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Minn. GOP Chairman Downey attacks deputy as election nears

Days before state Republican Party leaders meet to elect new leaders, current Chairman Keith Downey has fired off a blistering letter questioning the judgment and competency of Chris Fields, the deputy chair who is running to replace Downey.

Downey is not running for re-election after four years as party chairman, and has said he is considering a bid for governor next year.

But the letter and voluminous attachments — sent to the nominations committee of the party’s State Central Committee — make it unusually clear that Downey does not want Fields to prevail in the four-way race to lead the party in Minnesota.

“After getting significantly behind on 4 out of 5 of his agreed-upon 2016 responsibilities, he refused to provide any kind of plan for the areas he was responsible for, eventually had those responsibilities removed from him, and yet insisted on continuing to be fully compensated,” Downey wrote of Fields, one of a litany of criticisms he unfurled in the letter.

Fields did not respond to the letter’s allegations directly, but said in an interview that he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Republican campaigns.

“There is not much factual about that memo,” Fields said.

Republicans meet Saturday in St. Cloud to elect party leaders for the 2018 election cycle, in which the GOP will try to break a more than decadelong losing streak in statewide races, and has an opportunity to achieve complete control of state government for the first time in many decades. Republicans also have their eye on capturing two or perhaps even three congressional seats now held by DFLers, in districts that President Donald Trump won last year.

Fields is running against former state Sen. David Hann, businesswoman Jennifer Carnahan and Republican National Committeeman Rick Rice.

The Downey letter, which party insiders say is an extraordinary intervention in the race to succeed him, details what it calls inappropriate correspondence and public statements by Fields. It also alleges that he leaked party financial information and failed in his attempts at organizing and fundraising.

Downey declined to comment, calling it an internal personnel matter.

The letter lists an array of infractions: Fields publicly criticized U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, a Republican from the Second District who was the party’s endorsed candidate last year. He found himself in a distracting social media spat after comments he made upon the death of actor Robin Williams.

In August of 2016, Downey wrote Fields a memo on the money he had raised and his compensation. Fields had raised $37,000 — a small sum in light of the millions raised for Minnesota campaigns — while receiving about $13,000 in pay. Downey and party officials repeatedly sought to force Fields to meet performance metrics, but he failed to do so, according to the correspondence.

After Fields made a presentation to a party committee about voter trends, Downey wrote to him, “Do NOT continue to disseminate your analysis,” attacking his data and conclusions as flawed.

Fields shrugged off the criticism and said he would keep his response to the delegates, to whom he wrote a reply that he declined to share.

“I’m a black Republican in Minnesota, so I’ve been called a whole lot of names,” Fields said. “I’ve got pretty thick skin. God bless him,” he said of Downey. “I wish him the best.”

The tension between Downey and Fields — who was elected deputy in 2014 — is evident in an e-mail Fields sent to Downey and another party official in March: “No, I am not threatening acts of violence. I am pleading with you though, with tears in my eyes; do not to get involved in the Chair’s race. It will not work out well.”

That e-mail is included as an attachment to the Downey letter that went out to the GOP Nominations Committee, which will present to the delegates Saturday a determination about whether or not the candidates for party offices are qualified.

“I’m pretty comfortable with my relationship with the grass roots,” Fields said. “And they know where I’ve been on the issues.”

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042

Dayton open to approving transportation plan without raising gas tax

Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday left open the possibility that he would sign a transportation funding plan that does not include a 10-cent increase to the gas tax — a signature component of his transportation proposal.

“I’m not going to veto a transportation bill that’s satisfactory in other respects because it doesn’t have a gas tax,” said the DFL governor, who criticized the hard-line position of Republican legislative leaders who have stridently opposed raising the gas tax.

Dayton’s remarks came as the Transportation Finance Commerce Committee met Thursday in an effort to reconcile differences between the House and Senate transportation budget bills.

“I’m very hopeful that we’ll come up with a bill,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, following a wide-ranging two-hour committee hearing.

But it appears as if long-standing differences over funding for metro-area mass transit could still prevent a deal by the end of this legislative session — the same juggernaut that stalled lawmakers last year.

The House transportation bill, in particular, calls for deep cuts to local bus and light-rail service, which provided more than 82 million rides last year, according to the Metropolitan Council.

“I’ve heard lawmakers say time and time again that they aren’t anti-transit, that they support bus [service],” Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck testified. “What these bills do is the complete opposite of that.”

Should provisions of the House bill be adopted, the regional planning body said all Metro Transit bus routes — whether they’re express or local — would be reduced or even eliminated. Twenty to 70 of the system’s bus routes could be cut entirely, the council claimed.

Red Line bus-rapid transit service between the Mall of America and Apple Valley could be pared, as well as weekend service of the Northstar commuter rail, which connects Minneapolis to Big Lake. The council noted that Transit Link, the dial-a-ride service in areas without access to regular route transit, would be cut, too.

Several advocates testified the loss of transit service would adversely affect their lives. Brandishing a Metro Transit Go-To card, St. Paul resident Betty Lotterman said her transit pass was her “most-valued possession” because she cannot drive. Likewise, Amity Foster, who lives in northeast Minneapolis, said she takes transit because she suffers from seizures. “I wonder what I will have to cut out of my life if you cut transit?” she asked lawmakers.

Others testified against the $1.9 billion Southwest light-rail project, which would link downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. David Lilly, from the Lakes and Parks Alliance, which is suing to stop the Southwest line, called the project a “disaster” from an environmental, policy, safety and equity standpoint.

All told, nearly 40 speakers testified about transportation issues they care about — from milk-truck weights to railroad safety to bike paths.

Next week, the committee will get down to the nitty-gritty work of crafting a broader bill. “We need a transportation bill,” Newman said. “The question is, ‘What will that bill look like?’ ”

Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he was encouraged after his meeting with Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt on Thursday morning. He said the House, Senate and governor are “close” to an agreement on the transportation bill, including on issues related to public transit.

“The big issue was [funding for] buses, and we’re open to that,” he said. “We recognize that transit related to buses is important, so we’ll find a number that we’ll all agree with.”

Dayton pointed to other Republican governors and legislatures that have recently approved gas tax increases to fund improvements to roads and bridges.

He’s also proposed a half-cent metro-area sales tax to pay for transit, although it’s unclear whether that idea will gain any traction going forward.

 

Star Tribune staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752 janet.moore@startribune.com