Ecklund rides labor tide as 3A race enters final week

Rob Ecklund

Rob Ecklund

Tonight the International Falls Chamber of Commerce held a House 3A special election DFL candidate’s forum in advance of next Tuesday’s primary election in the race to succeed the late Rep. David Dill. Two of the four candidates call International Falls home — labor leader Rob Ecklund and businessman and former Republican nominee for this seat Eric Johnson. They faced off with Tofte businessman Bill Hansen, fresh off his blistering attack by the Mesabi Daily News, and Ely City Councilor Heidi Omerza, a promising candidate who has yet to generate much outside attention.

The forum will be rebroadcast on KCC-TV public access television. Unless you live in International Falls or are actively running for this office, you probably didn’t see the debate. Nevertheless it has been encouraging to see several forums held for this race, including debates in Ely and Grand Marais.

Heading into next Tuesday’s election it appears that Ecklund is emerging as the choice of labor and many traditional Iron Range DFL power brokers. Dill’s son and widow endorsed Ecklund last week, as did the Duluth News Tribune, which surprised me (I half expected them to look toward Omerza). The Iron Range Building Trades political action fund gave $1,000 to Ecklund the day after the Mesabi Daily News published its anti-Hansen story.

Ecklund also earned the endorsement of the Steelworkers, of which he is a member and past local president, and backing from both AFSCME councils 5 and 65. With a shortened race, these blessings amount to a solid labor coalition for Ecklund.

Further, one of the busiest behind-the-scenes operators on the Iron Range, lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik, donated $500 to Ecklund’s campaign. Cerkvenik is a prolific campaign donation bundler for Iron Range DFL candidates, often involving his long list of associates and economic development clients.

In fact, if you want to get into fundraising you can check out the campaign finance reports for every candidate in the 3A special election. The reports run through Sept. 15, so any small contributions since then wouldn’t appear until after the primary, though larger contributions must be reported.

Hansen is far-and-away the most successful fundraiser so far, with $32,978, all from individuals, no lobbyists or PACs. His spending has focused on a phone bank strategy. (He appears to be paying for 21 cell phone lines). His advertising spending is almost entirely online. He did appear to be planning for direct mail.

Ecklund has raised about $12,200 from private individuals $1,950 from lobbyists or PACs, while loaning his campaign $5,000 of his own money. All told, he’s raised about $19,000. (Sally Jo Sorenson at Bluestem Prairie raises some interesting questions about some of Ecklund’s very recent large donations). Before Sept. 15, most of Ecklund’s expenditures were spent on a wide array of newspaper advertising.

Omerza has raised $2,950, $550 from lobbyists. Her spending before Sept. 15 was on campaign literature.

Eric Johnson has raised $7,220, which includes a $4,000 self-loan and $950 from lobbyists. His spending so far has been a blend of radio, internet and print advertising and campaign literature.

This district is the size of an eastern state and its largest town, International Falls, has just about 6,000 people. There is no easy or clear media strategy, just direct mail if you can afford it and as much voter outreach as you can muster. So Hansen’s cash advantage on Ecklund is notable, but not earth-shattering. The question isn’t who has the most money, but who has “enough.”

Looking at these numbers, I’d say going into the final week Hansen and Ecklund have “enough,” while the others are lagging. Omerza, in particular, did not raise enough money to send out mail. Perhaps she’s closed the gap since last week, but we won’t know until after the primary. Johnson, for his part, seems to have a balanced strategy, but desperately needs to explain to Democrats why he switched parties. It seems he’s hoping enough moderates walk across to put him through.

One final question, and it’s significant, is how much outside groups will spend in this race, either for a candidate or — just as likely — against one? I’ve already heard reports from people in the district that they’ve heard radio ads by the Minnesoa Jobs Coalition, a conservative political action group that spent generously to elect Republicans in mostly rural swing races last year. Those ads hit Hansen in a DFL primary. So, either they think Hansen will win and needs to be softened up for the general, or they feel they have something to gain from knocking Hansen out early.

Once again, we won’t know a single thing about the MN Jobs Coalition spending until after the primary.  Outside groups don’t have to report at this stage. Further, we might never know why they got involved in primary for the party they worked so hard to defeat last time around, other that what we can glean from appearances.

With six days to go, we certainly have the drama that seemed likely from this ultra-short multi-candidate affair.

In one final piece of commentary, I’d add that I know Ecklund from past campaign work. I’ve conversed with Hansen this year. And while I haven’t gotten to know Omerza or Johnson yet, I have nothing against either and know both to have good reputations. There are no bad people here. There are, however, matters at stake. This election offers varied personalities, varied strategies and varied policy priorities. It offers the opportunity to disrupt, tweak or reinforce the status quo in Northeastern Minnesota DFL politics.

So, my friends to the north and east of MinnesotaBrown world headquarters, please read, listen and vote how you see fit on Sept. 29. If you wish to report any on-the-ground news from District 3A — good, bad or indifferent — please contact me.

And brace yourselves. Depending on how this turns out the Dec. 8 general election could be just as wild.


  1. A kind reader’s thoughtful suggestions helped me answer the questions about the large donations from Tennessee residents. They appear to be property owners on Lake Vermilion who are involved in the fire bridge and other civic organizations, though these are their first itemize-able contributions to state-level politics in Minnesota. The Jordans have given to Republicans federal candidates and conservative PACs, as I note in the

  2. MinnPost’s Joe Kimball reports about the Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund radio ads here:

    Also, we won’t know anything about the Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund spending until after the special election itself in December–or that by any party or PAC investing in the special election for that matter.

    The next reports for these political committees are due at the beginning of February, as the reporting rules for specials only apply for the candidates themselves and no others. In an off year like this, the parties, PACs, and state-level candidates who are not on any ballot need only file that year end report.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.