Auditor’s race to test Democratic allegiances

Published 12:08 pm Thursday, June 5, 2014

ST. PAUL — A suddenly competitive primary for state auditor has some top Minnesota Democrats rallying behind two-term incumbent Rebecca Otto, but others aren’t ready to discount Matt Entenza, a former state legislator with statewide campaign experience.

Entenza’s bid angered state DFL Party leaders, who vowed to work to boost Otto. Democratic Party Chairman Ken Martin called Entenza’s last-minute entrance “an insult.” U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan affirmed his support for Otto Wednesday and Gov. Mark Dayton said the matchup put him in “a somewhat difficult situation” because both have been past allies, but he was standing by Otto even though they’ve differed on some issues.

Dayton and Otto both serve on a state executive council that last year considered copper-nickel mineral exploration leases. Dayton supported them; Otto didn’t. Her stance upset many officials in northeastern Minnesota — a Democratic stronghold — and fed a “Dump Otto” effort that Republicans hope to capitalize on come November. Otto has said she was making a statement about the need for strong assurances that taxpayer interests are protected if anything goes wrong.

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Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said he can’t support Otto because “she opposed the drilling that is the future of mining. There are people in the northeast upset about it because they felt it was a direct attack on the future economic development of the northern Minnesota counties.”

Dill said he believes it is the overriding reason Otto now faces a primary. He spoke with Entenza but stopped short of pledging public support.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minneapolis Democrat, threw his support to Entenza on Wednesday. In a statement, Ellison said he first met Entenza 26 years ago when they were classmates at the University of Minnesota Law School, and the two later served together in the Minnesota Legislature. Ellison called Entenza “a progressive leader in the fight for civil and economic justice.”

In joining the race, Entenza said he would follow the existing public environmental review process for mining and offered little explanation beyond that. He was calling around Wednesday to Iron Range legislators, some of whom say they’re not committing to a candidate yet.

“I am looking to see how the campaigns differentiate themselves and am no means taking a side just based on mineral leases,” said Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia.

Ely-area resort owner Jane Koschak, an Otto supporter, applauds her for what she regards as brave stances and predicts voters will look favorably on her record as the official who watches over local finances.

“I think she’s going to come out standing tall,” Koschak said.

The winner of the Aug. 12 primary would face Randy Gilbert from the Republican Party, Patrick Dean for the Independence Party and Judith Schwartzbacker of the Grassroots Party.

While the auditor’s office is seldom in the spotlight, it has been a springboard for past politicians. Dayton once held the post, as did former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson. Otto’s two predecessors, Judi Dutcher and Patricia Anderson, tried unsuccessfully to trade up from auditor to governor.

Dayton said he won’t criticize Entenza’s decision to challenge Otto in the primary but was bothered by how it transpired.

“I don’t question his decision to run. It might have been better for the overall party dynamic if he made that intention known before the afternoon of the last day of filing and before the convention,” Dayton said.

Otto has the state party’s formal endorsement. Entenza, the former House minority leader, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 and abandoned a campaign for attorney general four years earlier before voters weighed in.