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Even in Minnesota, politics runs in families

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • February 7, 2014 - 7:04 PM

Bloodlines are Old World fixations. Residents of this prairie-populist, New Englandish state would never allow hereditary dynasties to rise in our midst.

And yet: Last week’s passing of Joan Adams Mondale was mourned not only because of her public service alongside her husband, former Vice President Walter Mondale, but also because of her influence on the career of her son Ted, the former state senator and Met Council chair now shepherding the construction of a new Vikings stadium.

And yet: The smiling candidate on the Jan. 9 Capitol Report cover was Polly Peterson Bowles, an Edina Republican running in District 49A whose political pedigree extends to her father, a legislator and Supreme Court justice; her uncle, a mayor of Minneapolis, and her great-great grandfather Ard Godfrey, the first postmaster of St. Anthony and a fellow whose house one can tour today.

And yet: Below the fold in that same publication was the familiar-looking face of House 64B DFL candidate Matt Freeman, much resembling his father, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, and his grandfather, the late Gov. Orville Freeman.

I could go on — and do, to the irritation of my officemates. (“Did you know that Rep. Laurie Halverson’s uncle was Rep. Pete Nelson of Lindstrom and her grandfather was Rep. Howard Nelson?” I ask. Their eyes roll. I continue: “But the Nelsons were Republicans from Lindstrom, and she’s a DFLer from Eagan …”)

I confess: I’m a Minnesota political genealogy junkie. But that doesn’t mean that Minnesota voters aren’t unusually given to entrusting elected offices to members of particular political families. It’s happened so often that the Legislative Reference Library has a standing category, “Family members who have served in the Legislature” and other elected offices, on its curricula vitae of past and present legislators. That line is filled for a fair number of current occupants — Sheran, Sieben, Eken, McDonald, Dziedzic, Latz, Lillie, Kiffmeyer, Halverson, Johnson and … they missed one! Rep. Tony Albright’s father-in-law is former state Sen. Paul Overgaard.

It appears that in Minnesota, political power runs in families. Why? University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson had no explanatory research findings to cite. But she was game to speculate.

“I’d say it’s a mental shortcut” for the voters, Pearson said of voters’ preferences for relatives of politicians they already know. “Voters are busy people. They don’t always study candidates with much depth. If they recognize the name and if they already respect one person with that name, they ascribe the same characteristics to another member of the family.”

I’ll buy that. And I’ll add that politicians’ kids are more inclined to run for office than Average Joes and Sallys. They’re more likely to grow up thinking of elective office as a career choice. They’re more likely to hear political talk at home — and that talk is less likely to involve unprintable words than what’s said about politics in other households. They’re more familiar with what a bid for elective office requires, and more able to build the relationships that are key ingredients to success.

They acquire attitudes of “civic-mindedness,” Polly Peterson Bowles said. That’s what she learned from her father, C. Donald Peterson, and mother, Gretchen Palen Peterson, the great-granddaughter of Minneapolis pioneer Ard Godfrey. It’s a value that the former Miss Minnesota and former Metropolitan Council member stresses as she seeks to unseat Rep. Ron Erhardt, a Republican-cum-DFLer who plans to seek an 11th term.

Yet there’s a fine line she and other “kids-of” candidates strive to toe. “I don’t run on being the daughter of anybody, or the relative of anybody,” Peterson Bowles emphasized. “Dad earned the respect of the community, and that’s certainly not a detriment to me. But I hope to earn that respect myself.”

To do that, she must first get past a vigorous GOP rival, former Fine Line Music Cafe owner Dario Anselmo. “Kids-of” may have a leg up in politics, but they aren’t shoo-ins.

Nobody knows that better than Matt Freeman. He’s done lots of the things a 28-year-old ought to do to position himself for a career in politics. He managed St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s 2013 re-election campaign and works in Coleman’s office as director of outreach and labor relations. He’s worked for the campaigns of President Obama, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, congressional candidate Tarryl Clark, and a number of DFL legislative candidates, in addition to filling staff jobs in the state Department of Agriculture and state Senate. He got an undergraduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington so he could be “where things are going on,” and where he could be an intern in then-U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton’s office.

Freeman helped elect Chris Tolbert to the St. Paul City Council in 2011, and Tolbert is returning the favor as co-chair of Freeman’s campaign to succeed the retiring Rep. Michael Paymar in the state House. (Tolbert is the nephew of former Minneapolis economic development chief Mike Christenson and the grandson of the late state community colleges chancellor Gerald Christenson … I can’t help myself.)

But other DFL candidates aren’t yielding to the grandson of the man who arguably did more to build the DFL Party than anyone other than Hubert Humphrey (whose son Hubert III was attorney general for 16 years and grandson Hubert IV ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2002). Far from it. Matt Freeman was one of six credible candidates for Paymar’s seat who shuttled from room to room at District 64B precinct caucuses last Tuesday, delivering one-minute speeches in search of support.

Each of the other five is also suited to legislative service. The lineup: Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Dave Pinto; TakeAction Minnesota communications director Greta Bergstrom; community organizer/party official Gloria Zaiger; Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser, and attorney/former Minnesota House committee administrator Melanie McMahon. (Fraser is no relation to former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, who’s the son of Everett Fraser, longtime dean of the University of Minnesota Law School.)

Each of the six received a polite reception. None was a clear favorite. The Freeman name may not mean as much in St. Paul as it does in Hennepin County, where Matt’s father has his political base. Freeman told me that his decision to live and work in St. Paul was “about being my own person and building my own opportunity.”

Matt didn’t remind caucusgoers of his familial connection to the state’s first DFL governor. But I detected knowing nods when Freeman ended his one-minute pitch with a heartfelt assurance that “the DFL endorsement means a lot to me.” For a Freeman, DFL endorsement is akin to a family blessing.

 

Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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