The Shape of Things to Come

          Hours after the networks have recrowned President Clinton and there are no new updates on the Wellstone-Boschwitz U.S. Senate race, the results of the local campaigns will scroll across our television sets, setting off squeals of delight or uncomfortable silences in the dozens of bingo halls and basement rec rooms that have been jerrybuilt into campaign headquarters for election night. This year, these exercises in retail politics and small-town patronage take on an added intensity and big-picture relevance: Ethical lapses by numerous DFL legislators and a greater public willingness to oust incumbents could end the party's majority status in the Minnesota House of Representatives, the Minnesota Senate, and especially on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.

          Republicans smell blood in the Hennepin County Commissioner's 2nd District race between incumbent DFLer Sandra Hilary and independent Mark Stenglein. Hilary has admitted to a gambling addiction that put her heavily in debt and caused her to borrow money from at least one business person who needed Minneapolis City Council approval for his liquor license. Although the former council member has been extensively audited and cleared of criminal wrongdoing, the conflict-of-interest question and her longstanding connection to the DFL political machine stands in sharp contrast to a political neophyte like Stenglein, a small businessman who has shrewdly shunned any party affiliations while taking positions that appeal to a broad cross-section of people in his district.

          Officially endorsed only by Ross Perot's Reform Party, Stenglein has energized moderate Republicans by being pro-choice on abortion while preaching fiscal conservatism and talking tough on crime, a Clintonian combo that seems to amount to the electoral trifecta this year. DFLers counter that Stenglein is a stealth candidate on behalf of the Gingrich agenda (Newt, DFL rumor has it, called Stenglein with congratulations on primary night) and the Christian Coalition. Although Stenglein's early campaign literature did identify him as an Independent Republican, portraying him as a stalking horse of the ultra-right seems pretty farfetched. Even his anti-crime proposals--which include building a new county jail, creating a metro gang task force, and purchasing new technology to expedite prosecutions--are hot-button solutions with appeal to both parties.

          Hilary is the anti-stealth candidate, an unpretentious, occasionally abrasive blue-collar politician who engenders fierce loyalty in the working-class neighborhoods of Northeast Minneapolis. A rudimentary handicapping of the race would pit Hilary's strength in the north and northeast parts of Minneapolis against Stenglein's base in the district's suburban areas, which encompass Golden Valley and parts of Plymouth. But Stenglein believes his anti-crime message works especially well with longtime urban residents, and Hilary's bootstrap feminism and her strong identification with social services and domestic violence prevention should draw more than a few of those much-discussed "soccer mom" votes.

          "Sandy has got to get the female vote in the suburbs to win, and I think she will," says Mark Andrew, Hilary's colleague on the Hennepin County Board and also the chair of the Minnesota DFL Party. But Hilary must be considered the underdog in a very close race right now. She lost to Stenglein in the primary earlier this year (the top two vote-getters then stage a run-off in November), and has no money for a network-affiliate TV buy (she has run 60-second spots on cable), although she'll get some help from labor and should benefit from a strong get-out-the-vote push on Tuesday. Stenglein's advisers claim he has more money, no ethics baggage to wear him down, and an ever-growing cadre of mostly Republican workers excited at the prospect of taking over Hilary's seat, which would effectively undo DFL control of the Hennepin County Board and its $1.2 billion budget. With Hilary, the DFL has a 4-3 majority.

          Over in the State Legislature, it appeared until recently that the Republicans would seize control of the House, and possibly the Senate too, following a string of DFL misdeeds that included Phonegate, drunk-driving escapades, domestic abuse, and, courtesy of the Bertram brothers, an unflattering mixture of light-fingered and strong-armed tactics. But that was before Bob Dole began his Back To The Future extemporizing and Bill Clinton began co-opting everything and everyone to his right; Clinton's double-digit lead is expected to offer DFLers at least a modest ride on the coattails. Moderate Republican Steven Swonder, a supporter of Rudy Boschwitz, also believes that the overly negative campaign run against Paul Wellstone by the national Republican Party has damaged IR legislative candidates.

