State Auditor Rebecca Otto has crisscrossed Minnesota over the last seven months in pursuit of higher office, even as she defends the continued relevancy of the political post she’s held for nearly a dozen years.
It’s two campaigns at once for the energetic Otto, who’s one of a growing group of DFLers running for governor in 2018. At the same time, the three-term auditor continues to press her monthslong legal battle against a state law that privatized some of her office’s work. It’s propelled the usually low-profile Otto into a public — and costly — court struggle with state lawmakers and a handful of Minnesota counties.
Otto sees her bid for governor and the legal battle as linked. In interviews and at campaign stops, she says she’s challenging both voters and the courts to end what she calls “the politics of unfettered greed.”
Critics see her as uncompromising, and among the DFL’s stable of statewide elected officials, Otto is second only to Gov. Mark Dayton in public flares of tension with legislative Republicans.
Otto says her work as auditor and her candidacy for governor are both about fighting efforts to limit the functions of state government that benefit citizens.
“The politics of greed wants to get rid of the truth tellers in government,” she told a crowd at a recent event in Minnetonka, “like auditors, the scientists, the regulators, the people who really watch out for us.”
When she launched her campaign in January, Otto was among the first in a race that has since attracted six DFLers and nine Republicans, with more likely. Dayton is not seeking re-election.
Otto, 54, is seeking to distinguish herself by pointing to her work in the auditor’s office, her commitment to environmental issues — living in a super energy-efficient home near Marine on St. Croix, for instance — and her dedication to her principles, whether or not they are popular.
Starting with schools
On the stump, Otto delivers a rapid-fire summary of her early life, highlighting the moment when her California-born and Illinois-raised teenage self fell in love with Minnesota on a camp excursion to the Boundary Waters. She moved here to attend college and then stuck around for good, starting a painting and restoration company with her husband and later teaching middle school science for Mounds View Public Schools.
Otto eventually got involved with her son’s school’s parent-teacher organization and ended up leading a school-levy campaign and winning a seat on the Forest Lake school board.
Bill Bresin, then the school board president, said Otto quickly won notice for her leadership on the levy issue and her ability to challenge the status quo.
“On the school board, she was a very positive member,” he said, “the type who questioned things: ‘Why are we doing it this way? Is there a better way to do this?’ ”
While still on the board, Otto was recruited to run for the state Legislature. She lost her first race, but tried again when the seat came up in a special election. This time, she defeated Republican Matt Dean (now a House member and a GOP candidate for governor), scoring an 11-point victory.
Otto lost her subsequent re-election bid to Dean, but caught the attention of some big names in Minnesota politics, including former Gov. Arne Carlson, who she said encouraged her to run for state auditor.
In the auditor’s office
In 2006, Otto ran for auditor and won, unseating a Republican incumbent. She was re-elected twice, and can rattle off each margin of victory.
As auditor, Otto is responsible for overseeing more than $20 billion spent each year by local governments. Her staff analyzes financial statements and tracks data on issues ranging from municipal liquor store operations to public pension accounts.
Much of her office’s work escapes the notice of many Minnesotans. But she said that’s exactly how things should be: If her office is keeping local government on track, then there’s little scandal to report.
“I don’t want to just catch them doing wrong,” Otto said. “I want them to do it right in the first place.”
She counts her work on a high-tech infrastructure mapping system and a review of law enforcement property and evidence storage — prompted by controversy around the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force — as some of her biggest accomplishments.
At times, Otto has drawn criticism not just from Republicans but fellow DFLers, especially after her 2013 vote as a member of the state Executive Council to oppose nonferrous mining on land controlled by the state.
Otto said she worries that companies that come into the Iron Range won’t look out for the best interests of the area, but her decision was unpopular among DFL elected officials.
Critics in the Legislature
Otto is also steadfast that her most public effort, a series of legal challenges to a 2015 law allowing counties to use private auditors instead of her office, is the right thing to do — even though it’s cost nearly $252,000 in legal fees footed by taxpayers.
An appeals court ruled this spring that the law is constitutional, but agreed with Otto that auditing is a core function of her office.
The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed last week to consider Otto’s appeal of the lower court ruling.
Otto’s prolonged court challenge has frustrated Republicans in the Legislature. Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, chairwoman of the House State Government Finance Committee, has sparred often with Otto; she said some in the Legislature have even considered introducing a constitutional amendment to ask voters if the post of state auditor should be eliminated entirely.
“Given her reaction to different things, it’s made people look at that office more closely, to whether it’s actually necessary,” Anderson said, adding that she herself doesn’t plan to offer the proposal.
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said Otto has been unwilling to work with Legislature and is “defiant” when lawmakers tried to ask questions about her work.
“Most Minnesotans are going to recognize that Auditor Otto is pretty out of touch with what they’re looking for in a gubernatorial candidate, and even out of touch as an auditor,” he said.
But supporters, like former Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a DFLer from Minneapolis, say Otto’s unwavering commitment to defending her office — or risking unpopularity with her votes on mining — shows political courage.
Kahn said she hasn’t decided who she’ll back for governor, but Otto is among her top picks.
“She’s certainly qualified in terms of the things she’s done and things she knows,” Kahn said. “But it’s hard to say who’s going to be a good statewide candidate.”