Handful of races could decide control of Legislature

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 8:45 AM

Republicans have narrow majorities in both bodies for the first time in nearly four decades, and the majority means everything: control of the agenda and the ability to pass or defeat bills and budgets.

House by house, vote by vote, Ben Kruse and Melisa Franzen hike through familiar neighborhoods with messages of hope and political deliverance.

Kruse, a low-key Republican in Coon Rapids, and Franzen, a high-octane DFLer in Edina, are performing the timeless rite of "doorknocking" in pursuit of separate state Senate seats. Their doorstep listening sessions are critical parts of the multimillion dollar battle for the biggest statewide prize of the election season: control of the Minnesota Legislature.

Their pitches are gently persuasive -- "Just some information on all the things I've accomplished," Kruse tells one potential voter, as he hands out a leaflet -- but their quest is serious.

The legislative party caucuses, the political parties, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and powerful business and labor interests are raising and spending millions to support these lonely block-walkers because taxes and budgeting and all the workings of state government are within the purview of 201 men and women who make it to the finish line.

Republicans have narrow majorities in both bodies for the first time in nearly four decades, and the majority means everything: control of the agenda and the ability to pass or defeat bills and budgets. In a year when all seats are on the ballot, the combatants are struggling mightily to attain the magic numbers Nov. 6 -- 68 votes in the House, 34 in the Senate.

Franzen, seeking to move from one house to another, makes a claim any of the candidates could make: "It's a race that might be pivotal in terms of who gets the majority," she said.

This drive for the majority creates a statewide panorama of streetwalking campaigners, glossy hit sheets filling up mailboxes and highway ditches sprouting signage amid the reddening sumac. There is an ex-NFL star running for the Senate in Moorhead, present and former mayors having at it in Worthington and a redistricting trifecta in Bemidji-Grand Rapids: Six incumbents thrown together by new political boundaries in one suddenly crowded Senate district.

Doorstep democracy has its own sweet rhythm. Waning daylight, combines in the fields and winds picking trees clean of fall color provide the backdrop for a homey, biennial ritual.

"It's a thrilling time of year, being out talking to people, getting their ideas," said GOP Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem. "It is a time where we're all on trial."

Firing up

Gov. Mark Dayton was getting worked up, preaching to the DFL choir gathered for mimosas and politics in an Eden Prairie living room.

"This is about Republicans trying to steal the 2014 election," he said, speaking of the GOP's photo ID constitutional amendment at a fundraiser in a supporter's home. "I'm up, Franken's up, the House will be up. It's trying to just jam it and invalidate a whole lot of votes and take the election away from the people of Minnesota."

That passion for Nov. 6 was shared by Randi Reitan, co-host of the gathering, mother of a gay son and a fervent opponent of the other amendment -- banning same-sex marriage. She blames Sen. David Hann, her state senator, who sponsored one of the anti-gay-marriage amendment bills, and whose opponent, DFLer Laurie McKendry, was the beneficiary of the day's fundraiser.

"There is no reason we should be tearing this state apart," Reitan said in the kitchen, which looked out on fiery fall color in her back yard woods. "It breaks my heart. That's what David Hann did to our family. ... It ripped friendships apart. It ripped families apart."

High emotions -- and high stakes -- translate into big spending and the deployment of battle-tested field troops.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, through its own committee and an independent organization called Pro Jobs Majority, is supporting candidates who back the business agenda. Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a liberal organization fighting hard for a DFL Legislature, is aiming equally significant amounts at friends and foes.

Republicans are crowing about turning a deficit into a surplus without raising statewide taxes. DFLers criticize a legislative session that included a historic state shutdown, a focus on hot-button constitutional amendments and a debt of $2.4 billion to public schools that belies talk of a "surplus."

The four leaders -- House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove; Senate Majority Leader Senjem of Rochester; House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL- Minneapolis; and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook -- are racing round the state. They know the math: A net shift of four seats in the Senate from GOP to DFL, and seven in the House, could flip control and change everything.

