A third Democratic state legislator is questioning his party’s endorsement process after losing his bid for the DFL’s backing to a primary challenger.
State Sen. Erik Simonson, a first-term senator from Duluth, was defeated by attorney Jen McEwen by a wide margin in a virtual endorsement vote that concluded last week. McEwen received 70% of the vote in the Senate’s Seventh District DFL convention, earning 261 of the 371 votes cast. Simonson received 108 votes.
On Sunday, Simonson pledged to remain in the race through the Aug. 11 primary, criticizing the endorsement as “flawed processes controlled by a handful of party insiders.” He said he is “confident that my moderate and inclusive approach to legislating will resonate with Duluth voters.”
“Party endorsing conventions have become less and less effective over the past few years. And this year, in the midst of a global pandemic, the process was even less inclusive than usual,” he said.
Simonson is the third DFL incumbent to lose the party’s endorsement to a challenger so far this year. Rep. Ray Dehn and Sen. Jeff Hayden, both Democrats representing Minneapolis, also criticized the process after losing to younger, progressive challengers.
McEwen, board president of the Damiano Center, a social services organization in Duluth, launched her bid in April. She said at the time she was disappointed in some of Simonson’s votes on environmental issues and ready for a senator who is “unapologetically progressive in their values.”
“I am honored to be endorsed by the DFL, and I’m looking forward to working with the party to win in November,” McEwen said Saturday. “The pandemic has made the challenges we face even more clear. We need representatives who will fight for our community with integrity and conviction, and we need to get to work right now.”
Simonson, a former firefighter and assistant fire chief in Duluth, was elected to the state Senate in 2016 after serving two terms in the House. He recently left his job as CEO of Lake Superior Zoo and joined Lake Superior College as an executive director of continuing education and customized training. The move attracted scrutiny and conflict-of-interest questions after it was revealed that Simonson introduced legislation seeking nearly $1 million in public infrastructure bonds on the school’s behalf while he was applying for the job.
The winner of the Aug. 11 primary will face off in November against Republican nominee Donna Bergstrom, who ran for lieutenant governor alongside Jeff Johnson in 2018.
DFL chapters across the state have been holding virtual conventions, with delegates voting via mail or e-mail, after the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of in-person events. DFL Party Chair Ken Martin has defended the process, saying there were no irregularities reported in the earlier incumbent losses.
“Just as certain as the sun will rise in the morning is the fact that when candidates end up losing competitive endorsement races, they will blame the process,” Martin said last week.