Election Notebook: Court Challengers Say It Is Hard Going Against Incumbent

Challengers to Minnesota Supreme Court justices say their job is tough.

Obstacles challengers point out include restrictions on collecting donations, making campaigns tough to fund against better-known incumbents. Also, the would-be justices say that just already being in office carries several advantages, including “incumbent” printed by their names on the ballot and an easier time raising money as a sitting justice.

“It has been 66 years since an incumbent judge has lost an election,” said Dean Barkley, who has lost races for Congress in the Independence Party and is making his first bid at judicial office against Justice Barry Anderson.

Challengers in all three races say the current system is stacked in favor of incumbents. In most cases, judges and justices retire in the middle of their terms. That leaves it up to the governor to appoint replacements, who as sitting judges may have an advantage when they come up for election.

Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea and Justice Barry Anderson have run before, while Justice David Stras, in office just two years, is in his first campaign.

Stras probably speaks for all the candidates in saying: “I feel like I am working two jobs.”

Tim Tingelstad pointed to a problem he has in working from his Bemidji home, as does Gildea opponent Dan Griffith of International Falls: “It’s a long ways down to the population center.”

While Tingelstad said that many northern Minnesotans may know him, others do not.

Another incumbent advantage is support from fellow lawyers. The Minnesota Bar Association surveys members and this year, like usually in the past, the incumbents drew far more support.

Stras and Anderson received 82 and 83 percent support, respectively, while Gildea won 93 percent approval.

There is a disagreement about whether being involved with political parties is allowed, or even is a good thing. While a Minnesota case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court opened judicial campaigns up for more political discussion, just how much of that is allowed remains in dispute.

Challengers like Tingelstad have sought the Republican Party endorsement. The party’s platform calls for judicial endorsements, but none came this year.

Justice salaries are $145,981 for each of six years in a term.

GOP blamed in Eken race

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Friday filed a complaint that the Republican Party broke the law by making false statements about a candidate’s voting record.

The DFL says Republicans distributed campaign literature incorrectly saying Rep. Kent Eken, a Democrat running for the state Senate, voted to raise a fee senior citizens pay for nursing home care.

Democrats called on the Office of Administration Hearings to penalize the GOP for making false statements, which is against state campaign laws.

Republicans distributed a new piece of literature when informed the Eken claim was wrong.

“We goofed,” the literature says. “Kent Eken did not vote to raise the fee seniors pay for nursing home care.”

Then the Republican material goes on to say: “Instead, Eken voted to raise the cost we pay for hospital care and health insurance.”

GOP Executive Director Ben Zierke said the party looked into the vote after Eken disputed the original literature during a debate.

“It was an honest mistake on that vote,” Zierke said, and the party send the “we goofed” piece out as soon as possible after fact-checking the first piece. “There is no question that he did not vote for the tax.”

Democrats probably would not have known about the mistake if Republicans had not send the follow-up flier, Zierke added. “We owned up to it.”

DFL Chairman Ken Martin said the GOP apology does not fix the earlier law violation.

“Their ads were blatantly false, and we filed a complaint today because these dishonest tactics cannot be allowed to go unchecked,” Martin said Friday. “The attacks against Kent Eken amount to a smear campaign. It’s not even a distortion of the truth, it’s an outright lie.”

Eken is running for Senate in a district around Moorhead and Detroit Lakes against former Buffalo Bills star Phil Hansen, a Republican.

Kriesel in commercial

State Rep. John Kriesel’s dramatic speech in the Minnesota House opposing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is featured in a television commercial.

The Cottage Grove lawmaker joined Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing as the only two Republicans to vote against the amendment, which will be in front of voters Nov. 6. Kriesel is retiring when his term ends in early January.

In the speech, Kriesel recounted when a bomb exploded in Iraq, causing injuries that eventually cost him his legs.

“I was in an incident and I nearly died,” Kriesel said. “I remember laying there, looking down and seeing my legs mangled. I thought about my family.”

He recounted the story of Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt, a soldier from Rosemount, who was killed in Afghanistan last year.

“He gave his life in Afghanistan protecting our freedoms,” Kriesel said. “He was gay. I cannot look at this picture and say, corporal, you are good enough to fight for your country and give your life, but you are not good enough to marry the person you love.”

After his May 2011 speech, opponents of the amendment greeted Kriesel as a hero when he left the House chambers.

Nov. 6 registration available

Minnesotans who have not registered to vote or updated their addresses, still may do so on election day.

“Minnesotans should use the online voter registration lookup at www.mnvotes.org to see if their registration is current,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said. “Voters who are already registered to vote at their address do not need to bring additional documentation with them to their polling place. However, eligible voters who plan to register on Election Day must provide proof of residence.”