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Forum News Service Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers that serve the state.

Johnson: Dayton shows ‘breathtaking incompetence’

By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s challenger raised the temperature of the campaign Tuesday by saying the governor showed “breathtaking incompetence” in establishing the state-run health insurance marketplace and an abrupt about-face on a controversial sex offender issue.

Republican candidate Jeff Johnson’s comments were by far the harshest of the campaign and signaled the race was getting serious.

Johnson’s statement followed an announcement that the insurance company insuring more than 24,000 Minnesotans who bought health policies through the web-based MNsure marketplace no longer will participate. The challenger said that means they have to go through a problem-filled enrollment process with another insurance company later this year.

Also Tuesday, news came that the Dayton administration suddenly dropped its consideration of releasing a sex offender who has admitted molesting at least 60 women.

“I have joked throughout the campaign that as a Norwegian Lutheran from northern Minnesota, I don’t get all that worked up or all that emotional about things, but the past 24 hours and this governor have practically put me over the edge,” Johnson told reporters during a hastily called late-afternoon news conference. “I believe that the Minnesotans who are being hurt by the breathtaking incompetence of Gov. Dayton ought to be mad as hell right now and they ought not to put up with it anymore.”

Johnson has avoided such tough remarks, even in front of fellow Republicans. He often has said he is different from some in his party in that he will not be harsh. He said his Tuesday comments do not mark a departure from that, but they certainly were different from campaign stops he made as recently as Monday.

Johnson said that on the campaign trail he seldom has discussed his feeling that Dayton is incompetent, but said in answer to a question that it likely will be more prominent in his campaign as the Nov. 4 election nears.

Dayton flew back from a Washington, D.C., campaign fund-raising trip Tuesday afternoon and had little to say about Johnson.

The Democratic governor’s official office released a statement about MNsure attributed to Dayton: “A year ago, PreferredOne chose to offer its coverage at rates well below other plans on MNsure, and gained significant market share from doing so.”

PreferredOne said Tuesday that it was dropping out because of the rates and administrative problems with MNsure.

Johnson alleged that Dayton pressured PreferredOne to offer artificially low rates.

“Of course, administration officials encouraged insurers on MNsure to provide the lowest rates possible to the people of Minnesota,” Dayton campaign spokesman Jeremy Drucker said. “However, the companies were solely responsible for the rates they decided to offer.”

The other issue that Johnson addressed was the abrupt switch in the administration position about Thomas Duvall, 58, who on Tuesday was to begin a four-day hearing that may have led to his release from the state sex offender program. That hearing was canceled late Monday after the Dayton administration decided not to pursue his release, influencing Duvall to withdraw his request to be let out.

Johnson said he agreed with Dayton that Duvall should remain in treatment, but added that Dayton should not have forced Duvall’s victims to wait a year for the decision.

“After putting countless victims of one of the worst sex offenders we have seen in the state through hell for nearly a year by suggesting that he would be willing to let this guy out, the governor last night at the 11th hour…” changed his mind, Johnson said. “This matter was mismanaged.”

The governor’s office referred comment on the Duvall case to Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who released a statement: “I review these cases carefully, taking into consideration criminal history, the evaluation of our clinical staff and the review of numerous independent experts. In the case of Thomas Duvall, I changed my position based on new information and recently issued expert reports.”

Political chatter: Ag wins water vote

By Don Davis

A little known federal issue that has farmers riled came out of the U.S. House with a vote friendly to agriculture.

The House voted 262-152 last week to forbid the federal Environmental Protection Agency putting nearly all water in the country under its control. Farmers fear a proposed change in the Clean Water Act would give the EPA control of every body of water from puddles on up.

There is little chance that the Democratic Senate will follow the Republican House’s lead.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents western Minnesota, was one of 35 Democrats to vote against the EPA rule.

He said the proposal would create “more confusion and is bad for agriculture. … The EPA does not seem to understand the real world effects these regulations will have on farmers across the country.”

Minnesota’s House delegation split on the issue.

Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat representing the eastern Twin Cities, voted opposite Peterson.

“Once again Republicans are taking aim at the environment and clean water by unnecessarily intervening in a critical rule-making process,” McCollum said. “Preserving the health of America’s wetlands and streams is essential to Minnesota, a state with more than 10,000 lakes and over 69,000 miles of river. The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers need to continue moving forward, in consultation with key stakeholders, and develop a sound definition that protects the health of a precious natural resource: America’s waters.”

Farm groups sided with Peterson.

“The U.S. House of Representatives stood with farmers and ranchers … to tell the Environmental Protection Agency they cannot and do not have control over all waters,” President Kevin Paap of the Minnesota Farm Bureau said. “We sincerely thank Minnesota Reps. “(Tim) Walz, (John) Kline, (Erik) Paulsen, (Michele) Bachmann and Peterson for voting in support of the final bill.”

Walz and Peterson were the only two Minnesota Democrats to support the measure.

Paap said the vote was not the end of the battle. “Until they withdraw their proposed rule, we must continue to send comments to the public docket sharing our story to the EPA on how constricting these regulations would be on our ability to farm, perform normal land improvement activities and continue conservation efforts.”

