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Minnesota House seats like one now represented by St. Paul DFL Rep. Michael Paymar don’t open up that often. Like many urban districts, it’s a safe haven for Democrats — and the sort of prize that is rarely put up for grabs. Paymar has represented House District 64B for 17 years, winning re-election with margins around 70 percent or higher in the last four cycles.

DFLers flock to rare open seat in 64B

Matt Freeman works in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office as director of outreach and labor relations. Freeman worked on Coleman’s 2013 re-election campaign before joining his staff. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)


Matt Freeman works in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office as director of outreach and labor relations. Freeman worked on Coleman’s 2013 re-election campaign before joining his staff. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

McMahon, Freeman are first in, with more sure to follow

Minnesota House seats like one now represented by St. Paul DFL Rep. Michael Paymar don’t open up that often. Like many urban districts, it’s a safe haven for Democrats — and the sort of prize that is rarely put up for grabs. Paymar has represented House District 64B for 17 years, winning re-election with margins around 70 percent or higher in the last four cycles. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney earned only 27 percent of the vote there last fall, and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage garnered just 25 percent approval in the district.

That’s why Paymar’s recent and unexpected exit from the Legislature has set off a scramble for the seat in 2014.  Already three DFL candidates have jumped into the race for the endorsement: Melanie McMahon, an attorney and former House staffer; Matt Freeman, a top aide to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and the son of a family with a long history in DFL politics; and longtime DFL activist Gloria Zaiger. Sitting just a few miles southwest of the state Capitol building, the Macalester-Groveland/ Highland Park-area district is home to many political operatives and staffers. Even more candidates are expected to join the mix, creating a scenario akin to recent DFL scrums to fill two similar state Senate seats.

In St. Paul’s Senate District 67, the retirement of DFL Sen. Mee Moua three years ago prompted a nine-candidate DFL primary contest. The situation was similar when former DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller left his Senate District 59 seat in 2011 after more than 30 years in Legislature. Five Democrats went to a primary for that seat, which covers parts of northeast Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota.

“I know there are a lot of people who are putting their big toe in the water and seeing if they can gain support in the district,” said Paymar, who is still considering whether he will endorse in the contest after the field takes shape. “An open seat in an area like this only becomes available infrequently, so when it does, you get a lot of strong candidates. It’s not like you have go out and recruit someone. People want it.”

Former staffer is first in

McMahon was the first to announce a campaign for the seat, entering within hours of Paymar’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election next fall. She served as committee administrator on the House Public Safety Finance Division panel between 2007 and 2009, the last time Paymar chaired that committee. She was also the campaign manager for Paymar’s House race last fall.

McMahon got her start in politics “before I could walk and talk,” she said. Growing up in Apple Valley, McMahon had a mother who was active in local DFL politics and knocked on doors for former DFL Rep. Carolyn Rodriguez. “My mom likes to joke that it was great to go out and door-knock with me because she could throw the campaign lit in the stroller,” McMahon said. She has volunteered for DFL candidates and the party for years.

McMahon earned her B.A. at the College of St. Benedict in central Minnesota before going to law school at the University of St. Thomas. She has lived in the Highland Park neighborhood with her husband, Scott, and their two children for the last 10 years. McMahon currently serves as the vice chair of the Long Range Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) Committee of St. Paul and serves on the Highland District Council.

McMahon plans to make early childhood education and women’s health care issues the focus of her campaign. She will also run on continuing Paymar’s work on public safety, noting that she helped craft one of the largest public safety bills in Minnesota while she worked at the Legislature.

She is joined in the race by Freeman, who currently works in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office as director of outreach and labor relations. Freeman worked on Coleman’s 2013 re-election campaign before joining his staff, and in 2012 he was field and political director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s re-election bid. Before that, Freeman put in time as a staffer in the Legislature and with the Department of Agriculture. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Politics also runs in the family: His father, Mike, is a former state senator and has been the Hennepin County attorney for more than 15 years in non-consecutive terms, and his grandfather was the late Gov. Orville Freeman.

“I have always felt called to serve my community. It’s in my blood. I’ve seen firsthand how good people working together can accomplish great things,” Freeman said.

St. Paul Ward 3 Council member Chris Tolbert and former Minnesota Nurses Association President Linda Slattengren are serving as co-chairs of his campaign. Freeman highlighted his support for the bill to legalize gay marriage, which passed this spring, and said more work needs to be done. That includes an increase in the minimum wage, making sure college is affordable, and pumping more money into Local Government Aid (LGA). Another priority would be to repair the state’s wide racial achievement gap in schools.

“I’m working hard and talking to folks around the neighborhood,” Freeman said. “It’s early in the process, but I’m excited about the response I’m getting at the phone and in person.”

Zaiger is an IT specialist at U.S. Bank and a longtime DFL activist in Senate District 64. Last year she served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and she serves on the St. Paul Capital Improvement Budget Committee and the Highland District Council.

List of potential candidates long

Others are interested in the seat, too, including House Health and Human Services Policy Committee administrator Matt Bergeron, who says he’s “seriously considering” a run. Before working in the House, Bergeron lobbied on health care issues at the Capitol for several years. Bergeron and his wife have lived in or near the district for the last 10 years.  “It’s been a very gratifying way to take some of the talents and gifts I have to make a difference for people,” Bergeron said of his time working in the House. “The opportunity to serve in the Legislature as a member would take that service to the next level.”

Other potential candidates include St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing, TakeAction Minnesota spokeswoman Greta Bergstrom, AFL-CIO political director Kris Fredson, and Dave Pinto, a former candidate for Ramsey County attorney who now works in that office.

Paymar recalls his first race for the seat in 1996, when the House District 64B seat was known as the “last bastion of the Republican Party” in the metro area. The district included some wealthy residents living on the Mississippi riverfront, but Paymar beat Republican Ray Cleveland that year with 55 percent of the vote, his lowest margin of victory in nine terms in the House.

“Either a lot of Democrats have moved in here since then, or maybe it’s also an indication that people thought I did a good job in the Legislature,” Paymar said. “Either way, with my race now, whoever gets the endorsement certainly is going to have an advantage.”

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