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It’s not uncommon for a legislator or two to announce their retirements after the end of session. But 2012 has seen more last-minute departures than many political pros can ever recall.

Flurry of retirements sets off scramble for House, Senate seats

After one two-year term in office, Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, failed to get the DFL endorsement and decided to call it quits. His decision means his East Side district will have a hotly contested DFL primary. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Numerous lawmakers head for the exit after session, worrying party leaders

It’s not uncommon for a legislator or two to announce their retirements after the end of session. But 2012 has seen more last-minute departures than many political pros can ever recall.

“This is the craziest filing period I’ve seen in 25 plus years of legislative elections,” said GOP political operative Gregg Peppin. “People dropping out, people getting in—it is unbelievable.”

The two-week filing period ended at 5 p.m. Tuesday. In announcements that had the potential to make caucus leaders and local party officials queasy, incumbents were announcing retirements in the final days of the filing period. The bulk of the endorsing conventions were wrapped up by the end of May and by this time campaigns are set for primaries or the general election. But there’s been a steady stream of retirements since lawmakers left St. Paul, and two Republican incumbents dropped out in the final 48 hours of the filing period, both citing health reasons. Rep. Roger Crawford, R-Mora, on Monday said he’s calling it quits. News broke about the retirement of Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, roughly three hours before the secretary of state’s deadline.

The following is a survey of the various scrambles to field successors on the fly.

HD 4A

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, announced last week he won’t seek a sixth term. But he didn’t leave without weighing in on who should defend his seat. Republican Travis Reimche filed to run the day after Lanning’s retirement announcement and with his blessing. Reimche is a patient accounts manager at Sanford Health. Despite Lanning’s endorsement, he eschews the label of establishment candidate. Reimche notes that he hasn’t been active in GOP politics and was defeated in his bid for Moorhead mayor.

Ken Lucier, a staunch conservative who is retired from the U.S. Postal Service, is also running. He has extensive experience in GOP politics, including a stint as Clay County GOP Chair from 1999 to 2002. Benjamin Larson filed to run on Tuesday. He’s a development director for the Perry Center in Fargo who became active in politics by attending Tea Party rallies.

DFLers endorsed Ben Lien, who works for the Village Family Service Center, to run in 4A. And shortly before the filing deadline passed on Tuesday, Sue Wiger, the executive director of Bluestem Center for the Arts, filed to run as a DFLer. Redistricting shrank the district by pushing out most of the rural areas to make it mostly a Moorhead district. Clay County Republican leaders haven’t decided whether to hold an endorsing convention in the race.

HD 6B

A DFL primary will settle the nominee for the Iron Range seat that’s long-been the domain of retiring Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. The race features the two candidates who sought the endorsement: Lorrie Janatopoulos, the planning director for the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, and labor activist Jason Metsa. They competed for five ballots at the convention last month in Hibbing. But neither clinched the 60 percent required for endorsement.

Since then Dave Meyer, a construction worker and union activist from Aurora, has gotten in the race. Iron Range political observer Aaron Brown noted both Metsa and Janatopoulos have ties to Rukavina. With Meyer figuring to be a dark horse, the race pits the younger Metsa, who’s schooled in contemporary campaign practices, against Janatopoulos, who has years of experience in community activism. Two Republicans have filed to run for the seat, which is a DFL stronghold.

HD 11B

Rep. Roger Crawford, R-Mora, on Monday announced he won’t seek re-election, citing recent heart problems.
The district has followed the political winds in recent election cycles. DFL Rep. Tim Faust was twice elected in strong DFL years in 2006 and 2008. Crawford beat Faust by more than 10 percentage points in the 2010 wave election year for Republicans.

As a former Mora mayor and county commissioner, Crawford was a very electable figure in the area. But his departure, along with the addition of DFL areas like Finlayson in the new redistricting map, could potentially make the district even more competitive for DFLers.

Seeking to defend the seat for the Republicans is Ben Wiener, a 39-year-old major in the Army National Guard. He has had four overseas deployments, including a 16-and-a-half month tour in Iraq. He and his wife and children operate a berry farm in Hinckley. Wiener had served briefly as Pine County GOP chair, but his term was cut short because of deployment. He said Republicans in the new 11B lost ground in redistricting.

