First-time candidates for statewide office have a tough act to follow.
It wasn't just that John Kriesel flouted the unspoken rule that freshman legislators are to be seen but not heard. It was the confounding, sometimes gleeful way he went about it.
He clashed openly with powerful figures in his own Republican party over his support for the Vikings stadium. In a political world where campaign pledges to work across the aisle are typically dead on arrival in St. Paul, he did so. He became "the dude," taking to Twitter to skirmish and breathe humor into legislative antics. Finally, he again broke defiantly and passionately with party ranks in a speech against putting the gay marriage amendment on the ballot (now hitting the airwaves in TV ads).
So when the Cottage Grove war hero announced he was leaving after only one term, it not only opened a seat in a traditionally DFL-leaning district in south Washington County, it left a void of powerful personality that had won rare bipartisan plaudits.
The two main candidates to succeed him are fully aware they have a tough act to follow.
Just as Kriesel did in 2010, Derrick Lehrke, a Republican, and Dan Schoen, a DFLer, are making their first runs for statewide office. Ron Lischeid, a perennial candidate not endorsed by any of the state's political parties, also is on the ballot.
Lehrke and Schoen each describe themselves as holding to Kriesel's centrist course. Both are skeptical, however, that their opponent is the moderate he claims to be. Lehrke is a strident conservative, Schoen said; by contrast, Lehrke said Schoen will be beholden to unions and other groups that support him.
Lehrke is a lifelong Cottage Grove resident who was home-schooled. He and his wife, Autumn, a Washington County commissioner, own and manage rental properties in the city. He also works at Running Aces casino in Columbus and is studying emergency management. He won a Cottage Grove City Council seat in 2010 in large part by tapping a vein of undercurrent anger over a controversial Public Safety/City Hall Building project that was completed this month.
Schoen grew up in western Minnesota, where he graduated from MACCRAY High School and Ridgewater College. He has been a Cottage Grove police officer for the past 11 years. A divorced father of two, his main political experience was helping craft and support legislation to combat synthetic narcotics.
Lehrke has been friends with Kriesel for several years, and he has Kriesel's support. A photo of him conferring with Kriesel on the House floor dominates the homepage of his campaign website.
"There is part of me that wants to live up to that," Lehrke said of Kriesel. "But it's also kind of hard to say that, because you hear people talk about John Kriesel as a persona, but I just know him as John, the person."
Like Kriesel, "I'm an independent person. I'm not just a party guy," Lehrke said.
For example, Lehrke said he is open to discussing new tax revenue to solve the state's budget problems and also opposes the marriage amendment, reflecting his libertarian view that what people do in their private lives is not the government's business.
He said that doesn't pertain to abortion, however, and he also backs his party's support for the voter ID amendment. And while he did not seek it, the Republican Liberty Caucus of Minnesota, a group aligned with the Tea Party, gave Lehrke its endorsement last month.
"People ask me at the door: 'Am I a lefty, or a righty?'" Schoen said. "I say, 'No, I'm a middle-y.'"
Lehrke, he said, is a hard-line conservative Republican whose views don't reflect the district.
"He's trying to connect himself with John Kriesel and saying he's going to be like John Kriesel. I'm going to be like Dan Schoen," Schoen said. "I'm going to take care of this district."
Schoen also opposes the marriage amendment, but he's also against the voter ID amendment. "If you're going to be serious about [election reform], a picture ID in the constitution is not the best answer, and then we're going to be stuck with it," he said. Technology has made fake IDs sophisticated, fooling even trained eyes. "I've seen some of the best ones there are, and they make some phenomenal ones."
There's also a question of personal style.
Lehrke has built a reputation for confrontation that has drawn public rebukes from fellow City Council members, who have accused Lehrke of grandstanding and picking fights over non-issues.
But Lehrke said he's simply being a strong advocate -- doing the job he's supposed to do. "Right or wrong, I like to ask the tough questions," he said, adding he strives to disagree respectfully. "Even if I'm in favor of [an issue], I just want to make sure we're asking the questions. ... The citizens didn't elect us to just wig it."
"That's just not how I operate," Schoen said. As a trained SWAT team negotiator and narcotics detective, Schoen said he has been trained to connect with people in tense situations. "You find common ground -- we know what the end goal needs to be; how we arrive there doesn't need to be my way alone," he said. "We just need to do what's best for everybody."
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: StribJAnderson