Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report
Minnesota Democrats are continuing their onslaught of criticism for GOP mailers that attack DFL House members for votes on an expungement bill and a drunk driving bill, pointing out that a pair of the Republican party’s own candidates this election cycle backed the same legislation.
In a news release, the DFL said that State Sen. Torrey Westrom, a Republican facing off against Rep. Collin Peterson in the 7th Congressional District, voted to pass an expungement bill criticized in the mailers as “allowing felons to work with our school children.”
Meanwhile, State Sen. Scott Newman, the state’s GOP Attorney General candidate, voted for an ignition interlock bill that the Republican Party is using to go after DFL House members.
Newman, R-Hutchinson, recalled that the measure had side support from law enforcement organizations. The measure passed unanimously in the Minnesota Senate, meaning that all Republican senators voted for it as well as all DFL ones.
The Republican Party claimed in its mailers that the drunk driving measure, “weakened penalties for dangerous drunk drivers.”
Newman said he would not vote for a bill that weakened penalties for dangerous drivers. Instead, he said the interlock bill allowed people who had been caught driving drunk to keep their licenses but only if they had a device installed that required them to be sober to start their cars.
“It may actually help get people off the road,” he said. Newman said he had not seen the mailer in question and was comfortable with his vote for the bill.
The mail pieces drew swift criticism from the DFL, who alerted the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Minnesotans for Safe Driving about the mailers. In response the nonpartisan organizations wrote letters criticizing the mailers and praising the legislation.
On Thursday, Minnesota Republican Party chair Keith Downey struck back, saying the DFL is just as guilty of using sensational imagery in its advertisements. Downey decried the "misleading and sensational mail from the Democrat party."
"Minnesota Democrats have to use these tactics because their ideas don’t work," Downey said.
DFL Chairman Ken Martin called on Downey to explain why he stands by the ads if they call out members of his own party.
“If Keith Downey and the Republican Party (are) standing behind these attacks, then they are standing behind attacks against Torrey Westrom and Scott Newman.” Martin said in a statement. “If Downey is not prepared to make those charges against Westrom and Newman, then we expect he will cease to make those charges against Democrats that took those same votes.”
Downey and Westrom did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday said that a Star Tribune report of a nonprofit using state funds to subsidize cruises, a director's car lease and spa treatments was very concerning and alarming.
"I was personally really appalled," Dayton said. "I take it very seriously."
The DFL governor met with his Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and others about Community Action on Monday to further delve into its spending. As a result, two state agencies, Human Services and Commerce will immediately develop an action plan to deal with Community Action.
The Star Tribune reported on Sunday that Community Action, which drew board members from high-profile Democratic ranks, that a Human Services Department audit found " the organization’s longtime chief executive, Bill Davis, misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2011 to 2013."
Jesson said her department saw red flags in the nonprofit's administrative spending and began looking into it months ago.
"I think we've been taking this very seriously. A step at a time," she said. Community Action was given an opportunity to respond by September 1. Those responses did not assuage the worry.
"What we have seen so far has not alleviated the serious concerns we had," she said.
Jesson said the department looks into state subsidized nonprofit spending and results and audits those that do not comply with best practices.
Jesson said that Dayton's budget two years ago included more funding for Human Services auditing.
Monday morning, Dayton did not say definitively whether Community Action would receive any more state funding.
"Give us an opportunity here to converse among ourselves," and the city of Minneapolis, he said. Dayton said he only became aware of the spending when the Star Tribune reported it on Sunday.
Community Action, which is supposed to help low-income city residents, included state Sen. Jeff Hayden, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson and City Council Member Robert Lilligren on its board. The Star Tribune reported that those elected officials sent others to board meetings in their stead.
Dayton said the party affiliation of the board members -- they are Democrats -- did not change his feelings about the nonprofit's spending.
"I would be very alarmed if there were Democrats involved, I would very alarmed if there were not Democrats involved," Dayton said. "The fact that there were people who were placed in positions of responsibility who allegedly...spent public funds inappropriately, particularly funds that were intended to help people get out of poverty, is very disturbing to me."
As construction workers milled at the site of a new state Senate office building by the Capitol, GOP candidate for governor Jeff Johnson held a press conference off to the side to renew his frequent criticism of the project.
