Former lawmakers seek to return to office

Several Democrats hope to regain lost seats


ECM Capitol Reporter

They lost reelection, party endorsements, and a few just decided to hang it up.

But a fistful of former area Democratic lawmakers are back on the ballot.

And joining the veteran crew is a former nine-term Republican lawmaker who switched parties but not politics, he insists.

“I’ll change the shirt but not the stripes,” Ron Erhardt, of Edina, said.

While Erhardt swapped parties, other former lawmakers are looking to switch bodies.

Former state Rep. Alice Johnson of Spring Lake Park has her sights set on a Senate seat. Former state Sen. Rick Olseen of Harris is running in District 32B against House first-termer Rep. Bob Barrett.

Some of the Democrats within months of losing office knew they’d run again. For others the transition was more difficult.

Former state Rep. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids, who lost reelection in 2010 following a single term, enjoys teaching political science at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

But when redistricting created a new seat, House District 37A, local DFL activists urged the former career military man to run.

“This is clearly a hard decision for families to make,” Newton said.

But Newton, who has served on the Coon Rapids City Council, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board, and door-knocked the area so often and thoroughly only beat cops know the neighborhood better, he joked, filed for office.

Like other Democrats, Newton points to voter turnout in explaining his defeat and hopes for future success.

Some 5,000 fewer voters turned out in his district in 2010 than in 2008, he said.

And the vast majority of these missing voters were Democrats, Newton argues.

Newton won election in 2008 — a presidential year — winning about 57 percent of the vote.

In Anoka County, which contained his legislative district, 182,559 voters turned out.

Newton lost reelection in 2010 by about 400 votes.

That year, a good year for Republicans, 131,703 voters went to the polls in Anoka County.

“That always plays a disfavor to Democrats,” said Newton of lower voter turnout.

Indeed, Newton expressed a degree of uneasiness over Democratic prospects this election.

Some Democrats and Independents are lukewarm in support of President Barack Obama, he explained.

And the perception that Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a shoe-in for reelection could also lessen the urgency to vote, Newton said.

“I don’t see any landslide for the DFL,” Newton said.

House Democrats are really going to have to dig to win the handful of additional seats to retake control of the House, Newton explained.

As a political science teacher, Newton expresses concern over the “bounce” back and forth between Republican and Democratic control from election to election. For one thing, it’s hard on government agencies, he explained.

Another former state representative, Ken Tschumper, of LaCrescent, is on the ballot in District 28B.

Tschumper defeated Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, in 2006 by 52 votes — Democrats regained control of the U.S. House in the Democratic wave that year.

Still, in the presidential election year of 2008, in a rematch, the table turned and Tschumper lost by about 400 votes.

Now Tschumper and Davids electorally are bumping heads once again.

“I enjoyed being at the Legislature,” said Tschumper, a dairy farmer milking a herd of 44 cows.

He views taxes as the central issue in the current campaign, blaming Davids, House Tax Committee chairman, for increasing property taxes.

Tschumper, who likes to speak of change moving at the speed of light, senses both government and the voters are struggling with the rapidity of change.

Recent elections reflect the unease in voters — an unease that it will take several more elections to work out, Tschumper said.

Like Newton, Tschumper speaks of voter turnout as critical.

“It all depends on who turns out,” Tschumper said of winning.

“That makes all the difference in the world,” he said.

Another defeated House Democrat back on the ballot is Sandra Masin of Eagan.

First elected in 2006 — she defeated former Republican State Rep. Tim Wilkin by less than 100 votes — Masin crafted a bigger win in 2008 over Republican Diane Anderson.

But Anderson bounced back in 2010, winning about 53 percent of the vote.

The two political adversaries are rematched in District 51A.

Masin indicated that months ago she had decided to run again.

She points to the state government shutdown as an example of perceived Republican no-holds-barred partisanship radiating from the State Capitol.

Like Newton, Masin said jobs and the economy are not the top issues she hears when out door knocking.

It’s concern over gridlock at the statehouse, she explained.

“I keep hearing it again and again,” she said.

One of the more colorful former area lawmakers back on the ballot is Erhardt.

“I didn’t leave (the legislature) because I intended to,” he said.

“I didn’t have any choice.”

While winning reelection in 2006 with 59 percent of the vote, Erhardt, along with five other House Republicans, ran afoul of the Republican Party by voting to override Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation finance bill.

Erhardt lost his party endorsement in 2008 to Keith Downey — he credits Downey for bringing in a Tea Party faction “with a touch of religion to make it a sweet group,” he said.

In 2008, Erhardt ran under a Moderate Independent Party banner and he and a Democratic challenger won about 63 percent of the vote.

But Downey, now running for a Senate seat, won the election.

Erhardt is now facing Republican Bill Glahn in District 49B, running as a Democrat.

He insists he remains fiscally conservative, socially moderate, but acknowledges switching parties comes at a cost.

“It is a problem with switching parties,” he said.

It is a “mystery” to him why some old supporters, when learning he has switched parties, begin to express hesitation.

His party has changed, but he hasn’t, Erhardt explained.

Another former area lawmaker back on the ballot is Connie Bernardy of Fridley.

Bernardy served three terms in the House before electing not to seek reelection in 2006.

T.W. Budig is the Capitol reporter for ECM Publishers.