DFL state Sen. Satveer Chaudhary faced a roomful of concerned local DFL party officials and constituents Thursday night in Fridley, and he continues to take heat for a self-described "major league screw up" at the end of the 2010 legislative session.
Chaudhary repeatedly apologized for his well-publicized effort to impose new fishing rules on a northern Minnesota lake where he owns a cabin.
Chaudhary's end-of session push for new walleye restrictions on Fish Lake Reservoir angered lake residents, Department of Natural Resources officials and Republican legislators, who asked for a Senate ethics panel review. It also contributed to Gov. Pawlenty's decision this week to veto the entire game and fish bill. Now, add many of his own constituents in Senate District 50 to the angry list.
"We really do need a candidate who isn't going to drag down the ticket, who isn't going to embarrass us once again in the future," said John Haluska, who was among those concerned about the political fallout.
Chaudhary's problems began a week ago when reports of his end-of-session activity hit the news. Just before passage of the game and fish bill, Chaudhary pressed the House author to add a provision directing the DNR to protect the walleye population of Fish Lake Reservoir in St. Louis County. Chaudhary said the idea of catch restrictions came from other lake residents who wrote to him last winter. But he later learned that was wrong, and has since been trying to atone for his error.
"I made a very, very bad error in judgment, and I deeply apologize," Chaudhary said. "I'm very, very sorry."
Chaudhary, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, insisted his mistake did not cross any ethical lines. Even though he owns property on the lake he tried to help, Chaudhary said he doesn't believe his actions could be viewed as a conflict of interest.
"We have teachers that pass education bills, finance bills that impact teachers salaries," Chaudhary said. "We have doctors that work on health care issues. We have business people that try to cut business taxes. That is the nature of a citizen legislature. It has to be far more than that to be a conflict of interest."
Chaudhary is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago, he was cleared by a Senate ethics panel over allegations of pressuring a snowmobile manufacturer and a labor union to sponsor his cable TV show.
A year earlier, he tried to derail the confirmation of public safety Commissioner Michael Campion, and accused him of "a possible abuse of power." The Senate voted 61-1 in favor of Campion, with Chaudhary the lone dissenter.
And in 2003, the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board looked into allegations that Chaudhary delivered three altered checks to a congressional candidate's campaign. The board found probable cause, but said the altering checks was not under its jurisdiction.
Some constituents have noticed a pattern, but Chaudhary strongly denied there's been any wrongdoing.
"There have actually been zero complaints against me," he said. "I have requested my own review of ethical conduct, because I believe in assuring my constituents that they have the utmost confidence in my ethical conduct."
Chaudhary responded with a firm 'no' when asked if he would step down for the good of the DFL. He suggested resentment over his support for Mark Dayton in the governor's race, rather the party's endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher, was driving some of the blow back. The Senator also had supporters at the meeting, including representatives of several sportsmen groups.
Julienne Wyckoff of Columbia Heights said she's disappointed with Chaudhary, but she thinks DFLers might be stuck with him for a while.
"To change now, we would never win," Wyckoff said. "There is no candidate that could come forward and establish an identity in such a short period of time. He's got the proven track record, whether you like him or not. It's a two-year term. Let's keep it for two years and then move on."
DFL officials in Senate District 50 said they had no immediate plan to reconsider the party endorsement of Chaudhary, but they said that option remains open. No other DFL candidate has filed in that district, and the filing period ends Tuesday.