DULUTH – Local DFL voters are being asked not just who should represent them in the state Senate but what the party itself should represent — a battle playing out around the country and the state as activists seek to shift the party to the left.
State Sen. Erik Simonson, 52, is looking for a second term representing Senate District 7, which covers most of Duluth. Standing in his path to November’s ballot is Duluth attorney Jen McEwen, 43, whose progressive platform earned her the local party’s endorsement in her first run for office.
McEwen is making the environment and many social issues a focus of her campaign, while Simonson is sticking to his coalition-building approach shaped by years in the minority party in the Legislature. The outcome could further transform the party statewide.
“We’ve been tinkering around the edges for too long on all these serious issues — climate change, health care, wealth inequality,” McEwen said. “With the pandemic and climate crisis now starting to manifest, it’s way past time for us to make those decisions.”
Simonson said progress has been made on reducing carbon and he supports broader health care reforms, though the budget deficit and other fallout from the pandemic — especially job losses and the area’s long-term economic outlook — will be a priority in the coming years.
“We agree on many things, it’s just a matter of coming at it from a practical, pragmatic approach,” he said. “There are also social issues that aren’t going to happen while the other party is in control.”
Many labor unions and establishment DFLers, including Gov. Tim Walz, have lined up behind Simonson despite the party endorsement, while environmental groups and progressive activists have backed McEwen, exposing a deepening divide inside the DFL.
Inside Paul Wellstone Hall at the Duluth Labor Temple, that acronym stands for “Don’t Forget Labor.”
“Are we at odds? Absolutely,” said Alan Netland, president of the North East Area Labor Council. “There’s an activist group that is pretty single-minded, and you’ve got to be pure to fit in. We’re realists, not purists. We’re trying to get something done.”
McEwen, a former public defender who won the backing of 261 out of 371 delegates for the DFL endorsement in May, said the party should go where voters want to take it, especially on natural resource issues. McEwen is backed by groups that oppose the PolyMet and Twin Metals copper-nickel mines, while Simonson said the party should “acknowledge the fact that things like PolyMet are likely to happen.”
“It’s almost like a cognitive dissonance, ‘Why isn’t leadership moving where we need to go?’ ” McEwen said. “It is pretty clear [Simonson] is out of step from where Duluthians are and where we would expect him to be.”
Earlier this year Simonson drew conflict-of-interest questions when he took an administrative job at Lake Superior College after introducing a bill to bring nearly $1 million in state money to the college.
A retired firefighter and former CEO of Lake Superior Zoo, Simonson served two terms in the state House of Representatives and defeated Republican Donna Bergstrom, who will again appear on November’s ballot, with 65% of the vote in 2016.
Duluth City Council President Gary Anderson, a retired Teamster, said a McEwen win would be a “significant shift for the party in Duluth” — and a needed one.
“I don’t think it’s time for sitting back and doing what has worked,” he said. “I think we have to look at really what’s going to help us move forward and help us change and grow.”
Simonson said such a shift would make it harder to win legislative majorities. McEwen said pushing the party where Duluth voters want to go is “not easy but I think it should be encouraged.”
Beth McCuskey, president of the Duluth Central Labor Body, said it’s “frustrating” that the party is moving away from a broad coalition toward more narrow interests. She pointed to longtime DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar, who represented Northeastern Minnesota in Congress from 1975-2011, as someone who opposed abortion yet was able to advance other progressive policies.
“The whole anti-mining thing is a litmus test for some people — it’s either all or nothing, and I don’t think that’s fair because there’s genuine struggle with people on that,” McCuskey said.
The primary is Aug. 11, though many voters are casting absentee ballots amid COVID-19 concerns and a push by the city and state to limit in-person voting. As of last week the city had accepted nearly 3,000 primary ballots out of more than 9,400 requests for ballots. There were 42,253 votes cast in the 2016 Senate District 7 election.
The pandemic has prevented either campaign from door-knocking or holding in-person events. Instead the battle has been fought over phone calls, signs, social media rollouts of major endorsements and mailers.
Earlier this month DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin scolded Simonson over a campaign mailer that appeared to imply the DFL’s endorsement.
It was not so long ago that Martin took McEwen to task over party unity, saying in a heated Facebook post that she and her husband “work against our party and have from the moment you ‘joined.’ ”
This week Martin said he has been “critical in the past of people who were inconsistent as it related to the endorsement, but at the end of the day I also know my job is to protect and defend our endorsement process.”
“We are going to do everything we can to make sure our endorsement sticks and our endorsed candidate prevails,” he added.