Unstuffing the Ballot Box

Political neophyte Lee Helgen took advantage of the leftie vote to best Dave Thune in the Ward Five primary
David Kern

The Invisible Man: Has anyone seen Jim Reiter?

In recent weeks, while the primary election came and went, the Ward Five St. Paul City Council member has been as elusive as August rain.

Last month, the 66-year-old two-term incumbent didn't show up for a candidate forum at the North End Multi-Service Center. In his stead, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, a political ally, debated the three other candidates. Reiter surfaced roughly 90 minutes late, in time to give a closing statement.

A week later Reiter failed to file a campaign finance disclosure form, as required by law. The report, which is supposed to detail exactly how much money candidates have raised and where the funds came from, was due August 29. But as of last Friday--14 days past the deadline--Reiter's report was still not available at the Ramsey County elections office.

On September 3, Reiter was again a no-show for the second and last candidate forum before the primary election. Attendees were informed that the council member was seriously ill and had been vomiting all morning.

Given Reiter's low profile, perhaps it's no surprise that he was upset in last week's primary election, losing out to political neophyte Lee Helgen, 48 percent to 45 percent. The two candidates will now square off in the November 4 general election. Helgen is executive director of the Minnesota Workforce Council Association and has the backing of Progressive Minnesota, while Reiter has fostered a reputation as a fiscal conservative and staunch ally of Mayor Randy Kelly.

Since his electoral defeat, Reiter has proven no less elusive. Last Wednesday, the seven-member City Council debated one of the most important measures it will face all year--whether to raise property taxes in 2004. By a 4-2 margin, the body voted to hold the line on spending. The missing council member: Jim Reiter.

Reiter did not return calls to his office or home. Sheriff Fletcher, however, offers a partial explanation for the council member's recent absences. "He has a severe urinary tract infection and he's being treated with intravenous antibiotics," says Fletcher, who scoffs at any suggestion that Reiter's hospitalization might preclude him from continuing with the campaign. "It's a short-term sickness. It will be cleared up within 10 days."

As for the campaign-finance form, Fletcher claims that the report has been filed. He speculates that Ramsey County may have lost it; Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky concedes that stranger things have happened. "Not having completely perfect mail delivery is not beyond the realm of the possible, but as best we can tell we have not received a report from them," Mansky says. Meanwhile, Helgen is considering filing a complaint with the Ramsey County Attorney's Office regarding the missing form.

Whatever Reiter's problems, it would be premature to discount the incumbent's chances. In 1999 he finished second in the primary, only to come out on top in the general election. Additionally, as Fletcher points out, people who show up to vote in the St. Paul primaries generally skew more liberal than those who cast ballots in a general election. "It was not an upset," he says. "When you factor in the profile of who votes, this was a strong showing for Reiter." --Paul Demko


Fighting for what's left of the Left: St. Paul's already shaky reputation as a bastion of liberalism took another hit on primary night, when Christine Nelson bested the endorsed City Council candidates from the DFL and Green parties in the Second Ward. Propelled by support (and plenty of money) from the city's Chamber of Commerce and endorsements from Mayor Randy Kelly and the Pioneer Press, Nelson is clearly the candidate of the local business establishment. Progressive voters who lifted Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson to a strong third-place finish in the ward now face the option of switching their allegiance to DFL-endorsee Dave Thune or watching Nelson cruise to victory in November's general election. That's a hell of a choice.

Thune, whose second-place finish earned him the right to a November runoff against Nelson, has sufficient baggage to give Dickinson voters pause. While serving as president of the City Council in 1997, he took a consulting contract with the construction firm that built the Xcel hockey arena he voted to fund with city dollars. A year later, he supported Norm Coleman's bid for governor. Yet, with a fair amount of chutzpah, he's now castigating Nelson as a closet Republican who would trade fiscal prudence for a baseball stadium.

Thune knows he was damaged by the Coleman and conflict-of-interest controversies. "Obviously your history follows you forever," he says, then notes that during his stint on the council from 1989 to 2000, he successfully championed the city's human rights amendment and living wage bill, brought women into the fire department, and helped stave off a Chamber-supported overpass by the Science Museum. He also supported Jay Benanav for Mayor.

Now, Thune is staking out fresh positions that have a decidedly progressive bent. After decrying the budget crunch brought on by state cuts in local government, he claims an increase in user fees is inevitable and refuses to rule out property tax hikes. Pointing out that the city has 15 fewer sworn police officers than it did on 9/11, he says "all this Republican talk about homeland security is pure bullshit." Finally, he calls Dickinson's proposal for a city-run utility contracting with farms that generate wind power "the most dramatic idea I've heard in this entire campaign."

Informed of Thune's enthusiasm for wind energy, Dickinson laughs, then notes that the Nelson campaign has also expressed interest in exploring the issue. "I believe Christine Nelson is extremely smart and articulate. I am told by her supporters that she is a good committed liberal," Dickinson says. "But at candidate forums, she is either very cautious in the way she speaks or she is trying to hedge her bets." Dickinson is also bothered by the tens of thousands of dollars the Chamber has raised for Nelson, whose primary war chest also included a $50 check from right-wing Republican and former gubernatorial candidate Brian Sullivan.

Eventually, Dickinson allows that she may "write an op-ed right before the November election and say everyone has to make up their minds for themselves, but this is where I am going and here's why." Translation: Dickinson will probably endorse Thune, but she's going to extend the courting process in order to further the cause of wind power and other issues that were part of her campaign. --Britt Robson

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