Payback that is both personal and political may be behind the tempest over a collection of names at a public event.
Mark Ritchie ran an unusually energetic and hard-edged campaign for secretary of state in 2006, unseating Republican Mary Kiffmeyer after charging her with improper partisanship in supervising elections.
Last week, Ritchie saw the tables turned, as Republican complaints forced him to admit he had mixed official and campaign business.
The flap reflects at least two things. The first is the zest with which the GOP targeted Ritchie for payback. Partly, some say, that's because Republicans think Ritchie has higher political ambitions. The second is the lightning rod nature the office has acquired.
With races decided by hair-thin margins and hanging chads becoming part of the lexicon, election results and those who oversee them are more frequently regarded with suspicion.
Ritchie, 55, is no stranger to controversy after decades as a leading critic of U.S. trade and agricultural policies.
While claiming he can maintain the nonpartisanship required of the state's chief election official, Ritchie is aligned with several progressive groups, and his election in November was highlighted as a victory by Twenty-First Century Democrats, one of the largest political action committees in the nation dedicated to electing progressive candidates. The Communist Party USA wrote encouragingly of his candidacy.
While Kiffmeyer was criticized for putting restrictions on who can vote and on being obsessed with rooting out voter fraud -- both Republican talking points -- before the 2004 election, Ritchie led National Voice, a coalition that registered low-income people and minorities in areas likely to lean Democratic.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey has called for Ritchie's resignation for mixing official business with his campaign. Ritchie acknowledged asking a campaign volunteer to copy a list of participants in a civic engagement program through the secretary of state's office to his campaign newsletter, which included a political contribution request.
But Ritchie, who has given no indication he is taking the Republican request seriously, has been in the cross-hairs before. When Kiffmeyer and Ritchie met before he took office, conservative blogger Michael Brodkorb tagged along with Kiffmeyer and posted an anti-Ritchie item on the meeting within hours.
David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University and past president of the Minnesota chapter of Common Cause, said Ritchie pushes an agenda some conservatives might view as equally partisan as Kiffmeyer's: expanding voting rolls and encouraging easier registration. There is also a sense Ritchie is being groomed for greater things. "There's this sense that [U.S. Sen. Paul] Wellstone is dead. They are looking for the next progressive," Schultz said. "He's maybe the most liberal of all the DFLers who got elected this past year."
In addition, Ritchie rose through party ranks and cannot completely abandon the partisan agenda that supported him. "For secretary of state, a down-ballot race, you need the party apparatus behind you. And to get the party endorsement you need to have done the things that Mark has done over the course of his career, meaning advocating very strong issues that fall 100 percent in line with the party's viewpoints," said Christian Sande, who lost the DFL endorsement to Ritchie.
DFL State Chairman Brian Melendez said the Republican attack has more to do with discrediting Ritchie as a way to take back the office than in anything Ritchie may have proposed or done wrong.
"You've heard the expression, it matters less who votes than who counts the votes? That seems to be the Bush/Cheney strategy in winning elections. It worked for them in Florida in 2000; it worked for them in Ohio in 2004, and they are trying to make it work in Minnesota," Melendez said.
In June, Ritchie convened a meeting of all the state's parties to talk about precinct caucuses, recruiting election judges and encouraging robust elections.
"I found him to be very supportive of nonpartisan stuff. I just feel like he's done a very good job of reaching out to all the parties," said Craig Swaggert, head of the Independence Party of Minnesota.
Ritchie, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, has said he can maintain the two roles without conflict.
"In every speech I give, I talk about healing the partisan divisions and bridging the gaps between us," Ritchie said in February. "I'm trying to make sure the system is working for everybody."
Mark Brunswick 651-222-1636