Big mix of candidates, intrigue in House 3A special election


Filing has closed for the Sept. 29 primary and Dec. 8 general election in the House District 3A special election to replace the late State Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake). Six candidates spanning the wide geographic and ideological spectrum that characterizes this enormous rural Northeastern Minnesota district will vie for one ticket to St. Paul.

Early announced DFL candidates included Koochiching County Commissioner Rob Ecklund, Ely City Councilor Heidi Omerza, and Tofte businessman Bill Hansen. I wrote about them last week.

Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson

In the time since that last post, last year’s GOP nominee Eric Johnson, an International Falls businessman, filed to run in this special election as a DFLer, switching parties. In his announcement he cited his admiration for the late Rep. Dill, saying he would emulate his example as a moderate.

Not only did Northeastern Minnesota. lose a great public servant in Rep. Dill but so did the entire state. Although it will be difficult to find someone capable enough to fill his shoes, District 3A needs a representative that has the same dedication, energy, bipartisanship, and openness to ideas that the late Rep. Dill possessed.

Keep in mind, he had run against Dill, and lost by 30 points, just 10 months ago. Johnson owns a company in International Falls that makes and sells products to dentists. He told the Duluth News Tribune that he was running as a DFLer because of the need for a moderate voice for the district, saying he’s “not really of a party guy” and that this shows he’s willing to work across party lines.

Roger Skraba

Roger Skraba

Meantime, late Friday former Ely Mayor Roger Skraba — who has run for this seat as a DFLer and Independence Party member in the past — has switched parties a third time to file as a Republican. To be fair, Skraba has backed more Republicans than DFLers in recent years. He presents an interesting case in the general election, depending on who prevails in the DFL primary. More on that later.

Skraba is a Quetico Wildernes Park guide and outspoken supporter of nonferrous mineral mining. He pled guilty to riding snowmobiles through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness during his tenure as mayor, not that this is particularly controversial in many quarters of the district and probably helps him with Republicans and conservative DFLers.

Kelsey Johnson

Kelsey Johnson

In addition, another Johnson — Kelsey Johnson — has filed to run as an independent candidate (I initially reported that she was petitioning to run with the Independence Party, which lost major party status in the last election, because a party official had touted her candidacy online. Johnson since informed me she was running as a true independent).

Johnson’s website is here, which also appears to cast a picture of a generally progressive candidacy, if anything one that seems to use messaging similar to that of a DFL candidate. Most recently, Johnson was the lead lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association in St. Paul. She is from the rural St. Louis County portion of the district.

If all of this doesn’t make it abundantly clear, House District 3A is a place where party labels are — let’s say — nebulous. If you could somehow run a P.h. test on these candidates to determine their ideology you would probably find the liberal to conservative spectrum to be relatively independent of party affiliation.

As I wrote before, part of this election is the ideological diversity of the district, but an equally if not more important part is the geographic diversity. This district is 250 miles across and it’s impossible to traverse on paved roads. Voters will choose based on their parties and priorities, sure, but they’ll also vote for people they know over people they don’t.

So the first part of this campaign is what will probably be a very competitive DFL primary. I don’t hazard a guess on this one until I see some campaign activity, but here are some of the elements I’m seeing.

First, you’ve got two candidates from Koochiching County: Johnson and Rob Ecklund. Johnson, a recent party convert, is very much a moderate or conservative DFLer.

Rob Ecklund

Rob Ecklund

Ecklund, who already has labor backing from the Steelworkers, is a more traditional DFLer, though probably not classified as a liberal. Even though they might have ideological differences, these two will both draw from the Koochiching vote and will have to make that up elsewhere.

Since International Falls is the most union-strong town in the district, Ecklund needs to win big here. That would require Johnson to fall flat in his home county, which could happen if DFLers reject him. In any event, Ecklund will run hard on his union status as a current Boise paper worker and past Steelworkers local president. International Falls is the district’s largest city and anyone from there has that going for them.

Heidi Omerza

Heidi Omerza

Over in the (geographic) center of the district you’ve got Heidi Omerza, the Ely City Councilor and past president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Like Ecklund and Johnson, she’s generally supportive of controversial mining projects in the district (a matter that has divided the DFL and Ely, for that matter). She’s probably in line with the DFL on most other issues.

