Minnesota state auditor candidates disagree on role of office

Two people in blue pose side by side
Julie Blaha, left, and Ryan Wilson.
Courtesy photos

In a subdivision in suburban Medina, Republican state auditor candidate Ryan Wilson went door to door to make his pitch to voters. 

The attorney and former CEO of a medical auditing company knocked, readied his hand-outs and then launched into his spiel about why he’s vying to unseat first-term DFL Auditor Julie Blaha. 

“I started to run for state auditor, because people had a lot of questions, they want to understand what's happening in their government,” Wilson told a voter last Thursday. “They want to understand where the money was going. And so people ask, the most common question I get is where did the money go?”

The contest became one of the tightest, according to recent polls and campaign finance reports. And the tenor between the candidates reached a new pitch as they’ve tried to make the case to voters often unfamiliar with the office.

With less than six weeks to Election Day, Wilson went on the offensive, issuing news releases and hosting press events critiquing Blaha’s performance in office. Two of the biggest red flags, he said, are on the auditor’s response to a $250 million fraud scheme at a Minnesota nonprofit and the delayed construction on the Southwest light rail project.

“I think when these big scandals happen, people need assurances that somebody's on the job. They're looking into it,” Wilson said. “It's important that we have a state auditor that's willing to speak up for Minnesotans so that when there's little headlines that come up, they don't become big headlines later.”

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A man gestures as he speaks to a woman
State Auditor candidate Ryan Wilson, left, and Rep. Kristin Robbins, R- Maple Grove, talk after knocking doors in Medina on Thursday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Blaha is a former teacher and secretary treasurer for Minnesota AFL-CIO who has run the auditor’s office since 2019. Between visits with voters at an apartment building in Plymouth, she said the messages from her competitor don’t square with the reality of what the office actually does.

“It's not about, you know, creating headlines for yourself, it's not about drama, it's not about trying to be another role,” Blaha said. “It's about helping this incredibly precious place in the government that is local. Even when everything else gets divided, when everything else gets bogged down, local government still works.”

The Minnesota Auditor’s Office is responsible for acting as a watchdog over $40 billion in local government spending and, in some cases, investigating complaints. 

On the whole, the office is supposed to go in and assess documents and data and offer an evaluation. It doesn’t typically prescribe policies for local leaders or others to pursue. That’s up to the local officials to decide, Blaha said.

“My job is to protect local government's ability to make their own decisions, even if I don't love them, you know, it's not my job to make the decision. My job is to hand the data, hand the oversight, hand the support over so they can make it and just to make sure if the decision is legal, if it's reasonable, then it's theirs,” she said.

A woman stands at a door as another looks at her phone
Kate Wallace of Plymouth, left, speaks with State Auditor Julie Blaha about her top political issues on Wednesday at her home.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

The auditor also sits on a set of constitutional boards, including the executive council and the Minnesota Board of Investment that make decisions in response to emergency response — such as during the COVID-19 pandemic — and managing the state’s retirement funds.

University of Minnesota Morris political science professor Tim Lindberg said that the candidates this year have set their focus on what the office does, or ought to be doing, rather than on the people running themselves. And the ambiguity around the job gives candidates room to hop on the federal or state political talking point of the day, even if it might not fit 100 percent within the job description.

“Other than the idea that most people kind of understand audits, it may not be clear what exactly that person is supposed to be doing in the first place,” Lindberg said.

The office might be overlooked but it has been a past launching pad. Two past auditors — Arne Carlson and Mark Dayton — later became governor. 

Kate Wallace said she wasn’t aware of the race before she met Blaha during a door knocking session last week. Wallace had recently moved and said she’d voted early for Democrats up and down the ballot.

“We’ve got to save our country. And what's been happening in the last four or five years, you know, it’s just been dreadful,” Wallace said. “So we have to not give up hope.”

For voters more concerned about the impact of inflation and the impact on their wallet, Wilson’s message should resonate, said state Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove.

“They are having a hard time affording gas and groceries and their energy bills and then they hear about people buying homes and Porsches and all this stuff with their tax money,” Robbins said. “And they're like, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t, you know, afford the basics for my family, and somebody's you know, absconding like that?’”

Voters in November will decide whether to reelect Blaha or break a 16-year DFL hold on statewide offices and send Wilson to the auditor’s office.