The Farm Bureau has been out front in fighting the EPA on the issue, running a “ditch the rule” campaign.

Mills gets more attention

If national media attention illustrates a candidate’s viability, Stewart Mills is in very good shape.

Hardly a week goes by when the first-time Republican candidate in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District is not featured in a story from outside Minnesota. One of the latest is the National Journal, which called him “the most interesting candidate of the year.”

“Minnesota is a state known for electing its share of unconventional candidates,” Josh Kraushaar wrote in his Brainerd-datelined story. “It voted for Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler, as its governor. Comedian Al Franken, who once wrote a book joking about running for president, is now the state’s junior U.S. senator. Paul Wellstone parlayed his job as a rumpled college professor into a progressive icon in the Senate.”

It did not take long for Kraushaar to focus on the same things as other national reporters:  Mills’ long hair and his resemblance to actor Brad Pitt.

“He’s one of the few congressional candidates who has been attacked for hitting a beer bong…” the story says.

Kraushaar calls Brainerd a small town (its population is nearly 14,000) and incorrectly labels Mills’ company as a “sporting goods shop” (the chain of stores sells a variety of items ranging from farm equipment to kitchen utensils, and does sell sporting goods).

Mills is trying to kick Democrat Rick Nolan out of the House.

Nolan is in his first term back in the House, serving the northeast and east-central Minnesota district, after earlier serving during the Vietnam war era. He gets much less media attention than Mills in a race that is attracting outside funding by the bucketful.

Horner for Johnson

Tom Horner returned to his Republican roots to endorse GOP governor candidate Jeff Johnson.

Horner was the Independence Party candidate four years ago, getting 12 percent of the vote as Democrat Mark Dayton narrowly beat Republican Tom Emmer. For years before that, he worked with Republicans.

Horner went after Dayton for not knowing specifics of items in bills such as one funding the Vikings stadium.

Johnson “will get it right the first time,” Horner said.

Horner said that Independence candidate Hannah Nicollet did not seek his endorsement. He said since she could not raise the $37,000 needed to obtain state campaign funding that she “won’t have a voice” in the governor’s race, leaving Dayton and Johnson in the spotlight.

Homes lead in propane

As Minnesota leaders try to prevent a propane shortage, with accompanying price increase, like what hit the state last winter, they primarily are trying to protect homeowners.

The state propane industry reports that in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, 206 million of the 341 million gallons of the fuel used in Minnesota heated homes. Another 78 million gallons went to agriculture uses, things such as drying grain and heating livestock facilities. The rest was used by businesses, industries and for engine fuel.

Minnesota propane outlook improves, but officials will monitor

Dayton

By Don Davis

The propane outlook for this winter is brighter than a year ago, when shortages nearly quadrupled the heating fuel’s price, but state officials urge poor Minnesotans to apply now for heating assistance if they think they will not be able to fill their tanks.

“The situation is very encouraging,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said Tuesday after meeting with about 50 people involved in the propane industry in St. Paul, with another 20 joining by telephone.

Still, he added: “We’re not out of the woods. Nobody is complacent.”

With more than 200,000 Minnesotans, mostly in rural areas, depending on propane to heat their homes, Dayton called in users, transportation officials, suppliers, marketers and others involved in the propane industry to assess the situation.

Many at the meeting said that more propane storage and Minnesotans buying more of the heating fuel in the summer instead of waiting for cold weather have helped ease concerns.

Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said a Kansas facility that supplies much of Minnesota’s propane increased storage 15 percent. Storage also has been built in Minnesota and North Dakota.

However, the bad news is that the permanent shutdown of a propane pipeline at the end of the past heating season is forcing more of the gas onto rails, which already are so congested with North Dakota crude oil that farmers complain they cannot get good service from area railroads.

Dayton lately has complained that the BNSF and Canadian Pacific railway companies have put a priority on crude at the expense of commodities such as fertilizer that farmers need and hauling grain to market. After Tuesday’s meeting, Dayton said he thought railroads can handle added propane shipments, even though “there is no question that the railroad system is very seriously over extended.”

The state and the industry are better prepared to monitor the propane transportation situation this year, Dayton added.

The governor promised to put pressure on the railroads, if needed, “once the situation is real.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that Midwest propane supplies are 1.9 million barrels higher than a year ago, but still 1.6 million barrels below the five-year average.

Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap called the meeting “a perfect example” of how to avoid a problem “before the government steps in and makes it worse.”

“We are in a better position if it happens again,” Executive Director Steve Olson of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association said, recalling last year’s problems.

Besides being the coldest winter in nearly 30 years, crops harvested last fall were wetter than normal, requiring more propane to fuel grain dryers. There also were difficulties getting propane to Minnesota.

Rothman suggested that people who think they may not be able to afford propane this year should fill out heating assistance applications right away so money can be sent as soon as the federal government makes it available. Information is available at (800) 657-3710.

Dayton said that his administration is urging federal officials to release the money soon.

In addition to heating rural homes and drying grain, propane is used by a variety of businesses and poultry producers and other farmers to heat facilities.

Earlier this year, the Propane Education and Research Council reported that the country had more propane than ever, but it was not where it was needed.

“We’ve never had it in the right place at the right time,” Paap said.

