Minnesota Bucks GOP Trend

Amid Republican gains nationwide, state Dems narrow the lege gap

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

Two years ago Patti Fritz, a Faribault nurse, took on a long-entrenched Republican, Lynda Boudreau, in a race for the Minnesota House of Representatives. An eight-year incumbent, Boudreau had become a hero in conservative circles for taking the role of lead advocate for legislation that would allow people to carry concealed handguns.

Fritz recalls that during that 2002 race, she was pressured to support the concealed weapons bill. "I had working people tell me, 'Can the crap, put your gun on the table and tell 'em you'll vote for it,'" she says. Despite opposing the popular handgun measure, Fritz surprised political observers by running a dogged campaign, losing by just 600-some votes in the largely conservative district.

This year, with conceal-and-carry now state law, Fritz and Boudreau faced off again, but the outcome was reversed. The Democrat defeated the incumbent by 347 votes.

Fritz believes that the outcome was different this year in part because voters were focused less on narrow issues like conceal-and-carry and more generally on bread-and-butter concerns: jobs, roads, education. Most notably, she argues that the state legislature's inability to pass a bonding bill this year was a crucial factor. "They didn't deliver the goods," Fritz says. "They did not finish the job. That's very important to workers. What would happen if I didn't finish my job? I'd be fired."

While Boudreau's was the most impressive congressional scalp claimed by Democrats in last week's elections, it was far from the only one. The DFL gained 13 seats in the state House, coming within a whisker of wresting control of the body from the GOP. The Republicans now have just a two-seat majority, 68-66, while the DFL controls the Senate by a margin of 36-31. On a night when Democrats across the country were mourning the loss of the most bitterly fought presidential race in at least a generation, Minnesota DFLers had reason to quietly celebrate for the first time in years.

Mindy Greiling, a DFL representative from Ramsey who led the party's candidate-recruitment efforts, credits Republican-backed budget cuts and the party's displays of hubris for the surprising Democratic landslide. "They gave us that raw meat of cutting education for the first time, and not passing the bonding bill, and being way too arrogant," she says. "Pride goeth before a fall, and they were insufferably arrogant."

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz attributes the Democratic gains to inroads made among independent and moderate voters. "For the first time in maybe 20 years, the Democrats recaptured the political center in Minnesota," he says. Conversely, he believes Republicans alienated those voters by refusing to compromise and focusing on hot-button social issues such as gay marriage. "They've driven themselves further and further to the right, and it gave the Democrats the opportunity to occupy that middle," he notes.

Schultz also credits Greiling for assembling an impressive cadre of largely moderate, female candidates. "I would call it the revenge of Judi Dutcher," he says, referring to the former state auditor. "When the party blew off Judi Dutcher two years ago for governor, she was the perfect profile for the Democrats to run for governor."

Democrats were likely also aided by an infusion of money and resources from progressive groups that in the past have been content to help elect liberal candidates in the Twin Cities. For the first time in its history, Progressive Minnesota worked on campaigns outside the metro area, endorsing nine candidates in the suburbs and out-state. Six of those challengers triumphed last Tuesday.

"We realized that having a really progressive delegation from the Twin Cities doesn't get you where you need to go on a state level," says Ben Goldfarb, executive director of Progressive Minnesota. "We were just getting our asses handed to us. We couldn't get our bills heard, let alone any action on them."

The inability of the state legislature to pass a bonding bill was undoubtedly a major factor in why voters turned out some GOP members. But there's also evidence that Democrats successfully reclaimed some turf on key policy issues, most notably education. Owing to chronic budget woes, state per-pupil funding has remained stagnant for three straight years, while overall costs for school districts have skyrocketed. The end result has been larger class sizes, staff and program cutbacks, and rising fees.

Bev Scalze, who narrowly lost to a Republican incumbent two years ago before prevailing this time, notes that parents at Vadnais Heights Elementary School were so concerned about class size that they recently raised $34,000 on their own in order to hire another teacher. "They were able to do it because they worked hard and the people supported it," says the Little Canada DFLer. "But in an area where there isn't a lot of money, it wouldn't work. It shouldn't have to be that way."

Transportation was another issue that likely benefited the Democrats. A survey released last month by the Itasca Group, a coalition of business leaders, found that a large majority of residents statewide, some 66 percent, believe mass transit is the primary solution to the state's congestion problems. In addition, the fiscally conservative Minnesota Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed raising the gas tax by 10 cents in order to pay for transportation projects.

"Some of the legislators got kicked out because of transportation," says Greiling. She points in particular to Bill Haas of Champlin, who opposed the North Star commuter rail line that is slated to run through his district. The five-term incumbent was knocked off by Anoka-Hennepin school board member Denise Dittrich. And in Rochester, Republican William Kuisle, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee, was also defeated by a Democratic challenger.

Most significantly for Democrats, the election results may portend a backlash against the no-new-taxes mantra that's ruled the Capitol since Gov. Tim Pawlenty was elected in 2002. After Republicans closed a $4.2 billion deficit last year by cutting health care and social services, shifting costs to local municipalities, and raiding trust funds, Democrats predicted that taxpayers would eventually end up paying for these funding shortfalls through higher property taxes and additional fees.

There is now ample evidence that such cost shifting is happening throughout the state. In 2003, for instance, a new $2,000 fee on nursing home residents who don't rely on public assistance to pay their bills was implemented. Patti Fritz argues that such a fee unfairly punishes elderly residents who put away savings for their retirement years.

It's uncertain how the shake-up in the house will play out in the upcoming legislation session. At minimum, Democrats should be able to push more of their agenda to the fore. But they'll still be facing a governor who has invested all of his political credibility in the repeated assurance that he can solve the state's chronic fiscal problems without raising taxes.

"If Pawlenty wants to have any kind of political future, he wants to be able to describe himself as a no-new-taxes Republican," notes Hamline professor Schultz. "I think that's significantly more difficult now that he no longer has a united House of Representatives behind him."

 

Correction published 11/16/2004:
"Minnesota Bucks GOP Trend" incorrectly stated that the Minnesota House of Representatives failed to pass a bonding bill during the 2004 legislative session. The House did actually pass a bonding bill, but the Senate did not. Therefore no bonding bill was enacted. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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