Johnson and three other Republicans are in the final sprint toward Tuesday's primary election, where the party will pick its opponent for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Around the same time Johnson criticized the office building as wasteful and tried to link it to Dayton, he drew a rebuke over taxes from GOP opponent Kurt Zellers.
"Jeff Johnson is carrying the same tired ideas that Mark Dayton tried to force on Minnesotans just last year," read a press release from Zellers, the former House speaker. It's a reference to a May 2013 interview in MinnPost where Johnson expressed support for lowering the overall sales tax rate but shrinking the number of products and services exempt from it. That's similar to a tax reform proposal from Dayton in early 2013 that he later abandoned.
Johnson cited his strong rating from the Minnesota Taxpayers League and his record on the Hennepin County Board as evidence for his opposition to tax increases. He said he would seek to cut taxes as governor, and would veto any tax increase from the Legislature.
"Kurt's probably recognized that he's a ways behind and needs to go on the attack," said Johnson, whose endorsement from the state GOP has contributed to a view among many Republicans that he has a slight edge heading toward Tuesday's vote. The other two contenders are Scott Honour, a businessman and political newcomer, and Marty Seifert, the former House minority leader.
Johnson said he preferred to focus his criticism on Dayton, not fellow Republicans. It was Johnson's second press conference at the site of the new Capitol office building in less than six weeks. He called the project, being built with $77 million in taxpayer funds, "symbolic of Dayton's priorities."
The Minnesota DFL noted that several prominent Republican lawmakers, Sen. Dave Senjem and Rep. Matt Dean, were involved in the official process around moving the project forward, and voted in favor of hiring an architect and construction company.
Dean, in response to the DFL criticism, said while he did serve on the appointed panel that signed off on hiring an architect and contractor, that he has repeatedly stated his larger opposition to proceeding with the building . He said he didn't feel the state should specifically penalize architects or contractors for a project that had already been approved.
Johnson said if he were to become governor, he would seek to cancel construction if it's not too far along. If the state has already invested tens of millions, he said, he would try to re-purpose the building for some other state use besides the Senate.
The Honour campaign also took its turn criticizing the office building. The campaign released a video of his running mate, state Sen. Karin Housley, holding up a series of signs mocking the project.
Minnesota's Management and Budget office announced Tuesday that it completed a $85.4 million bond sale to fund construction of a new office building for state senators next to the Capitol.
The state Department of Administration announced shortly after that preliminary work would start at the site on Wednesday. That could include asphalt, tree and curb removal; installation of barriers, fences and partitions; and heavy equipment delivery.
Plans call for the building to be ready for senators to move in prior to the 2016 legislative session. Planners of the roughly $90 million project, to which taxpayers are contributing about $77 million, say it will both ease crowding concerns during the ongoing, massive renovation of the Capitol building; and provide needed long-term space for state senators and their employees.
The project has become a frequent target of criticism by Republican politicians, who have called it unneeded, and tried to wield it politically against Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative Democrats.
The head of the one of the most powerful Democratic groups in Minnesota will move to one of the most powerful unions in the state.
Carrie Lucking, who has been executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota since 2011, will become Education Minnesota's director of policy, research and outreach.
"I absolutely loved it here and it was a really difficult decision to go," Lucking, a former teacher, said.
But both the Alliance and Education Minnesota have been heavily involved in politics -- and each other. Education Minnesota spent nearly $5 million on political causes since 2008.
The Alliance, which has spent more than $10 million since 2007, has supported Democrats in their election quests. The Alliances' funders received much of their money from Education Minnesota and other unions, the Democratic Governor's Association and Alida Messinger, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's ex-wife.
Since 2010 Education Minnesota has given at least $660,000 to Alliance's funders and Messinger has donated more than $2 million.
But Lucking said her new job, which will start in September, will not be directly involved in politics and political spending.
"I’ve been living and dying by the election cycling for ten years," she said. "It turns out that’s a long time."
Lucking said the Alliance will be bringing on an extra set of hands to help out during the election and naming a new interim director soon.
Lucking is married to Bob Hume, Gov. Mark Dayton's communications chief.
She said getting distance between their two jobs -- hers at the Alliance in independent political spending -- and his working for a governor the Alliance supports was not one of her considerations in taking the new job.
At home, the couple, who had their first child this year, largely talks about the things all new parents discuss, she said -- food, the baby's inputs and outputs and other domestic affairs.
Updated with contributions from Glenn Howatt