Updated: Special session not expected for flood disaster

By Don Davis

Minnesota leaders say they can avoid a pricey special legislative session and still provide local governments money as they recover from early-summer floods.

A new $3 million state disaster fund may be enough to reimburse local governments until legislators return to work Jan. 6, but Gov. Mark Dayton said his administration will continue to monitor the situation and could convene the Legislature if government leaders say they are running short of money.

A memorandum sent Tuesday from the state finance commissioner and emergency management director laid out the situation.

The total state and local government damage from floods across the state is pegged at $40.8 million for local government facilities, with the federal government due to pay 75 percent. That leaves $10.2 million for the state to pay, and the $3 million disaster fund should be enough to get by for now, Commissioner Jim Schowalter and Director Kris Eide said.

In an interview, Schowalter said local governments are not losing out on money by waiting until next year. However, he added, the Legislature may need to act soon after it convenes in order to keep money flowing.

If a special session is called before Nov. 4, it would come during a busy campaign season for Dayton and most House members.

“We will continue to monitor this situation and stay in touch with the administration, local officials and legislators in both parties to ensure communities affected by summer storms are receiving the aid they need before the 2015 session begins,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “And next session, we will give full consideration to remaining requests.”

Federal transportation officials already have sent millions of dollars to the state for road repairs. Dayton said that if that money runs out, “I would talk with (legislative) leaders about a special session.”

The Obama administration ruled that 37 of the state’s 87 counties and three tribal governments sustained enough damage to receive federal aid. The administration denied help to Morrison and Dakota counties.

To qualify for federal help, a county needed to show it incurred at least $3.50 per resident in damages.

Federal funds are only for governments to recover costs for flood fighting; they do not help private citizens and businesses that were damaged in flooding that began June 11 and in some cases extended into July.

Federal officials decided that damage in Morrison County did not occur during the disaster period. County officials say damage was $206,000 and under a new law the state would pay $155,600 of it if federal officials do not provide money.

Dakota County, meanwhile, sustained $1.7 million in public infrastructure cost, which federal authorities said they would not pay. The state and county are appealing that decision. If the federal government does pay, the state’s Dakota County cost would be $427,000; if federal officials continue to reject the request, the state portion would be $1.28 million.

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Counties receiving federal funds are Beltrami, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Chippewa, Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Hennepin, Jackson, Koochiching, Lac Qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Le Sueur, Lyon, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Pipestone, Redwood, Ramsey, Renville, Rice, Rock, Roseau, Scott, Sibley, Steele, Todd, Wadena, Waseca, Watonwan, Wright and Yellow Medicine. Tribal governments getting the money are Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Prairie Island Indian Community and Red Lake Band of Chippewa.

Dayton, Johnson agree to debates

Dayton, Johnson

Minnesota’s two major candidates for governor will debate five times before the Nov. 4 election, including a Forum News Service event in Moorhead.

Campaigns for Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson have been going back and forth about debates since shortly after Johnson won the Aug. 12 primary election. They reached agreement on the debates Friday.

Johnson originally sought more than a dozen debates, but Dayton said he would participate in six, after being in about 30 when he ran for governor four years ago. The campaigns could only agree on five 2014 debates.

Three of the debates will be in greater Minnesota, with two in the Twin Cities.

The Johnson campaign was upset that Dayton would not take part in two debates sponsored by Twin Cities television stations.

“Mark Dayton turned these two televised debates down because he and his handlers are afraid of what Minnesotans will quickly realize when they see Dayton and Jeff sitting next to each other debating the issues on live television: That Jeff Johnson will be a far better governor,” Johnson adviser Gregg Peppin said.

Dayton has said that he does not see a need for more than six debates. Presidential candidates take part in only half that many, he said.

The Forum News Service event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 8 in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Hansen Theatre.

“With readers throughout Minnesota, Forum News Service is uniquely positioned to host a debate of this caliber,” news service Director Mary Jo Hotzler said. “It’s a great opportunity for our communities to hear directly from the candidates and to interact with them, and for our media organizations to do the same.”

Forum News Service covers state and regional news for media throughout the Upper Midwest. It is part of Forum Communications Co., based in Fargo, N.D., which owns about three dozen newspapers as well as broadcast stations and printing operations.

The news service’s event will be a 90-minute debate, with news service political and government reporter Don Davis moderating and WDAY television anchor Dana Mogck hosting and asking questions provided by audience members. Questions also will be accepted before Oct. 8 by emailing debate@forumcomm.com.

The news service will offer an invitation to appear in the debate to any candidate who obtains at least 10 percent support in an independent and established poll a week before the debate.

WDAY in Fargo, N.D., and WDAZ in Grand Forks, N.D., will televise it, and it will be streamed live on Forum Communications websites. The debate will focus on greater Minnesota issues, but other major topics also may be discussed.

Besides agreeing to debates Friday, the campaigns learned that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Leadership Fund endorsed Johnson.

“We believe Jeff Johnson is the candidate who best represents the Minnesota Chamber’s pro-business, pro-jobs agenda,” said Bill Blazar, interim president of the Minnesota Chamber. “His commitment to making sure we have a competitive state economy will mean better opportunities and a better quality of life for all Minnesotans.”

