No party endorsement, divergent constituencies; Dziedzic leads in fundraising
Senate District 59, which encompasses the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota and northeast Minneapolis, is home to one of the most concentrated DFL constituencies in Minnesota.
Until recently Sen. Larry Pogemiller spent decades representing the district, and was often re-elected by 50 percent margins. But his recent resignation from the Senate to become Gov. Mark Dayton’s director of the Office of Higher Education has set up a DFL primary next Tuesday that is all but certain to anoint Pogemiller’s successor. (The special election will follow one month later, on Jan. 10.)
When fundraising and endorsements are taken into account, the primary appears to be a two-way race between Kari Dziedzic and Mohamud Noor. But the race also features three other candidates — Jacob Frey, Paul Ostrow and Peter Wagenius — who enjoy pockets of influence in the district.
According to the most exuberant predictions, 6,000 people might vote in the primary on Tuesday — an extraordinary turnout figure for a special election primary. (Around 2,400 people voted in each of the recent special primaries held in Senate Districts 61 and 46, for seats formerly held by Sens. Linda Berglin and the late Linda Scheid.) More realistically, a turnout in the range of 4,000 or so would mean that a candidate might prevail with as few as 900 votes.
Some labor heavy hitters are staying on the sidelines. The SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5, which can be power brokers in DFL legislative races, have kept away from the fray. The DFL Party in District 59 opted not to endorse a candidate, leaving the field to be winnowed down to one on Tuesday.
Brian Elliott, the executive director of the SEIU State Council, said turnout will be the key to prevailing in the primary.
“With five or six candidates, the winner of the primary could be the one who gets 25, 30 percent of the vote. That 25 or 30 percent is a very small number of voters, quite frankly. It really does come down to turnout,” Elliott said.
Dziedzic draws on family name
Dziedzic has proved to be a fundraising juggernaut and has the strongest political pedigree of any candidate in the race. She is the daughter of northeast Minneapolis political titan Walt Dziedzic, who was a City Council member, parks board member and general purpose power broker in Northeast for 50 years. Currently an aide to Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, Dziedzic worked for U.S. Sens. Paul Wellstone and Amy Klobuchar. She also enjoys strong support from DFL women’s groups like WomenWinning and has been endorsed by veteran District 59B Rep. Phyllis Kahn.
Dziedic, who has also been endorsed by the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades, raised enough money to qualify for public subsidies less than a week after filing her candidacy. On Tuesday her campaign’s pre-primary filing reported a staggering $36,000 collected. The report listed $17,000 in cash on hand.
She has had money to burn on direct mail, and her campaign’s fourth piece hit the post office on Monday.
Dziedzic strikes a comparatively low-key tone when debating her opponents. At a candidate debate on Monday at the University of Minnesota, she sounded themes reminiscent of Dayton’s campaign when she said the wealthiest Minnesotans “must pay their fair share” in income taxes.
“The Tea Party Republicans at the Legislature think they can cut our way out of this [budget problem]. They can’t,” Dziedzic said.
Noor banks on diversity of area
While Dziedic represents the traditional profile of the district, Noor hails from the Somali community that has grown up more recently in and around the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. According to the 2010 census, 11,900 people in the district, or 15 percent, are black or African-American. Noor’s support from within the Somali community is further buttressed by strong labor endorsements from the Minnesota Association of Public Employees (MAPE) and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. For good measure, he won the endorsement from Stonewall DFL, the party’s GLBT caucus.
Given the expected low turnout, Noor will be formidable if he can turn out Somali voters next Tuesday. The Somali community has proven adept at political organizing in recent years, including a strong showing last year on behalf of DFL gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza.
“It gives me a little bit of an advantage,” said Noor, of his ties to the Somali community in the district.
Frey aims for student vote
Jacob Frey strikes by far the most enthusiastic tone of all the candidates. Frey quit his job as an attorney at Minneapolis-based Faegre & Benson to enter the race on the day Dayton appointed Pogemiller. He appears to have some measure of support from other candidates’ core constituencies: Frey touts his history of work in the Somali community, such as helping to maintain an educational facility that offers tutoring to children in the Cedar-Riverside area. But he concedes that Noor’s presence in the race cuts into his vote potential among Somalis.
While Dziedic has shored up support among women’s groups, Frey received an endorsement from the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for Women’s political action committee. (According to a NOW spokesman, the group ranks candidates based on a questionnaire, and multiple candidates can receive the group’s highest rating. As of Tuesday, Frey was the only candidate in the SD 59 race who had returned the questionnaire.) Although Noor snagged Stonewall DFL’s endorsement, Frey organized this year’s Big Gay Race in Minneapolis, which raised money for Minnesotans United for All Families, the main umbrella group battling the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage that will be on the ballot in the 2012 general election.
Frey is hoping the student population, more than any other group, will help him win the primary. There are 18,800 people in the district who are between 20 and 24, according to the 2010 census. That’s 24 percent of the district’s total population, which is by far the largest age cohort in the district.
“It’s no secret one of my big strategies is mobilizing the student population,” he said. “People have been saying to me over and over again: ‘You can’t get the students out to vote. They are not a bloc that’s enthusiastic enough.’ But I’ve been talking to them over the last several weeks. I’ve knocked on over 1,000 doors in Dinkytown. … They’re frustrated, and they’re going to vote.”
Ostrow relies on council relationships
Ostrow is hoping his name recognition as a former Minneapolis City Council member will give him an edge.
At Monday’s University of Minnesota candidate forum, Ostrow spoke in the most detailed terms about specifics for state policy proposals. For example, he said he would support extending the state sales tax to include clothing to shore up the budget and adequately fund state programs.
“I think we need someone who is battle-tested and willing to take the heat,” Ostrow said.
Ostrow’s candidacy is short on the endorsements and organizational backing that other DFLers in the race have at their disposal. But he is betting he still has name recognition from his time on the City Council. Ostrow stepped down from the council in 2009.
“People who are discounting my candidacy don’t frankly understand that I represented 60 percent of this area for 12 years,” he said. “I have personal relationships with people who believe in me and what I’ve done.”
Wagenius has enviro support
Wagenius, the son of DFL Rep. Jean Wagenius and the policy director for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, has support among environmental groups and notable progressives in Minneapolis. Just as Dziedzic is quick to tout the community role that’s flowed from her work with Hennepin County, Wagenius promotes his candidacy by mentioning his work for Rybak, including his role as a principal player in the negotiations over the Central Corridor light rail line that will run through District 59.
Wagenius, whose boss has a rocky relationship with public employee unions, does not have union support. But his pre-primary campaign finance report filing showed a strong $19,000 raised, with $11,900 in the bank as of November 22. And he has environmental groups like the Sierra Club Northstar Chapter in his corner. He is also supported by Rybak and Hussein Samatar, the first member of the Somali community to be elected to the Minneapolis School Board.
“I have the only environmental endorsement in Sierra Club, and that can be incredibly powerful in terms of people looking for the issues that matter to them,” Wagenius said.(editor’s note: The reference to Hussein Samatar was modified to reflect the comment below)