Council member. "I'm trying to put it nicely -- [but] I think 'incompetence' is not a bad word" to describe Chaudhary, Norberg said. "That's probably about as hard -- as heavy -- as I go against anybody these days."

Senate peer 'disappointed'

Though many of his Senate colleagues have remained quiet on Chaudhary's reelection, Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, is not one of them. Betzold, a longtime legislator, is campaigning for Goodwin even though Chaudhary worked on Betzold's early campaigns. "I've been disappointed [with] him," Betzold said. He said he was particularly upset that Chaudhary, while apologizing for his actions in trying to get special fishing rules for the lake near his cabin, called his mistake a "procedural error."

Said Betzold: "This is more than just a procedural mistake."

Betzold professed surprise at Pogemiller's actions. "He'd have to answer why he chose to throw himself into basically a situation that's not going to help him," Betzold said.

The same might be said of Education Minnesota, which endorsed Chaudhary in late June as he faced the likely loss of his party endorsement.

Said Lonnie Hartley, a union spokesman: "There was nothing education-related" about his problems.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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