Blazar was critical of Dayton for raising taxes on the richest Minnesotans and enacting more regulations.

The governor debate series will open Oct. 1 in Rochester with a 3:30 p.m. event sponsored by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, Post Bulletin of Rochester and the local chamber of commerce.

The Duluth News Tribune and the area’s chamber will sponsor an 8 a.m. Oct. 14 debate, with Fox 9 holding a 9 a.m. one on Oct. 19 in St. Paul. Twin Cities Public Television will air a 7 p.m. debate on Oct. 31.

Forum News Service and other groups also invited the two major U.S. Senate candidates to a debate, but Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken rejected most. Instead, he proposed three debates: Oct. 14 in a debate sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune and chamber, a date not yet set on WCCO television in Minneapolis and Nov. 2 on Minnesota Public Radio.

A spokesman for Republican Senate challenger Mike McFadden said his campaign is not confirming any of the events until Franken’s staff talks about more debates.

Political chatter: Group focuses on defeating 12 DFL representatives

By Don Davis

A dozen mostly rural Minnesota state House districts could decide which party controls the body the next two years.

The Republican-oriented Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund announced 12 districts Democrats now hold that it is targeting for the Nov. 4 election.

Coalition leader Ben Golnik said the Democrats “who despite promises of working across the aisle, being independent voices for their regions and other appeals to their moderate districts, voted lock-step with Minneapolis and St. Paul Democrat leadership for higher taxes on all Minnesotans, a crushing regulatory environment and billions of dollars of wasteful spending.”

The lawmakers are Reps. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township, Zachary Dorholt of St. Cloud, Roger Erickson of Baudette, Andrew Falk of Murdock, Tim Faust of Hinckley, Patti Fritz of Faribault, Ben Lien of Moorhead, Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake, Joe Radinovich of Crosby, Shannon Savick of Wells, Mary Sawatzky of Willmar and John Ward of Baxter.

The Jobs Coalition list is a bit larger than some other lists of key districts.

Republicans and Democrats all along have said there are some key rural districts that could decide House control. Top Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party House leaders have talked a lot about rural issues in the past year, knowing some of their incumbents face tough races.

Republicans need to take away a net six seats from Democrats to regain control of the House.

Who controls the House is especially important this year for Republicans who want to eliminate all-Democratic control in the Capitol, holding the House, Senate and governor’s office.

Senators are not up for election this year, so that body will remain under Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party control at least two more years.

Klobuchar in Africa

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has returned from an 11-day visit to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Senegal and Rome.

The Tanzania Daily News reports that the Minnesotan was accompanied by four other Democratic women senators, including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. The delegation was headed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the Senate agriculture committee chairwoman. The State Department funded the trip.

The Daily News reported that delegation traveled to Africa to “have an opportunity to witness conservation and natural resources management in promoting sustainable economic development.”

The senators found time to tour the Serengeti National Park, made famous on public television for the opportunity of close encounters with lions, zebras, giraffes and other animals.

Two can talk

Gov. Mark Dayton’s trip to the Moorhead area a few days ago uncovered stories that some state Department of Natural Resources people were saying things not approved by the governor or Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

The revelation came up during discussions about a water diversion project planned to protect Fargo and Moorhead from Red River flooding. People told Dayton in meetings what DNR employees said.

“I think in a project of this magnitude and this sensitivity and this controversy, that from this point forward, the only two people authorized to speak on behalf or represent the state of Minnesota are Commissioner Landwehr or myself,” Dayton said.

The diversion is very controversial, and Dayton had harsh words for the governmental body responsible for the project.

High drama court race

Judicial races generally produce little drama and little interest among voters.

One this year between Justice David Lillehaug and Michelle MacDonald is producing drama, but probably not much voter interest.

Republican state convention delegates overwhelmingly endorsed MacDonald last spring. Most judges not wanting political ties, but Republicans like to endorse conservatives to the high court.

Things changed when some GOP leaders discovered she was awaiting trial on a drunken driving charge. She also faces a count of violating terms of her driver’s license that was restricted due to her drunken driving charge.

At first, Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson said he still supported MacDonald. Now, however, he has backed away and says she needs to run a serious campaign before getting his backing.

GOP attorney general candidate Scott Newman withdrew his support early and went so far as to endorse Lillehaug, a longtime Democratic activist who Gov. Mark Dayton appointed.

MacDonald has filed documents requesting the state Office of Administrative Hearings (an agency similar to a court) to take up her case against Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey and other GOP leaders for not following through and backing her after the party endorsed her. She was barred from the Republican State Fair booth by two volunteer security guards.

8,000 online registrations

More than 8,000 Minnesotans have registered online to vote.

More than 5,000 of them updated their addresses or names, while nearly 3,000 registered for the first time in Minnesota.

“This tool makes it convenient for eligible voters to register, and helps reduce costs to local governments,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

He launched the online registration tool last year, a judge found it illegal and the Legislature established a system that is much like Ritchie started.

Voters must register for the Nov. 4 election by the end of the day Oct. 14.

Minnesotans head to the polls this fall to pick a U.S. senator, statewide officials, all eight U.S. representatives and all 134 state house members. Many local offices also are on the ballot.