“8B was historically very 50-50, very competitive. With redistricting we lost some more Republican townships and we added some more Democrat townships. So it makes it a little less Republican friendly. However, I think with my track record of service, people will actually look at the candidate more than the R or DFL next to their name,” Wiener said.

On the last day of filing, Pine City Board member Mitch Pangerl also filed as a Republican in 11B, triggering a primary.

As the two Republicans get their campaigns established, two DFL candidates are heading to a primary. Faust is running to reclaim his seat and is being challenged for the nomination by Pine City planner Nathan Johnson. In a surprise twist, Quamba Mayor Tom Ladwig, Jr., who initially sought the DFL endorsement, filed to run under the Independence Party banner.

HD 24A

Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, who was thought to be mulling a Senate run before getting endorsed for his House seat, surprised DFLers on May 21 when he announced his retirement. Kath’s decision was a disappointment for DFLres because he was able to hold the Republican-leaning district in the 2010 GOP wave election. There was silence in the DFL ranks leading up to the last day of filing on Tuesday. But Waseca music teacher Craig Brenden filed to run. John Petersburg, a Lutheran church administrator, has been in the race for a couple months and has the GOP endorsement. He was joined on the last day of the filing period by Waseca City Council member Larry Johnson to force a primary.

SD 39

Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, surprised Minnesota legislative campaign watchers by announcing his retirement on the last day of the two-week filing period. Vandeveer, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000, cited health concerns for his decision not to run.
Former 2010 Senate GOP candidate Karin Housley, who was drawn into Vandeveer’s District 39 due to redistricting, filed to run for the seat with about two hours left to spare before the secretary of state’s office closed. GOP activist Eric Langness of Forest Lake also made it to the secretary of state’s office on time to file. Langness had worked on Vandveer’s campaign and is currently the vice chair of the Washington County section of the 6th Congressional District GOP.

The GOP nominee will face former DFL Rep. Julie Bunn of Lake Elmo.

HD 45B

Rep. Sandra Peterson’s retirement announcement on the day after filing began set off a scramble among candidates in the DFL-leaning district of first ring suburbs west of Minneapolis. The news immediately drew several candidates with strong DFL track records.

But the party was able to pick a candidate and avoid a primary. On Sunday, Golden Valley City Council member Mike Freiberg clinched an informal endorsement on the third ballot. The outcome wasn’t binding because party officials didn’t have the necessary amount of time to give a formal notice to hold an endorsing convention. But DFL candidates who had filed, labor activist Anthony Kuntz and former DFL Senate District chair Larry Fonnest, withdrew their candidacies and are backing Freiberg.

SD 67

After one two-year term in office, Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, failed to get the DFL endorsement and decided to call it quits. His decision created the second time in as many election cycles that the East Side district will have a hotly contested DFL primary.

Former City Council member Tom Dimond and Foung Hawj filed early. Former legislative staffer Robert Humphrey, who currently serves as assistant director for safety and inspections for St. Paul, registered on Monday. Former St. Paul school board member Al Oertwig was also a late filer for the seat.
In the overwhelmingly DFL district, the candidates’ strengths revolve around turning out their core constituencies to the polls.

One noticeable difference between this year and the 2010 primary is that there is only one Hmong candidate. In 2010 Hmong candidates garnered roughly 40 percent of the vote in the nine-way primary. But their strength was weakened because four Hmong candidates split the vote. (Harrington won with 30 percent; Hawj was also in the race and garnered 10 percent.)

St. Paul legislative races usually generate interest among labor unions and progressive groups.
Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, said the union has put together a questionnaire and will screen candidates over the course of the next couple weeks. TakeAction Minnesota, which endorsed in 2010, is considering whether to weigh in.

Dimond is best known for his intense opposition to the levee on the Mississippi River to protect the Holman Field airport from flooding. Some observers have speculated that Humphrey will generate support from some of Dimond’s foes.

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