Before his election to statewide office in 2006, Mark Ritchie spent two decades working on international trade issues. He was the founder and president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
"He was really one of the first, if not the first, person looking into these questions about how global trade rules in fact impact family farmers and rural communities," said Ben Lilliston, communications director at the nonprofit Institute.
Lilliston describes his former boss as a hardworking policy expert who is probably better known internationally than in Minnesota. Ritchie was a leading advocate for fair trade and rural sustainability, but he set aside that work to jump into politics. Lilliston wasn't surprised.
"He can bring people together," Lilliston said. "He can talk with any one of any political or ideological stripe. And he's very personable, and he's a fantastic speaker. So, he really had all the qualities of someone who would be successful in politics."
Ritchie, 55, is married to Nancy Gaschott. Seven years ago, the couple's 20-year-old daughter Rachel was killed by a drunk driver.
"He can talk with any one of any political or ideological stripe. And he's very personable, and he's a fantastic speaker."
In 2004, Ritchie headed a nationwide voter-registration effort known as the November 2 campaign. He honed his political skills the following year as a participant in Camp Wellstone, the candidate-training program named after the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Jeff Blodgett is executive director of Wellstone Action, the organization that runs the camp. Blodgett says Ritchie made a quick switch from policy wonk to candidate.
"In Mark's case, he was someone who had tremendous passion around the idea of serving in the capacity as secretary of state," Blodgett said. "He had seen in 2004 a lot of issues around participation in elections and really felt he could make a difference as secretary of state." Ritchie announced his first run for statewide office in February 2006.
"It's time we had a Secretary of State we can trust, a Secretary of State that stops using the office for political partisan reason, a Secretary of State that makes sure that everybody can participate and vote with ease and dignity," Ritchie said in his speech.
Ritchie went on to defeat Republican incumbent Mary Kiffmeyer last November by more than 105,000 votes.
Ritchie set off a partisan firestorm last month when the names of participants in a state meeting he hosted showed up on his campaign mailing lists. Ritchie initially said he was not involved with the list, but later told a newspaper reporter he had given the names to his campaign. Michael Brodkorb, a Republican blogger, has been busy fanning the controversy, which he describes as a "big deal" politically. Like many Republicans, Brodkorb is convinced Ritchie has his sights set on higher office.
"I think that Secretary of State Ritchie would like to run for governor 2010," Brodkorb said. "I think he would like to seek higher office. And I think that's certainly his right and prerogative. But I think first and foremost, if you're going to build the case that you should be elected to higher office, you need to do the job that you're doing right away. And I have concerns as to whether he's doing his job effectively."
Questions have been raised before about Ritchie and the handling of documents. In 1989, Ritchie was an analyst at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and sent copies of confidential trade documents to members of Congress. An angered U.S. trade representative claimed the documents were classified. But former state Agriculture commissioner Jim Nichols, who was Ritchie's boss in 1989, insists only public documents were involved.
"As Americans I think we needed to know what our country was doing in international trade negotiations," Nichols said. "We were in some cases doing things that were not good for Minnesota farmers. And these documents were public and needed to be in the eyes of the public."
Nichols says partisan politics played a role in the disagreement. At the time, Nichols was considering a run for the U.S. Senate as a DFLer. Many of Mark Ritchie's supporters say his partisan opponents are exploiting his recent misstep for similar reasons. If Ritchie believes the same thing he isn't saying. He has declined interview requests until after the Legislative Auditor completes his investigation.
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