Voters do not need to wait until Nov. 4 to cast ballots. They may vote absentee by mail or at local election offices starting in about two weeks; this year for the first time anyone may vote absentee, not just those unable to go to the polls Nov. 4.

Ritchie’s office offers more voting information at at www.mnvotes.org.

Next to the trains

One of the reasons Gov. Mark Dayton traveled to Moorhead early last week was to discuss oil train safety, a subject of meetings he is holding along railroad tracks that transport oil from western North Dakota.

While in Moorhead, Dayton stayed in the modest Travelodge motel. Ironically, it is next to tracks where more than 40 trains a week haul oil through the area. At one point during his stay, an oil train was parked next to the motel.

Northern, western Minnesota could affect political season

Johnson meets the press

Dayton meets the press

By Don Davis

Summer unofficially is in the history books, so it is Minnesota political season.

It is time when voters may turn more attention to campaigns leading up to the Nov. 4 election. There are local races that attract some, but most Minnesotans who care about such things will focus on the U.S. Senate and governor races.

And those key statewide races could be affected by congressional races being waged in northern and western Minnesota.

“It is huge, it is huge,” political scientist Larry Jacobs said of money being pumped into those races.

Jacobs said that money could influence the statewide races, as well as which party controls the Minnesota House.

Those U.S. House races’ impact also could go well beyond Minnesota politics. If Republican Mike McFadden upsets U.S. Sen. Al Franken, it could help swing the U.S. Senate to Republican control.

Jacobs, professor and Walter F. Mondale chair for political studies at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said that candidate-raised and outside money in the two U.S. House districts will help Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties increase turnout in critical, mostly rural parts of Minnesota. If voters turn out for one race, they generally vote up and down the ballot, so the party that attracts the most in a U.S. House race also benefits with more votes in other races.

Campaigns got into full gear in the last few days as the Minnesota State Fair attracted the statewide candidates.

For Democrats Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton, fair campaign stops are routine. Both said that instead of the need to campaign around the state, for the 12-day fair the state comes to them.

For newcomer McFadden and GOP governor candidate Jeff Johnson, the fair gave them a chance to introduce themselves to thousands of people they otherwise may never meet.

All of the big four candidates were there most days of the fair. So were some Senate and governor third-party candidates, none of whom has gained much traction.

Jacobs said the two races are referendums, but for different things. “The governor’s race is a referendum on Minnesota and the Senate race is more of a referendum on Washington.”

The professor said things look good for Dayton because Minnesota “has one of the faster-growing economies.”

In the Senate race, however, President Barack Obama’s low popularity means Republican strategy of linking Franken with the president is wise and could hurt the incumbent.

For Dayton, after 39 years in government and politics, the State Fair was bittersweet: “This is the last time I’m here as a candidate for public office.”

For McFadden, surrounded by family volunteers, including his Texas mother-in-law, it was fun. He said he loved talking to the people. “Maybe it is because I’m Irish.”

Johnson used the fair to put an edge on his campaign, opening the event demanding more debates with Dayton. The governor stuck with the six he already proposed.

Of the four big names, Franken attracted the largest crowds. Wherever he went, he drew fair goers who talked about his work, both in the Senate and in his previous life as comic, satirist and writer.

Recent polls put Franken and Dayton up 8 to 9 points over their GOP challengers. Both sides are using the early numbers to seek donations, with leaders complaining that the race is close and they need money to stay ahead and those trailing arguing that more money would help them catch up.

But for all the begging for money in the Senate and governor contests, two U.S. House races could wind up making the difference.

In northern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is in a fight with Republican upstart Stewart Mills, heir to Mills Fleet Farm money. It has attracted national notice in a district that has grown to the south, where Republicans are in control and threatening long-time Democratic district dominance (other than one term the GOP’s Chip Cravaack served).

“Both parties are putting lots of money into the 8th,” Jacobs said.

In the massive western Minnesota 7th Congressional District, state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, is mounting the most serious challenge in years to Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who has served in Congress two dozen years.

Peterson remains a solid favorite in many observers’ eyes, but people in both parties say this could be Peterson’s last campaign and if Westrom does well he could be the front-runner two years from now in the normally Republican-leaning district. That could attract money this year to give Westrom a 2016 head start.

No one knows just how much money will be spent in the two House races, but it is obvious that if either is close, outside groups will throw millions of dollars at Minnesota.

At last report, the Nolan-Mills race had attracted $1.4 million in outside spending, and the real campaign usually does not start until after Labor Day. The Peterson-Westrom race outside spending was anemic in comparison, $245,000.

In the 8th, Mills has money behind him — from outside interests and his own bank account — but is untested and unknown.

“I’m still not clear what kind of candidate that Mills is,” Jacobs said. He could work out, but he “also could be a loose cannon.”

“I tend to be suspicious of people who are new to politics,” he said, adding that there is no substitute to having run a campaign.

Still, if Mills and Westrom show they can compete, money will follow and that money could influence politics beyond their districts

Incumbent vs. newcomer partially defines U.S. Senate race

Franken

McFadden

By Don Davis

Al Franken sat with a dozen St. Cloud workforce leaders to accept their thanks for working on a bill they say will help Minnesotans seeking jobs.

