Almost exactly eight years ago, Ember Reichgott Junge ran one of the most lackluster campaigns for statewide office in recent Minnesota political history. Despite being assistant majority leader in the state senate and the endorsed candidate of the DFL Party, Junge limped home a distant third behind Mike Hatch and David Lillehaug with less than a quarter of the vote in the 1998 DFL primary for attorney general. Even in the dog days of summer, Junge's demise was a foregone conclusion, with disillusioned former staffers already cracking "Where's Waldo?" jokes in reference to her invisibility out on the hustings.
But this summer, Junge has bucked long odds and a bevy of other candidates to emerge as a formidable contender to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo in Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District. While the endorsed DFL candidate Keith Ellison was stumbling over everything from his ties to the Nation of Islam to his unpaid traffic tickets, Junge's campaign finance report as of June 30 showed her raising more money—and having more on hand after expenditures—than any other candidate in the race. Last week, the newsletter Politics in Minnesota anointed Junge the frontrunner, declaring that the Fifth District seat was "hers to lose." While that assessment may be inflated by wishful thinking—the DFL member of PIM's two-person shop once worked on Junge's AG campaign—there is no denying that Junge is running the race of her life. The 52-year-old New Hope attorney is delivering a clear and cogent message with smooth confidence and affability.
Asked to describe the reasons for this renaissance, Junge deftly finesses the criticism of her '98 race—calling the hard lessons learned "one of my greatest advantages." Then she slides into her poignant but still-boilerplate stump speech about how the recent loss of four family members has made her a more empathetic and passionate candidate, especially on her signature issue of universal health care coverage. Four years on the radio debating conservatives at KSTP or preaching to the choir at Air America have enhanced her verbal skills. And her two years (2002-04) as President of the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus—during which Junge reinvigorated an organization that encourages and supports pro-choice women from all parties to run for office—has been a boon to her fundraising efforts. Add in some demographic data that suggests 58 percent of the district's DFL primary voters will be women and as many as 40 percent will hail from the suburbs, and you see why Junge, the only woman and suburban resident left on the ballot, says, "I think I'm the right candidate at the right time."
Yet Junge may be too "right" for her own good. Voters in the Fifth District have traditionally tended to be staunch progressives. Even Sabo, who railed against excessive pay for CEOs, opposed the war in Iraq, and showered the district with federal dollars, encountered as much criticism from the left as he did from the right among his constituents. At this point, Junge is benefiting from the notion that the four DFL candidates—Ellison, Mike Erlandson, Paul Ostrow, and Junge—don't differ much on the issues. That's true in broad strokes, and on litmus-test issues like abortion. But there are significant differences in style and substance that can and likely will have an impact on policy-making in Washington, D.C.
Take health care. Junge has named it the top priority of her campaign, and has proposed a specific reform for voters to consider. "My plan would require that the states implement universal health care for children by 2010 and for adults by 2015," Junge says. Incentives and punishments could be provided at the federal level, but planning and implementation would go state-by-state. She adds that she would favor "any kind of system—public, private, single payer. We just need to get off the dime." But the reality is that a fragmented, state-by-state approach would almost by definition exclude the bargaining power, economies of scale, and other cost efficiencies espoused by proponents of a single-payer system for health care.
Shortly after Sabo announced his retirement and candidates flooded into the race to succeed him, the TPT public affairs show Almanac invited a dozen aspirants in for a big scrum. Each candidate was asked to describe herself with one word. Junge chose "moderate." This approach has manifested itself in different ways throughout her career.
When serving in the Minnesota Legislature in 1985, Junge voted for a bill that preempted large, or "first class," cities such as Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth from having tougher gun control restrictions than the rest of the state. Junge says this was because she wanted suburbs around those cities to also have tough restrictions, and that she proposed a regional solution to the problem. She also notes that the National Rifle Association gave her a grade of F the next time she ran for office. But the bottom line was that Junge's regional gun control proposal was defeated and that the preemption of "first class" city laws was passed with Junge's support, and over the opposition of every other legislator from her district.
Junge has also endorsed moderate people and positions that are at odds with her rhetoric during the current campaign. Most prominently, she served as the co-chair of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's 2004 presidential campaign in Minnesota, at a time when Lieberman was already on record as supporting the war in Iraq. Lieberman, of course, remains one of President Bush's most loyal Democrat supporters of the war, and is facing a party revolt in his state primary.
On August 1, 2000, Junge was one of 73 people (and the only elected official in Minnesota besides State Senator Linda Scheid) to sign the Hyde Park Declaration put forth by the center-right Democratic Leadership Council. The purpose of the declaration was to set forth the DLC's "policy agenda for the next decade." Among the stated goals for 2010 were structural reforms in Social Security and Medicare, including a proposal to "Create Retirement Savings Accounts to enable low income Americans to save for their own retirement." During last year's dust-up over President Bush's proposal to reform (and privatize) Social Security, Republicans frequently cited the Hyde Park Declaration as proof of its bipartisan appeal.
Junge responds that she supported Lieberman's presidential bid because of their past work on education issues and because she found him to be a "man of integrity." She says she signed the Hyde Park Declaration because it "had some wonderful initiatives for investing in small businesses and economic development." She emphasizes that she does not now and has never supported the war in Iraq or retirement accounts for Social Security recipients.
But Junge clearly believes that her "moderate" positions are smart politics for the DFL and sound policy. In defending her support of Lieberman, she cites her backing for former U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt in the 1988 presidential race, and for Clinton and Gore in 1992, 1996, and 2000. "There is a constant theme there: I wanted to be with the candidate I thought had the best chance of winning, to keep a Democrat in the White House," she says. She justifies her signing of the Hyde Park Declaration in similar terms: "There were a number of things in it and I didn't support every one. But again, I was looking for a way for Democrats to win."
In a huge deliberative body like the U.S. House of Representatives, there will be numerous occasions when legislators must decide between compromising to get things done and standing on principle because something should not be done. Some of Junge's past stands and positions may be instructive for Fifth District voters in that regard.