When state Auditor Rebecca Otto made headlines last fall as the only member of the state executive council to vote against exploratory nonferrous mining leases in northeastern Minnesota, there was a big backlash on the Iron Range.
"Dump Otto" signs began popping up along roadsides.
Last month, former state Rep. Matt Entenza was a surprise, last-minute candidate for state auditor, focusing attention on the Aug. 12 DFL primary contest between the two. His explanation for waiting until the final day for filing was that campaigns are too long.
Entenza, who unsuccessfully sought the DFL nomination for governor in 2010, denies that Otto's mining vote played a role in his decision to challenge her. Instead, Entenza said, he's running for state auditor to make it more than a "sleepy" office that just balances the books.
"I spent a lot of time hearing from people that the auditor's office right now needed someone in it who was going to give a jump start and put it into the forefront of making things happen," Entenza said, "kind of like when Mark Dayton was auditor or when Arne Carlson was auditor or when many of our other auditors were there."
Dayton and Carlson went on to become governors. Asked if he has a similar path in mind, Entenza insisted his only focus is on becoming auditor. Otto, who is running for a third term, said she was surprised by Entenza's challenge, as well as his recent comments about the office. Otto said she's proud of her accomplishments as auditor and wonders if Entenza understands the nature of the job.
"As state auditor you're oversight, and it's always been a behind the scenes job," Otto said. "When I've needed to, I've been there. But I haven't made headlines in terms of scandals. I don't think that's right. I haven't used the office for my personal political gain. I've simply done it to put my nose to the grindstone and work for Minnesotans, to make sure we have and continue our legacy of good government."
Otto stands by her mining leases vote, which and insists that she's not anti-mining. Her goal, she said, was to highlight the need to protect taxpayers from the potential cost of environmental damage.
"This piece to me lacked some transparency and these laws and rules have not been tested around nonferrous mining," she said. "So no, I don't regret it all because it's my job as the state auditor. Those leases did pass. But the fact that I brought my concerns up has helped inform the conversation and make some changes, and that's my job."
Entenza said he's not hearing much about Otto's mining vote. He also said he's not running into much DFL blowback for taking on the party's endorsed candidate.
"I find that there's no discussion about process," Entenza said. "What people want to talk about at the end of the day, other than a few insiders, is how do we have a great auditor's office that's going to work on protecting pensions and corporate subsidies and issues like that."
Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL, doesn't buy it. Martin called Entenza's challenge an insult to Democrats. Martin also promised to put the full weight of the party behind Otto.
"I don't know which DFLers he's talking to. But the DFLers I'm talking to, and I'm sure I'm talking to a lot more than he does these days, are not very excited about him running for this office," Martin said. "Matt Entenza doesn't have a lot of friends in the DFL these days. I'd be very curious to know which ones he's talking to."
Some Democrats aren't taking sides. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said he's not comfortable wading into the contest, partly because of his friendship with Entenza. But Bakk, DFL-Cook, made it clear that folks in his part of the state are still talking about Otto's mining vote.
"Mining is the backbone of the economy up there," Bakk said. "The future of it is very, very important to families that live on the Iron Range. When you take positions to not do exploratory drilling that may lead to more mining someday, people get concerned about the security of their own families. I understand that."