Mike McFadden answered questions on a Twin Cities radio station at the Minnesota State Fair, while just out of his earshot, a station staffer asked “who is Mike McFadden?”

Franken stopped outside his fair booth, and within seconds a line began to form to meet him and, mostly, to get pictures snapped of the U.S. senator and former “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer, author, satirist and radio talk show host.

McFadden walked the fairgrounds, drawing little attention before finding two couples in the dairy barn who wanted to talk politics.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Franken insisted on only three general elections debates.

Republican challenger McFadden wants more debates to reach a wider audience.

In many ways, Minnesota’s Franken-McFadden U.S. Senate race is a typical battle between a sitting senator and a political newcomer. But in this case, the two are engaged in a race that could decide which party controls the Senate since Republicans only need to switch six seats to take power away from Democrats.

Franken brings with him a background that made him well known even before he was elected, but also baggage that came with it. He angered conservatives as an outspoken left-wing talk show host and upset more than a few with controversial skits he wrote, or starred in, on the well-watched Saturday night show.

He is known to most Minnesotans through his previous life in the entertainment industry as well as slightly more than five years in office, a tenure that started late because of a lengthy recount and post-election court fight that left him with a 312-vote win over then-Sen. Norm Coleman.

McFadden, on the other hand, is making his first run at public office while taking a break from his business career. He was little known on the political scene before he announced last year that he would challenge Franken.

His inexperience shows, political scientist Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota said.

The Republican has made several mistakes, including saying he could accept Chinese steel in a new oil pipeline, a comment coming in a state with a significant industry that produces taconite used to make steel. He also called for a gasoline tax increase, only to tell reporters minutes later he opposes the increase.

“He doesn’t have a clue about politics,” Jacobs said. “His efforts to correct the (tax and steel) mistakes reinforce the fact that he doesn’t get it.”

McFadden admits to mistakes and tells Minnesotans he will make more because, he said, he is not a professional politician.

He has not allowed the mistakes to slow him down or cool his enthusiasm.

While he walked around the fair, he was chipper and optimistic.

“I have a lot of energy about this,” he said.

McFadden already has made more progress than Republican candidate Kurt Bills made during his campaign two years ago against U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“Bills was like a wet blanket on the ticket,” Jacobs said, but McFadden has found more money, including his own, than Bills ever did.

People at the fair who knew little about McFadden regularly went up to him and said things like: “I liked your commercial.”

McFadden has released a trio of commercials that mix humor with serious policy points.

Since deciding to run for Senate, Franken has tamped down his public humor, preferring to be known for his policy stances and work in the Senate. He cannot shake his past.

“I watched you on SNL for years,” a fair goer told him after Franken finished a radio interview.

But most who formed long lines at Franken’s fair booth thanked him for his work on worker training, agriculture and other issues.

Like other incumbents, Franken can take advantage of being in office.

At a recent St. Cloud meeting, the senator received thanks from the Stearns-Benton Workforce Council for a new federal law that helps workforce leaders better train potential employees. One example they gave Franken is teaching English to people who struggle with the language.

“I think Minnesotans have gotten a measure for me,” Franken said in an interview. “It is a slightly different experience than it was seven or eight years ago.”

McFadden and other Republicans work hard to connect Franken to President Barack Obama (“they are joined at the hip,” McFadden likes to say). That effort includes carrying around an Obama cutout behind Franken to emphasize that connection.

The GOP attempt does not seem to bother Franken.

“I have voted for Minnesota’s interests,” he said, and opposes Obama on issues important to Minnesota, such as the battle to keep federal rules requiring crop-based fuels to be mixed with gasoline and diesel. “I think that Minnesotans know I am on their side, most Minnesotans.”

Franken

McFadden

Political chatter: Age, Internet problems issues in greater minnesota

By Don Davis

An aging workforce with inadequate Internet connections is hurting rural Minnesota, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities says.

They are issues voters must consider when picking the next governor, said Glencoe Mayor Randy Wilson, the coalition’s president. “These are really tough and complex problems, and it is imperative that whoever the next governor is, he has a vision and a plan for greater Minnesota and will work with us to resolve these issues.”

Politicians have talked for years about the need to improve greater Minnesota’s workforce and Internet connections, as well as transportation, but relatively little has been done.

The coalition, an organization of 85 cities outside of the Twin Cities, discussed the issues at a recent conference in Rochester.

One striking figure is that just 45 percent of greater Minnesota homes “are connected at speeds needed for present-day applications,” the coalition reports. That compares to 92 percent of Twin Cities homes.

This year’s Legislature approved an initial contribution to improving rural broadband, otherwise known as high-speed Internet. But it was just a drop in the bucket of what rural leaders say is needed.

Sen. Matt Schmit, D-Red Wing, is leading a statewide tour for the second year to discuss the broadband issue. Since next year is when lawmakers and the governor compile the next two-year budget, rural leaders hope they can get more funding.

In greater Minnesota, the number of workers younger than 55 has shrunk from 85 percent in 2000 to 79 percent in 2012. And the age is expected to continue to rise.