Turnaround turf

In the vastness of House District 11B, stretching from Mora to Sturgeon Lake, turnaround elections are no surprise. Tim Faust of Hinckley, this year's DFL candidate in a race with no incumbent, has won two ad lost two.

He met his most recent demise in the 2010 Republican sweep. Now he is on the trail again, walking quiet city streets and driving from house to house in one corner of the district where there are "108 square miles and 25 doors."

Doorknocking, mail, some newspaper ads and perhaps local radio spots constitute the ground game of a rural legislative contender. Faust's message is simple. "This election is about: Do we want the Tea Party controlling Minnesota?" he said.

One recent day in Mora, Faust's GOP opponent, Iraq war veteran and first-time candidate Ben Wiener, was looking at evidence that the relatively poor district needs more economic muscle. A number of homes on Wood Street appear unoccupied, possibly due to foreclosure, and one still has literature from Wiener's visit during the August primary.

"It all comes down to jobs -- jobs runs the economy,'' Wiener said.

"I'm Ben Wiener, the Iraq veteran," he says at the doorstep. A couple engage him on the anti-gay marriage amendment, which they support, but aren't clear on whether "yes" or "no" is the right vote. "If you're for traditional marriage, you want to vote yes," Wiener said.

Rochester rebound

Politics is local, and sometimes personal.

DFLer Judy Ohly of Rochester has been a friend of Senjem, the well-liked Republican Senate majority leader. When she told him she had decided to run against him, he said he understood. "He gave me a hug," she said of that emotional moment.

"I like Dave. I voted for Dave," said Ohly, an eight-year Olmsted County commissioner, as she worked the doors in a newer housing development near the IBM campus. But, she said, "Last session wasn't good for our community."

Ohly saw an opening in Senjem's failure to deliver funding for an expansion of the Rochester Civic Center. Rochester Republicans credit Senjem, who also chairs the bonding committee, with keeping the project alive as long as possible, blaming Dayton for its ultimate demise.

The home of Mayo Clinic, long home to Republicans of a moderate stripe, has become toss-up territory. DFLers broke through and won four of the six area House and Senate seats in the 2004-06 elections; Republicans took two of those seats back in 2010. There are busy offices for the county DFL and Republican parties, for the Obama campaign and for Minnesotans United for All Families, which opposes the amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"Rochester is ground zero for the whole campaign cycle," said House Speaker Zellers.

While Ohly criticizes Senjem for not securing state bonding money, GOP Rep. Mike Benson, running for re-election in a Rochester-area house seat, is a proud member of the "not-a-penny-more crowd" that battled Dayton through the shutdown budget dispute.

"The Mayo Civic Center lost $900,000 in operating revenues last year," said Benson, who is being challenged by Pat Stallman, a retired banker.

"I represent Stewartville out in the rural area," he said. "They've got to live within their means. ... The average Joe, I think, gets it."

Suburban square-offs

The growth of the Twin Cities suburbs marks this as a rich vein of competitive seats. That gives hope to Franzen in Edina and keeps Kruse on his toes in Brooklyn Park-Coon Rapids.

Franzen faces two-term GOP Rep. Keith Downey, whose challenges to public-employee contracts have made him a conservative hero and a union target. Franzen is a Target Corp. attorney seeking to occupy the sweet-spot of pro-business DFLer.

On a recent evening in Edina, she chatted up a couple taking their child for a stroll and made her pitch for more moderates.

"Compromise, that's a word that has been lost," she tells another resident, who agrees: "Absolutely lost."

Kruse, running in a more blue-collar district, faces a stiff challenge from DFLer John Hoffman, vice chair of the Anoka Hennepin school board.

So he walks, knocks, talks -- and listens.

Kruse often asks open-ended questions to see what's on people's minds. On this day, constituents tell him that campaigns last too long, that the nation should guarantee health care for everyone and that work is a blessing from God. A question to a man waxing his vehicle leads to a meandering discussion of health care and the problem of obesity. Kruse listens patiently, promises to forward the man's concerns to the appropriate committee and moves on to the next door.

"They need to see you," Kruse said. "That's how we won in 2010. That's how we'll keep it this year."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

 

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