WASHINGTON – National Republicans have spent more than $4 million on ads portraying Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson as a man of Washington, a veteran House member who got the federal government to reimburse him for flying his private plane around, lease a couple cars and take junkets.
On Tuesday, state DFL leaders fought back pointing out his GOP opponent Torrey Westrom has also cashed in on publicly supported perks and reimbursements while serving in the state legislature.
“If Sen. Westrom is going to remain silent while out of state groups smear Rep. Peterson, it’s time to hold him accountable for his record of profiting from the taxpayers,” said DFL Chair Ken Martin, in a statement.
Martin pointed out Westrom was named the seventh-highest expense collector in the Minnesota Senate in 2013 — more than doubling his annual salary in per diems, mileage, housing and travel expenses.
From 2002 to 2014, Westrom received $98,477 in per diem payments, according to state House and Senate records compiled by Democrats. In that same timeframe, he received $54,000 in district travel expenses and $119,000 on lodging expenses and $47,000 on mileage expenses.
The National Republican Congressional Committee said from 2005 to 2013, Peterson, who is running for his 13th term, spent $73,976 on money to lease two vehicles. In that same time period, Peterson reimbursed himself $139,481 in privat auto mileage and gasoline, which includes $21,535 in rembursements for his plane.
Polls have been up and down in this race, but most show Westrom and Peterson within a few points of each other. Fifty percent of voters surveyed by KSTP Oct. 3 - Oct. 6 said they supported Peterson and 41 percent said they supported Westrom with 10 percent still undecided. Then a GOP poll out last week put Westrom ahead 44-43, with 13 percent still undecided.
“This is more evidence that Democrats are worried about keeping 12-term incumbent Collin Peterson’s seat,” said Caitlin Carroll, Westrom spokeswoman in an e-mailed statement. “The facts are Congressman Peterson no longer represents western Minnesota’s values and has lost touch with this district.”
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tyler Houlton said: “I imagine Democrats in the state legislature will be pretty furious with DFL Chairman Martin for condemning his own party’s use of per diems that help them better represent their constituents."
Peterson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
For months, Star Tribune staff has traipsed along with Minnesota's statewide candidates as they campaigned.
Here's what they found of the men who will vie in November's election:
For Minnesota governor
Democrat Mark Dayton
An A-list player in state politics for more than three decades, Dayton, 67, has had a colorful career full of highs and lows, in both public and private. On Election Day he will learn if Minnesotans are willing to give him four more years in charge of the state — or are ready to send him into retirement. -- Patrick Condon
Republican Jeff Johnson
A Hennepin County commissioner who is a former state representative and Tea Party ally, Johnson is now battling to unseat the most powerful Democrat in state office, Gov. Mark Dayton. Johnson says he offers a clear and needed alternative to the policies of a Democratic governor and Democratic Legislature that have joined forces and moved Minnesota too far to the liberal left. -- Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
For the U.S. Senate
Democrat Al Franken
Winning his first term in 2008 by the narrowest margin in modern U.S. Senate history after a brutally combative race, the former satirist has spent five years playing it safe. His standard event is heavy on policy, in front of a crowd that generally loves him, with a humorous punchline to chase. -- Allison Sherry
Republican Mike McFadden
The art of campaigning hasn't’t come easily to McFadden, an investment banker who has never held elective office, and hadn't voted in a primary in 20 years before his own. Yet McFadden beat out a field of experienced politicians for the Republican endorsement, easily won his primary and gained the backing of Independence Party leaders who chose him over their own primary winner.
McFadden says his great asset is that he's not a politician, nor was he bred to be one. He doesn't need this job, but he wants it. -- Abby Simons and Ricardo Lopez
All photos by Glen Stubbe, of the Star Tribune. Click below to see the Star Tribune's photo galleries of the candidates:
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson on Sunday proclaimed he'll be a champion of Minnesota's middle class, but stumbled when asked how to define them.
During Sunday's Fox 9 debate at Hamline University, Johnson said "I have no clue how I would define that."
The remark was immediately seized on by Gov. Mark Dayton's campaign and the DFL, which put out an ad deriding his opponent. But, even the governor had a tough time defining what middle class is, offering his best guess of a total annual household income of between $50,000 to $60,000.
Turns out, both might be right.
Economists, sociologists and political scientists have not decisively defined what it means to be middle class. Disparities in cost of living in different regions and cities also makes it difficult to pinpoint income brackets for this subset of Americans. Moreover, public opinion polls find views on what it means to be middle-class vary widely.
A 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll found that nine in 10 Americans believe the top threshold for middle class are families with a total income of $100,000. The tendency, according to this poll, is Americans more often than not believe their own income brackets to be considered middle class.
Dayton's guess appeared more in line with the majority of Americans in this particular poll. Half of those with total annual incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 considered themselves to be middle class. That's compared to 29 percent of all adults who believed the $50,000-$75,000 bracket to be middle class.
