MN Supreme Court: GOP House lawmaker disqualified from 4th-term bid

Updated 4:20 p.m. | Posted 12:01 p.m.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled a Republican state House incumbent ineligible for November's election amid questions about his residency.

Justices ordered a February special election for that seat after accepting the findings of a court-appointed referee that Rep. Bob Barrett doesn't live in the Chisago County district northeast of St. Paul that he now represents.

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Barrett owns a home in a nearby district but rented a property in the one he ran in.

The decision means the Minnesota House will start its next session with 133 members, down one, which could be pivotal if the split between parties is close. Republicans are currently in the majority.

Barrett, a three-term lawmaker, owns a home in Shafer, where his wife resides, but insists he spends sufficient time and has taken enough steps to qualify as a resident of Taylors Falls.

The distinction matters because Minnesota legislators must live in the district they represent at least six months before the election.

Rather than remove Barrett from the ballot, the court said no winner should be declared in November. Justices turned to a new state law that triggers a special election the following February.

Virginia Stark, an attorney for the DFL activists, discounted political motivations in the case. Those who raised questions about Barrett, she said, "did not create this situation. Mr. Barrett did. The only unclean hands in this case are the ones that signed the affidavit of candidacy and those that supported the ruse."

Barrett attorney Reid LeBeau dismissed the questions, telling justices this was a "political gotcha game ... They can't take him out at the ballot so they are going to attempt to take him out in court."

On Thursday, in a statement sent following the court's decision, Barrett said he was disappointed by the decision and made it clear he has no plans to run for the seat again in February.

He blasted Democrats, saying activists had spied on him for years.

"I am hoping our family's privacy can be regained," he added, "which is worth more to us than holding elected office."

Barrett served as vice chair of the House Taxes Committee. He also specialized in higher education issues and legislation to combat opioid abuse.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said the turn of events was unfortunate.

"He's been a good member and has been a good friend of mine," Daudt said. "Certainly nobody likes to go out on somebody else's terms. But it is what it is and we'll have to move on from there."

Barrett's name will remain on the November ballot against DFLer Laurie Warner, the same opponent he beat two years ago. Votes in the race simply won't count for either candidate.

Warner was taken aback by the court result.

"We do feel the impact was unfairly put on us for the actions of somebody else's dishonesty," she said.

So the seat will sit empty until a Valentine's Day special election. Warner plans to keep running.

"More important is the fact that the residents were looking for a new representative to be there for them and in this case it looks like it will be delayed. That's disappointing."

Republicans will be searching for a candidate to replace Barrett on the February ballot.

In the bigger picture, it's one fewer district that will factor into who controls the House in January. Republicans enter this year's election with a 73 to 61 advantage.

Daudt says he's confident Republicans will hold the Barrett seat when the new election is held.

"I don't think it's a seat that will be in play in February but obviously we will be down one member come January."

It's a district Democrats narrowly lost the last time a presidential race topped the ballot.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen says he has concerns about a dropoff in voter turnout between this November and next February.

"You always get a much better representation of your district in a general election when you have five to eight times the turnout that you have in a special election."

Thissen says Democrats are evaluating whether to ask the high court to invalidate the ballot vacancy law.

If such a challenge is afoot, it would have to come quickly. Election Day is exactly two months away.

Correction (Sept. 8, 2016): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Democrats and Republicans in the state House of Representatives.