State Senate races draw seven new candidates

A half-dozen DFLers line up to take Skoglund’s spot, and a Republican sets her sights on Pogemiller

BRIDGELAND—More than 30 years after he was first elected to the Legislature, state Sen. Wes Skoglund is making some headlines—by announcing his retirement.

The laconic Skoglund, who earned a reputation as a low-profile player at the Capitol since first elected to the House in 1974, announced Jan. 28 that he would not seek re-election. “My wife and I want to retire together,” he wrote in a letter to supporters. “We have talked about this on and off, but finally decided after a quiet, wintry day sitting around the kitchen table at our cabin last weekend.”

The decision may have been welcome news to Alex Eaton, the 27-year-old small-business owner and former chair of Young DFL who has been campaigning for the DFL endorsement since August. But he didn’t have much time to enjoy it, for in quick succession five more DFLers entered the fray, most notably Ward 11 City Councilmember Scott Benson.

All six candidates appeared at a candidate forum Feb. 23; read about the forum at www.readthebridge.info/?q=node/775.

Benson, who won a second four-year term on the council in November with 90 percent of the vote, is the former chair of the council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee and has spent much of the past four years shuttling between City Hall and the Capitol, where he has established strong ties with a number of state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He is also seen as a well-connected member of the DFL mainstream who has access to the party’s most powerful funders.

For Benson, the decision to jump into the race was not an easy one. The chair of the City Council’s new Health, Energy, and Environment Committee, he said he was excited about the work he’d be able to accomplish during the next four years—especially given the relative unanimity on the council regarding environmental issues and Mayor R.T. Rybak’s commitment to a “sustainable city” agenda.

But the legislative opportunities were similarly intriguing, he explained, and he was moved to run by what he called the need for “some proven and effective leadership by someone who understands the needs of the city.”

It didn’t hurt, either, that the senate job is part time, and will allow Benson, an attorney who accepted a huge pay cut to work in City Hall, to return to his law practice. Asked whether that was a major factor, the council member demurred, noting only, “It was a lobbying point for my law partners.”

Eaton said he welcomed Benson into the race and was quick to portray himself as the progressive choice versus more “moderate” mainstream candidates. Asked whether he placed Benson in the moderate camp, he said that was “for the voters to decide.” His campaign, he added, would be about “putting forward bold solutions rather than just reacting.”

As if Benson’s entry into the race wasn’t enough, Eaton also has been joined by former alderman Earl Netwal, community organizer Matt Gladue, Senate District 62 secretary Tina Sanz, and Patricia Ray, a DFLer who works for the state Department of Human Services.

Netwal, a longtime DFL activist who resigned as the party’s senate district chair after announcing his candidacy, served on the Minneapolis City Council from 1973 to 1977—at 24, he was the youngest alderman ever elected to the council. He has strong connections to labor, and he’s counting on his long service in the party to bring him some delegate support at the district convention on April 1.

Gladue, who entertained a run for Peter McLaughlin’s Hennepin County Board of Commissioner seat earlier this year, has done organizing and training work for Catholic Charities and has spent the last year focused on health care issues. Like Eaton, Gladue is one of the party’s young turks who will court delegates from the more progressive wing of the party.

Sanz, a city clerk and AFSCME member who supported McLaughlin’s mayoral bid, said she appreciated the work Skoglund has done in the legislature over the years and explained her decision to toss her hat into the ring by saying that she had thought about what sort of leadership was needed at the Capitol and decided she might be the right person for the job. “I have worked mostly behind the scenes in living out my conviction that politics can be honorable and is utterly important,” she said. “I have placed my bets for a better life for my community in political action, on political work—day after day, year after year.”

This is the third consecutive election in which the incumbent state senator in this district has bowed out. In 1998, Carol Flynn retired, creating an opportunity for newcomer Julie Sabo to snatch the DFL endorsement and election. Four years later, Sabo ran for lieutenant governor with fellow senator Roger Moe, leaving the seat open for Skoglund, then a 15-term state Legislator.

Less uncertainty in 59

On the other side of the river, up in Senate District 59, there’s been no such uncertainty. Larry Pogemiller has represented the area in the senate since 1982 and shows no signs of slowing down. The chair of the Senate Tax Committee, Pogemiller is one of the most influential players at the Capitol. And while the 54-year-old systems analyst has no announced challenger from inside the DFL Party, he will have an opponent in November.

Republican Sandy Burt, a nurse practitioner who has done missionary work in Central America, has been campaigning since November and believes she can attract enough Democrats with “Republican values” to prevail in the general election. “I’m tired of career politicians who think they can do what they want,” she said.

Asked why she decided to challenge such a formidable incumbent, Burt recalled attending a Capitol rally a couple of years ago, when State Senator Michelle Bachmann tried unsuccessfully to bring the gay marriage issue to a vote on the floor of the Senate. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said.

Health care, public safety, and education will top Burt’s list of major campaign issues. She said residents are frustrated by last year’s redeployment of police at a time when crime was going up. It’s not a question of the city having too few resources, she explained; it’s a question of effectively allocating those resources. She favors harsher sentences for repeat offenders and an overhaul of the system that tracks the most serious sex offenders.

It’s also time for the legislature to look more closely at vouchers and other solutions to the city’s education crisis, Burt said. “We need some competition for the schools to make them better.”

On Pogemiller’s proposal to create early childhood education opportunities for kids as young as 18 months, she argued that most families have other ideas. “I don’t think most families want the state raising their children,” she said. “There’s some real loopholes in his thinking.”

On the health care front, Burt would like to see small businesses band together to buy health insurance plans. She also supports Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan for importing prescription drugs from Canada.

Without a party rival, Burt is assured of the Republican endorsement and will be able to focus entirely on the November general election, but hers remains an uphill battle. Four years ago, Pogemiller polled 76 percent in his victory over another Republican, Steven Sumner.

Go to the Web for information on Senate candidates Matt Gladue (mattforsenate.com), Alex Eaton (alexeaton.org), and Sandy Burt (www.sandyburt.com).

last revised: August 9, 2006