The late Rep. David Dill was known to ignore party labels when it came to finding buried pots of money in the state budget for his district, which spreads its 39,000 people across an area of northeast Minnesota the size of Rhode Island.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the race to replace Dill — a DFLer who broke with his party if he felt it important to the region — is something of a free-for-all, filled with two party switchers and a lobbyist turned candidate claiming no party at all.
A primary featuring a crowded DFL field is Sept. 29, followed by the special election Dec. 8. Republicans hope the tough DFL primary and the presence of an independent on the ballot will give them a shot at picking up a seat, while Democrats see the seat as theirs.
The six candidates all profess love for a region many Minnesotans know well because they visit its natural wonders, from the north shore of Lake Superior to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
And, all agree the region faces economic challenges as it tries to hold on to residents — and young residents in particular — who often leave to find economic opportunity in the cities.
Rob Ecklund DFL
This Koochiching County Commissioner has his roots in the Iron Range labor movement as president of United Steelworkers Local 159 for nine years. “I know how important labor is to get our economy working right,” he said. He also spent 12 years with the Pulp and Paperworkers’ Resource Council, a labor-management group that advocates for the industry in the face of environmental regulatory threats.
Like the other candidates, Ecklund said the region must embrace technological change: “We need to start bringing different types of jobs to the area other than paper and mining,” he said, suggesting data centers as a possibility.
Bill Hansen DFL
The second generation owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters is selling the business to his daughter and making another run after Dill beat him in 2002 and 2004. Hansen could consolidate the environmental vote with his opposition to copper-nickel mining like that proposed by PolyMet and Twin Metals.
Regulators recently conceded polluted water from the PolyMet site could flow north toward the Boundary Waters.
“I’m very concerned about clean water. This district has the most freshwater probably of any political district in the world,” said Hansen, who added that he supports iron mining but questions whether the area would really benefit from mines in the long run.
Eric Johnson DFL
Just last year, Johnson, who owns a dental supply manufacturer and a canoe outfitter, ran as a Republican against Dill and lost by more than 2-to-1.
He said his party switching is evidence of his pragmatism: “I will work with anybody to get the job done,” said Johnson, who said he would focus on getting money for bonding projects in the district. He mistakenly said the 2016 legislative session would mostly be concerned with a bonding bill and not other major legislative matters because it’s not a budget year. In fact, the 2015 Legislature took no action on taxes or transportation, which are expected to dominate the agenda next year.
Kelsey Johnson Independent
Of all the candidates, Johnson would be a familiar face at the Capitol, having worked as a lobbyist, including most recently as state director of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. She isn’t sure if she would resign from her lobbying job if she wins, or with which party she would caucus. Despite her work in St. Paul, Johnson has spent the majority of her time at her homestead in the district, where her family has resided for 70 years.
Johnson said she’s the best choice because she will be free of the parties that she said are beholden to special interests and can use her lobbying experience to help pass legislation.
Heidi Omerza DFL
The past president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is also on the Ely City Council and raised an issue that’s been used before to appeal to outstate voters: They’re not getting their fair share. A June 2014 report by nonpartisan House Research refuted that, but Omerza isn’t persuaded.
Omerza said she’s running so her kids can have a future in northeastern Minnesota: “For them to come back here and live the life my husband and I live, I don’t know that it’s a possibility. If you were to come up and see houses for sale and the economy, there’s a lot of question marks on the horizon.”
Roger Skraba GOP
The former mayor of Ely and sole Republican candidate, once a DFLer, said the region’s economy is bogged down by an onerous state and federal permitting process. “If you want to start a business in northern Minnesota, you have to fight the environmentalists just to open the doors,” he said.
Skraba said he’s the best choice because “I typify a majority of the people in the district.” He’s been in both parties, declared bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to snowmobiling in the restricted Boundary Waters — a rich and diverse history that matches the people of the district, he said.