The aging, and retiring, workforce means there are fewer workers to fill jobs. Some rural manufacturers have started busing people from larger cities to fill their jobs. More than half of the rural job vacancies are hard to fill, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development reported, compared to about a third in the Twin Cities.

Pot may reduce deaths

A new study shows that in the 23 states where medical marijuana use is legal, deaths from drug overdoses have fallen by nearly 25 percent.

Reuters news service reports that deaths from drugs such as morphine, oxycodone and heroin fell each of the first several years medical marijuana was allowed. Minnesota officials this year approved its use, with the first sales expected next year.

“Most of the discussion on medical marijuana has been about its effect on individuals in terms of reducing pain or other symptoms,” said lead author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber. “The unique contribution of our study is the finding that medical marijuana laws and policies may have a broader impact on public health.”

‘Decide where you reside’

Students starting college should “decide where you reside,” Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

In other words, they should decide where they will vote, at their college address or at home.

Minnesota law requires voters to use the address where they live. “Residence is the place eligible voters consider their home and from which they have no current intent to move,” Ritchie’s office reported.

Residency laws vary by state, so Ritchie advised students going to schools elsewhere to learn those states’ laws.

“It’s important our college students register to vote using the correct address to ensure they receive the correct ballot,” Ritchie said. “And as they will be our next generation of leaders and policy makers, it’s critical for them to be informed and civically engaged.”

Twist on fair politics: GOP vs. GOP

Guards stop MacDonald

Political challengers proposed debating incumbents. Incumbents pared down the challengers’ lists. The governor sat motionless as two buckets of ice were dumped on him.

It was a typical opening day at Minnesota’s Great (Political) Get-Together, except, that is, that the State Fair also featured Republican officials banning their endorsed Supreme Court candidate from the party’s fair booth.

Michelle MacDonald tried twice to get into the booth, between a radio station remote studio and the 99-year-old Ye Old mill ride. She had announced her plans to campaign at the fair booth each day of the fair, but two volunteer security guards greeted her and tried to keep her out. Elected party officials, including Chairman Keith Downey, were not there.

While she eventually was allowed in twice, it was just to look briefly, not to campaign.

MacDonald said Downey told her of the decision by party officials Wednesday to ban her, but she said those officials have a duty to either support their endorsed candidates or resign from party leadership.

The ban came a month before MacDonald faces a trial on a drunken driving charge and after being ticketed this month on a charge of violating her limited driver’s license.

Michael Brodkorb of politics.mn, a former GOP official, reported that one Republican Executive Council member said the panel would “fully support” MacDonald being arrested if she attempts to enter the Republican Party booth.

She was not arrested Thursday, although law enforcement officers were nearby.

MacDonald told Forum News Service that she plans to return to the booth each day.

Republicans meeting in Rochester this spring overwhelmingly endorsed MacDonald to challenge Justice David Lillehaug, who Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton appointed to the high court.

Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson, who Republicans nominated for attorney general, announced Thursday that he will support Lillehaug instead of MacDonald.

Longtime politics-at-the-fair observers said they never have seen anything like the MacDonald incident.

More traditional fair politics was plentiful, especially debates about debates.

Republican challengers to Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken released lists of debates they proposed, while the incumbents sliced them down to a size they prefer.

Dayton offered six debates, and said he was not inclined to take part in any more:

– Oct. 1 in Rochester in front of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

– The week of Oct. 6 in Moorhead in a debate that Forum News Service will sponsor.

– Oct. 14 in Duluth for an event by the Duluth News Tribune and the area Chamber of Commerce.

– The week of Oct. 20 in the Twin Cities, sponsored by a group that has not been selected.

– Oct. 31 on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac.”

– Nov. 2 on Minnesota Public Radio.

While Republican candidate Jeff Johnson offered a 13-debate list, it appeared he likely would accept the Dayton offer while continuing to ask for more.

The same was true of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden, who offered six debates, while Franken said he would only take part in three:

– Oct. 14 in a debate sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune and Chamber of Commerce.

– An unknown date on WCCO television in Minneapolis.

– Nov. 2 on MPR.

Franken and McFadden were on the same stage earlier this month at a Farmfest forum in southwestern Minnesota.

McFadden spokesman Tom Erickson said his candidate is disappointed that Franken will not take part in more debates, especially one Forum News Service offered to host in Moorhead. Franken said the three debates are the same number as in the Minnesota Senate race two years ago.

The coolest part of the day, for Dayton at least, came after the governor engaged in a radio interview. A producer dumped two buckets of ice water on Dayton as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which has taken the country by storm in raising nearly $42 million for the illness, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Dayton took the ice after Minnesota Twins owner Jim Pohlad “nominated” him. Anyone who rejects the nomination of someone else is supposed to contribute to ALS research, but even though he was dumped on, Dayton said he will contribute anyway.

The governor nominated Franken to get ice dumped on him.

Dayton doused

Johnson

Franken

McFadden

‘Give bees a chance’

Spivak

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson promises to plant more flowers.

It is part of a new program his department launched at the State Fair on Thursday to encourage Minnesotans to provide good homes to bees, wasps, butterflies and other insects that pollinate plants.

Pollinators’ numbers are falling and scientists do not know all the causes, although some pesticide use is suspected as one problem.