A 2013 story in the Cincinnati Enquirer found various estimates by credible groups on how to define middle class based on income levels. Unsurprisingly, the brackets varied widely.
"In the past few years, the "middle class" income range has been described as between $32,900 and $64,000 a year (a Pew Charitable Trusts study), between $50,800 and $122,000 (a U.S. Department of Commerce study), and between $20,600 and $102,000 (the U.S. Census Bureau's middle 60% of incomes)," Dan Horn at the Enquirer wrote.
State Democrats are seizing on Johnson's "I have no clue" remark, saying it undercuts his argument that he'll be an advocate for the "forgotten middle class" has he said during Sunday's opening statements.
“Today’s debate made crystal clear that Jeff Johnson is completely clueless about how to strengthen middle class families,” said DFL Chairman Ken Martin in a statement.
Jeff Bakken, a spokesman for the Johnson campaign, said that it's ironic Dayton, the great-grandson of the founder of Dayton’s, a department store chain that spawned Target Corp, is questioning Johnson's commitment to the middle class. Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes in a middle-class household, Bakken said.
"Jeff Johnson was born and raised in Detroit Lakes, his dad delivered bread to supermarkets for a living, and Jeff has earned every dollar he’s made," Bakken said in a statement. "If Mark Dayton and his attack machine want to get into a debate with Jeff Johnson over who better understands the middle class, bring it on.”
Former U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton will headline a free rally in St. Paul with U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday afternoon.
The 3 p.m.. event is slated for Macalester College Leonard Center Fieldhouse and attendance will be first come, first serve with tickets available on the Minnesota DFL's website.
Clinton, a former and possible future presidential candidate, is one of a parade of high-profile Democratic surrogates visiting Minnesota in the final weeks of the 2014 campaign.
Former President Clinton rallied with Dayton and Franken earlier this month, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, of Mass., and Jon Tester, of Mont., campaigned with Franken over the weekend and first lady Michelle Obama will hold a free rally on Tuesday. Vice president Joe Biden on Thursday will campaign with Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan on Thursday.
Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was shot in 2011 and has campaigned for gun restriction laws since then, will hold a private Minneapolis discussion about gun laws with Minnesota officials on Monday.
Republican campaigns have featured fewer visits from high profile dignitaries but have said the Democratic visits show Dayton and Franken are in more trouble than public polls would indicate.
Student-loan debt, the job market for recent college graduates and even a question on favorite ice cream flavors were among those asked during Sunday's debate between gubernatorial candidates Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson.
Held at Hamline University, the debate was the fourth face-off between Dayton and Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner. It was the first debate of two debates to be held in the Twin Cities.
The candidates were more subdued and cordial than in recent confrontations but nonetheless outlined starkly different visions for the state.
Asked how they would preside over a divided legislature, Johnson and Dayton sparred over how they have worked with members of their opposing parties and disagreed on the worthiness of one-party rule in state government. Dayton said that if Minnesotans are satisifed with policies made by the DFL-controlled Legisture, they should vote for that to continue. Johnson said divided government has hisotorically been a good thing for the state.
"I think you just have to look at my record in the House," Johnson, a former state representative said. "What you've done is the best way to tell what you're going to do."
Johnson said that during his time as a state lawmaker, the House was controlled by Republicans but the Senate had a DFL majority. He touted his work with DFL lawmakers on eminent domain and identity-theft bills. He blamed Dayton for presiding over the state's government shutdown in 2010.
Dayton defended the clash with Republicans that led to the shutdown, saying he shared responsibility for it with lawmakers but that the outcome -- a tax hike on the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans to balance the state budget -- was worth it.
"The Republican Legislature would rather raise a billion-and-half through additional borrowing than raise taxes on the richest people of Minnesota. Fortunately, that changed when we had a DFL Legislature," Dayton said.
Questions for Sunday's debate, sponsored by Fox 9, came from a panel of political reporters from two local newspapers and public radio, as well as through social media and students who were present at the forum.
The two candidates fielded questions on how they would work to reduce student-loan debt and improve the job market for recent graduates.
Dayton touted a tuition freeze bill he signed last year that affected state colleges and university as an example of how he has helped keep rising college costs in check. Johnson said he would work to cut administrative costs.
To improve the job market, Dayton said that investing in higher education and early childhood education programs would be critical. "If we do that, the opportunities are going to be out there," he said.
Johnson responded by criticizing the state's tax and regulatory climate, saying it has hurt the state's competitiveness and "because of that, the good jobs are being created in other states."
Before Sunday's debate, Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet and her supporters protested outside of Hamline's Klas Center over her exclusion from the forum. Nicollet, a former software developer, participated in two previous debates in Rochester and Moorhead.
Dayton and Johnson will debate once more before the general election on Nov. 4.