State Auditor Rebecca Otto jumped into the race for governor Monday, hoping that a decade as elected steward of taxpayer dollars and a history of championing environmental causes helps her stand out in a growing list of candidates running for Minnesota's top political job in 2018.
"There are Minnesotans who are not heard and understood even less, so this is an important component to our campaign," Otto said in an interview. The DFLer's campaign began with a "listening tour" that kicked off in Stillwater, near her home in the Marine on St. Croix area.
Voters statewide elected Otto to the office of state auditor in 2006 and re-elected her twice, including by a wide margin in 2014. She previously served one term in the state House.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is not running again in 2018. So far, Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman have announced they will seek the DFL nomination. A number of other big names from both political parties are also considering the race.
Otto said she plans to seek the DFL endorsement at the state convention next year, forgoing a primary if she doesn't get it. She said she would not run for auditor again no matter what.
As auditor, Otto oversees more than $20 billion spent annually by local governments. It has typically been a low-profile job compared to other statewide elected offices, although two other state auditors from the recent past went on to the governor's office: Dayton and Republican Arne Carlson.
"Rebecca has a deep understanding of money at all levels of government," reads a biography on her campaign website. In her interview, Otto touted experience in three key areas: government finance, education and small business.
Otto has run into controversy a handful of times in recent years.
The 2015 Legislature passed — with votes from both parties — a law that allowed some local government entities to bypass the state auditor and contract with private audit firms to do their books. Otto sued three of the counties last year, calling the Legislature's move an "unprecedented effort to privatize a core function" of her office. She has spent more than $250,000 fighting the changes in court.
Republicans in the Legislature criticized the lawsuit as a waste of taxpayer money.
"Perhaps now that Otto has announced her campaign, she can do Minnesotans a favor and stop wasting their tax dollars fighting broadly supported, bipartisan legislative changes to her office," charged John Rouleau of the Republican-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition.
"I've been forced into this," Otto said of the litigation. "But I'm not afraid to do what's right, and I will never be afraid to do what's right as a leader."
Otto tried to portray her candidacy as uniting all Minnesotans. But she found herself engaging with a critic Monday, after conservative critics swamped her campaign hashtag, #rebeccalistens.
Even within the DFL, Otto has faced fierce criticism from mining interests, and unions representing mine workers, for a 2013 vote as a member of the state's Executive Council. She was the only member of the group, which included Dayton and Attorney General Lori Swanson, to oppose a measure granting nonferrous mineral leases on state-controlled lands.
Otto argued that while iron mining is a known quantity, nonferrous mining — like that proposed by PolyMet on the old LTV site in northeast Minnesota — offers significant unknowns that open the state to potential financial risks of closing and cleanup if necessary.
Before getting into state politics, Otto, 53, served on the Forest Lake school board and chaired a successful $52 million school levy campaign. She taught public school for five years.
Otto also co-founded a small business that did design and restoration contracting focusing on historic buildings, employing 50 workers before selling it.