Omerza presents an interesting candidacy. On one hand, if she gets a good start she could be a person that could win over typical DFL votes elsewhere in the district. She’s worked with small towns all over the state and this district is entirely comprised of rural areas and small towns. On the other, if she relies on Ely and the Vermilion Range alone, she might get swamped. She is the only St. Louis County candidate in the DFL primary. That, too, gives her something to work with.

Bill Hansen

Bill Hansen

Then you’ve got Bill Hansen, longtime scion of one of the oldest canoe outfitting families in Cook County. He’s been endorsed by the DFL for this race twice before, only to lose to the more conservative Dill in the primaries. This time, however, he’s turning his family business over to his daughter and there is a hunger among many DFL activists for his more environmentally conscious politics. He maintains a very active community presence throughout the North Shore, which will help him rack up votes there. Liberals in St. Louis County and Koochiching County might be attracted to his message as well.

It is very important to note that this district has a 55 percent DFL index, by my estimate, so the DFLer starts with an advantage no matter what. Where this gets interesting, though, is in who emerges from the primary to face Republican Roger Skraba and Independence Party member Kelsey Johnson.

If Hansen wins, and I’d view him as having a good chance in the primary, mining supporters will call him an environmental extremist and Skraba will try to capitalize on that before the Dec. 8 general election. That’s where Skraba probably has the best chance, though I remind that the GOP remains a long shot here. Skraba has struck out as a DFLer and IPer in this district before, and would have to prove something to win as a GOPer. Against Omerza, Ecklund or Johnson, Skraba would probably lack a narrative.

By that same token, Hansen will seek to establish some kind of economic message to counter pro-mining criticism. Hansen has advantages in a four-way DFL primary that other candidates don’t have, including a wide non-geographically based constituency. What I’d wait to see is the quality of campaigns run by each of the DFLers. I have not yet heard if the DFL plans to endorse a candidate in this race. Hansen would be favored in an endorsement battle, which is why most others seem to be ignoring the matter.

(And, as an aside, at this point in the debate the mining issue is largely contained in federal action, not state action, as the MPCA MN Dept. of Natural Resources is widely expected to issue a favorable EIP this fall. This will, of course, mean nothing to those who demand purity for or against mining).

I have no idea what Kelsey Johnson’s roadmap to victory looks like at this time, though she could pull votes if she establishes a niche. I’d be curious why she chose to run as an independent, and what she has to say.

UPDATE: Kelsey Johnson contacted me last night to remind that she is running as a true independent, not with the IP. Her statement is similar to what’s on her webpage:

Kelsey has presented her platform to voters across Northeastern Minnesota, and has received a “fantastic response” already from towns from International Falls to Gnesen, Cook, Orr, Babbitt, and Tower.  She consistently hears from voters about the need for an independent voice, and the disappointment they have in candidates promising to work across the aisle.  “If politicians actually fulfilled that promise, we wouldn’t have the gridlock we have today,” Kelsey says.  “It’s because they have to answer to party leadership when they get elected.  As an Independent, I only answer to my constituents and will make my work about the people, not the party.  I look forward to meeting voters across the rest of the largest district in Minnesota throughout the campaign.”

We have just 29 days until this primary, so candidates have precious little time to raise money, introduce themselves, and craft their messages before the voters decide. I’ll be covering the race and sharing what I find. Good luck to all six candidates. This will likely be a wild ride.


  1. Bill Hansen has built in organization, and a vast network, already in place. I also think there are plenty of “Walter Cronkite/Kennedy” senior citizens in the area that might quietly vote for Hansen. I might be wrong. But I can sort of imagine some seniors that would not verbalize their support for Hansen, but then would vote for him during the election. They know how to read, are critical thinkers, and probably will not be swayed by temporal issues. I just feel like Hansen will get some Dill senior citizen votes. Maybe I’m wrong. This is interesting.

  2. Sally Jo Sorensen says

    Kelsey Johnson isn’t running as an Independence Party candidate, but as an independent (small “i”). Rachel Stassen-Berger reports that she has terminated her lobbying contracts to run as an independent. Johnson’s press release makes her look a lot like Omerza, though she adds her NRA membership, which is probably necessary since one of her former clients was a gun control group.

    Johnson terminated most of her Minnesota contracts in November 2013, and started to work for the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association in February 2014. Her sole client in Minnesota since December 2013 has been the GMA, according to the state campaign finance board.

    Here’s a press release from the time of her hire by GMA:

  3. Funny skraba is running after being a non-law abiding citizen. Proves that mn and their government is a joke..

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