Edina lawmaker goes it alone after override vote

Rep. Ron Erhardt
Rep. Ron Erhardt is runing as an independent after he lost his bid for the GOP endorsement last spring.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The campaign trail in House District 41A is familiar ground for Ron Erhardt. The incumbent legislator has represented Edina for 18 years, and this year is his 10th campaign.

"Well, I'm known in the district," he said. "So when I come to the door, they will say, 'oh hi Ron.' I don't know how that translates into votes. In any event, I'm somewhat recognized I would say."

But this year Erhardt, a self-described moderate, has to explain to potential voters that he's running for re-election as an independent.

If successful, Erhardt said he will caucus with whichever party is in the majority. The former Republican lost his party's support earlier this year after he and five GOP colleagues sided with the House Democrats to override Gov. Pawlenty's transportation funding veto.

Erhardt said his vote angered some fiscal conservatives and prompted more lectures from the social conservatives that he's battled with for years. But Erhardt said the override also gained him new supporters in the district, and he said he has no regrets.

"I'm a pragmatist, not an ideologue," he said. "And I don't go in there saying here's a list of things I've got to vote for. I try to look at things and figure out what's right. And after chairing the transportation committee for four years, I figured out what's right. And that is we need more money in the system."

But the local party activists that backed Erhardt for nearly two decades are no longer in his corner.

Edina Republicans endorsed Keith Downey over Erhardt. Downey is a consultant who works with city, county and state government officials. Downey said Erhardt isn't in line with the GOP platform, and he was planning to run long before the veto override vote.

"I do think that we are to a point now where we need some new thinking," he said. "We need some fresh ideas. We need some new blood at the Legislature, and I haven't seen Ron bringing that. And frankly, I think a large number of folks in Edina saw the same thing, which really led to the momentum for me running."

Republicans have represented Edina in the Minnesota House for as long as most people can remember. But DFL candidate Kevin Staunton said the district's demographics are changing.

Staunton, who works as the city attorney in Excelsior, notes that Democrat John Kerry won Edina in the 2004 presidential election, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar won there in 2006.

"And I think that the national mood is such that we Democrats have a very good shot at voters taking a fresh look and seeing that we're the ones that can solve the challenges that we have in our community and our state and nationally," he said.

DFL leaders are also optimistic about Staunton's chances of picking up the seat, and moving them closer to a veto-proof majority.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she thinks Republicans hurt themselves by punishing Erhardt and other override defectors. Kelliher said the harm extended beyond district 41A.

"I think the Republican caucus did a lot of damage to the Republican brand in how they treated their own members after the override," she said. "I can't go anywhere in the state and not hear from folks in communities that they were shocked by the treatment of those Republican members."

The Republican minority leader, Marty Seifert, said the three-way race in Edina is difficult to predict, but he likes Keith Downey's chances.

Seifert also accused Kelliher and other Democrats of trying to make political hay by telling an incomplete story about the veto override vote. "Nobody ever talks about how the Democrats voted lock step," he said. "They only talk about how we had some people flake off, and that's just the way the ball bounces. But nobody talks about how they threatened and disciplined and so forth to get every single one of the 85 to vote lock step with the speaker."

Back in Edina, Ron Erhardt and Keith Downey have been tangling over a GOP campaign flier and whether it violates state law. Erhardt claims Downey made false and misleading statements about his voting record in the campaign literature. But Downey stands by the statements, and said Erhardt is trying to distract attention from the issues.

An administrative law judge will decide the matter.

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