“More than one third of all plants are plant products that we consume are directly or indirectly dependent on insects for pollination, and a decline in pollinators negatively affects us all,” Frederickson said.

Participants in the program are asked to join Frederickson and pledge to take an action to help pollinators.

Frederickson said his department will focus on educating the public about how regular Minnesotans can help. His promise to plant more flowers may be a popular way to help, but he also suggested letting dandelions grow because bees like them.

Other ideas the commissioner offered include leaving areas of a lawn unmowed, reducing pesticide use, setting out water bowls to give pollinators a drink and to start a beehive.

Besides pesticides, parasites and diseases are among factors believed to be causing the pollinator decline.

There still is too little known about bees and other pollinators, said Marla Spivak, a nationally known bee expert from the University of Minnesota.

While about a third of Minnesota honey bee colonies are lost each year, Spivak said that native bee population trends are not well understood (honey bees are not native to the state). However, she added, studies on the topic are beginning.

Of Minnesota’s 18 or 19 bumble bee species, she said, two “are very endangered.”

Frederickson and legislators at Thursday’s announcement said Minnesota has passed more bee-related laws than any other state. For instance, it now is illegal to label a product as bee friendly if it really can harm the insects. Also, state agencies are required to take bee-friendly actions, such as improving habitat.

The issue is well known in rural areas, where farmers need pollinators for their crops. But state Rep. Jean Wagenius, D-Minneapolis, said she has been hearing about it in her urban area as she goes door-to-door campaigning.

Rep. Rick Hanson, D-South St. Paul, said that lawmakers will take more actions to help pollinators, but urged common Minnesotans to help, too.

“Give bees a chance,” he pleaded.

Frederickson

Analysis: Sharp contrasts separate Johnson and Dayton

Johnson, Dayton

Johnson, Dayton

Jeff Johnson was 8 years old when Mark Dayton got involved in government, working for then-U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale.

Since then, Dayton has traveled the state for 39 years, getting to know issues that most Minnesotans may not even realize exist. He did that as state economic development commissioner, state auditor, U.S. senator and governor, as well as in unsuccessful campaigns for Senate and governor.

Since then, Johnson finished growing up in Detroit Lakes, graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, earned a law degree, spent time in Chicago, worked for Cargill, served in the state House, unsuccessfully ran for attorney general and served time as the only Republican on the Hennepin County board.

Dayton is 67, Johnson 47. Dayton is liberal, Johnson conservative. Dayton came from money, Johnson didn’t. Nearly every Minnesotan knows Dayton, not so much for Johnson.

Other than both being nice guys, the two are worlds apart. Minnesotans will have a stark choice when they vote Nov. 4 (or earlier, thanks to a new early-voting law).

Long-time Republican activist Ben Golnik, now Minnesota Jobs Coalition chairman, issued a primary election-night statement Tuesday after Johnson turned back three other major GOP candidates for governor: “Tonight’s results set up the clearest choice for Minnesotans in a generation: Jeff Johnson offers a new pro-growth direction for our state while Mark Dayton represents the discredited policies of the past.”

Unless four years is a generation, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. In 2010, Dayton faced Republican Tom Emmer, who differs relatively little from Johnson when it comes to policy beliefs. However, Emmer had much more of an edge to him (which since has tempered).

This year’s race will be a rerun of liberal vs. conservative, a theme Minnesotans should know well.

Both sides seem to expect a close race in a state that has featured several of them in recent years.

However, GOP activist and blogger Michael Brodkorb warned Republicans after the primary: “GOP had low turnout at precinct caucuses, a state convention that wasn’t full and now more DFLers voted in the primary. Big warning signs.”

Republican Chairman Keith Downey did not act concerned about the low primary turnout, even though GOP voters generally are more faithful in showing up at the polls than Democrats, which was not the case Tuesday.

Neither side was happy with the primary turnout of less than 10 percent of eligible voters (“It is really too bad,” DFL Chairman Ken Martin said) but those numbers do not necessarily predict a low general election participation.

While Martin tried to portray low GOP turnout as a sign there was not much excitement for the party’s candidates, the returns show Johnson received solid statewide support. Figures compiled by David Sturrock, chairman of the Southwest Minnesota State University political science department, indicate that more suburban voters than expected turned out Tuesday to support fellow suburbanite Johnson.

Johnson earned especially strong support in northwestern Minnesota, where he and his wife grew up, and the southeast. The primary could indicate those will be some of the most competitive regions since in 2010, Dayton also got lots of votes in those areas, as well as the normally DFL-dominated northeast.

Sturrock reported that the three rural Minnesota congressional districts, across the northern, western and southern parts of the state, showed the best turnout, with an average of 27,000 Republican voters. In an election where rural voters were expected to dominate, suburban districts came close behind, with 24,700 on average, and urban districts trailed with 13,500.

In the Nov. 4 election, Dayton can be expected to do well in the Minneapolis and St. Paul urban cores, but Johnson’s time on the Hennepin County board could help him in the suburbs. Greater Minnesota could be a swing area, as usual, with Johnson promoting his Detroit Lakes upbringing and his farmer running mate Bill Kuisle, while Dayton reminds voters that he has been around all of the state a long time.