Dems regroup after lawmaker in scandal drops out

Published 10:54 am Friday, August 24, 2012

ST. PAUL (AP) — Minnesota Democrats shifted their focus Thursday to the field of candidates who could run in place of a state lawmaker involved in a sexual encounter with a 17-year-old boy at a rest stop, one day after Rep. Kerry Gauthier said he would drop his re-election bid.

Two write-in candidates — Democrat Erik Simonson, a Duluth fire official, and City Councilor Jay Fosle, who said he has been told he wouldn’t have the party’s support — have come forward, and others are considering campaigns.

Local elected and party officials were moving forward on the assumption that the Democrats’ chosen replacement candidate for Gauthier would have to run a write-in campaign, with Gauthier and Republican Travis Silvers remaining on the ballot. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s spokesman, John Kavanagh, said there is no way for a legislative candidate to withdraw after the primary, which was held Aug. 14.

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But Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin said the party is looking into legal options for replacing Gauthier on the ballot. It’s unclear whether that would succeed in court.

Any legal challenge would have to be resolved before a Sept. 21 deadline to send absentee ballots to voters who request them. St. Louis County Elections Director Patricia Stolee said her office also needs lead time to print ballots, but would take its direction from Ritchie’s office.

Police say Gauthier, a first-term lawmaker from Duluth, admitted having oral sex with the 17-year-old on July 22 after Gauthier advertised on Craigslist for “no strings attached” sex. Police didn’t charge him because the boy was older than 16, the legal age of consent, and no money was exchanged.

The turmoil worsens the party’s chances of holding a reliably Democratic seat in a year when Democrats are trying to regain legislative majorities after two years of Republican control.

Write-in candidates have a much harder time winning than candidates whose names and party affiliations appear on the ballot. A successful write-in candidate would have to make at least a plurality of voters remember their name — or a spelling close enough that election judges recognize their intent to vote for the candidate — and write it manually on the correct line of a crowded ballot in a presidential election.

Martin said a write-in victory isn’t inconceivable in the heavily Democratic city of Duluth.

“Assuming there’s one consensus candidate that emerges here, it won’t be as difficult as people think,” he said.

Sen. Roger Reinert, a Duluth Democrat whose district overlaps with the House seat represented by Gauthier, acknowledged the difficulties with write-ins. But he said voters in Duluth are tuned into politics in a way seen few other places, and that could help a long-shot write-in candidate.

“As a leader in my community, I’m assuming we need to win a write-in campaign,” said Reinert, who isn’t backing a candidate until the party makes an endorsement.

Senate District 7 DFL Chairman John Schwetman said the party plans to hold an endorsing convention within two weeks to consider backing another candidate.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, has said he is supporting Simonson.

Meanwhile, Silvers, a 32-year-old contractor who is making his second run at the seat, said his campaign has been getting more calls and clicks on his website since Gauthier’s scandal became public. Silvers is emphasizing family values, gun rights and his opposition to abortion rights.

“We definitely are trying to give the voters an opportunity to have a viable alternative,” he said.

House Republicans haven’t ruled out formal disapproval of Gauthier’s conduct when the Legislature convenes in special session Friday to vote on flood aid for Duluth and other communities. House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said Gauthier should resign immediately to avoid distracting from that vote.

“The right thing for him to do now is the same thing that it was last week, which is to step down,” Dean said.

Gauthier has said he does not plan to attend the special session. His district was among the most severely damaged by flash floods that hit Duluth between June 19 and 21.