          But that doesn't mean the Democrats have it locked up either. Rep. Ron Abrams (IR, Minnetonka), who is helping to coordinate the Republican House races, says he is "cautiously optimistic that we'll have a majority," by making a net gain of at least three seats during the elections. Andrew, the DFL state chair, says that "If voter turnout is low, we may not hold the House." He counts 21 races that he deems too close to call. Many of them are in outstate areas where DFL incumbents are retiring. The Democrats hope to offset any Republican gains there by picking up some seats in the suburban metro area, a key battleground featuring more than a dozen close races. Here are a few of the more noteworthy campaigns.  

          The best example of the coattail effect will probably occur up in New Brighton, in District 52B, where IR incumbent Dick Pellow is facing off with DFLer Geri Evans for the fourth election cycle in a row. Boosted by the popularity of Clinton in 1992, Evans squeezed out a victory; two years later, riding Arne Carlson's landslide over John Marty in the governor's race, Pellow won the seat back. In a district almost evenly split in its party affiliation, Clinton's big lead over Dole could give Evans a slight edge this time around.

          You want a rebuttal to Minnesota Nice? Consider the campaign right next door in District 52A, encompassing areas of Fridley and Columbia Heights. For more than 20 years the seat was held by DFLer Wayne Simoneau; when he left to join the Carlson cabinet, IR candidate Skip Carlson won a special election to replace him. This year, Carlson is running ahead of Satveer Chaudhary, a big surprise considering that the district is regarded as solidly DFL, with DFL candidates for President and Congress piling up big margins there in recent years, in addition to Simoneau's perpetually strong showing. But Chaudhary is East Indian; unsolicited and off the record, representatives of both the Republican and Democratic parties told me that race is the single biggest factor here, and that District 52A is not ready to elect a person of color, especially against someone sporting a good Scandinavian name like Skip Carlson.

          Two of the most emotional issues in any campaign--abortion and crime--are at the forefront of the race in District 49B between IR incumbent Eldon Warkentin and DFLer Luanne Koskinen for the seat vacated by DFLer Joel Jacobs, who left to join the Public Utilities Commission. Located in Coon Rapids, this is the home district of DFLer Jackie Schwietz, head of the anti-abortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned For Life (MCCL). But Schwietz's handpicked candidate was defeated in the primary by Koskinen. Despite the presence of Schwietz and the large, pro-life Epiphany Church, feelings about abortion are almost evenly split in this district, and Koskinen is running just slightly ahead of the pro-life Warkentin, who may receive a boost from his recent endorsement by the Star Tribune.

          Yet another tight race in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis is the contest between IR incumbent Tom Hackbarth and DFLer Kathleen Sekhon in District 50A. Hackbarth's vociferous support for Governor's Carlson's voucher proposal is said to be the lightning rod issue in a race deemed too close to call. Out to the west metro in Hopkins, St. Louis Park, and Minnetonka, the race between DFLer Betty Folliard and IR candidate Rob Samuelsen for the District 44A seat vacated by Steve Kelley is also regarded as a dead heat, with crime and taxes the governing issues.

          One of the few places in the metro area where the DFL ethics problems are having a direct impact is in Bloomington, where District 40A incumbent DFLer Mark Mahon is facing a stiff challenge from IR candidate Brian Skon. Mahon is being hurt by his votes on the ethics committee not to discipline fellow party members. Skon has also benefited from his endorsement by the Star Tribune.

          Campaign officials in both major parties agree that the biggest difference between local races this year and those of the last presidential election in 1992 is the lack of influence by Ross Perot and other third-party candidates. A notable exception is in the inner-city District 62A, where DFL stalwart Lee Greenfield is facing a surprisingly feisty challenge from his left by Green Party candidate Cam Gordon. It seems that many activists from the progressive wing of the DFL are peeved that Greenfield helped to torpedo legislation by Sen. John Marty that sought to enable community co-ops to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on the same footing as big HMOs and state organizations and receive a better rate on prescription drugs. Greenfield introduced and passed a substitute bill that Gordon and his supporters claim short-circuited Marty's legislation.

          But Gordon, a 40-year-old author and former Montessori teacher, says his campaign isn't based on revenge so much as opening up the two-party system. Estimates of Gordon's strength depend on who in the DFL Party you talk to, but Gordon himself says, "We won't be embarrassed. It won't be 4 or 5 percent; it will be at least double digits. If we got 25 percent, that would surprise a lot of people, but I think that's doable." Asked if he's in it for the long haul, he demurs, "I don't believe in career politicians. Will I run again? I guess if I win I'll run again."

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