By Mike Creger
DULUTH — Come Wednesday, the Minnesota Legislature will have a new look. Redistricting is making sure of that.
The redrawing of geographic district lines is forcing 46 incumbent legislators to run against each other. In the northeast Minnesota’s new District 5 alone, all three races — two for the House and one for the Senate — will feature incumbent vs. incumbent.
At least 23 current legislators will be left at home in January because of redistricting, which occurs every 10 years based on population figures from the U.S. Census.
Across the state, 16 Senate members face each other and 30 House members. Because of that, there are open races — meaning they have no current legislative members — in 23 districts.
The other variable is what Hermantown’s Rep. Mary Murphy faces: the unknown.
After 18 terms in the House and four redistricting shuffles, she finds herself campaigning this fall in an area that is relatively foreign to her. Murphy’s current District 6B has been changed to 3B and no longer includes parts of Carlton County. District 3B covers Hermantown plus townships north of Duluth, two precincts in Duluth and up the North Shore, including all of Two Harbors.
She faces former Hermantown Mayor Keith MacDonald for the second time. In 2010, Murphy won with 60 percent of the vote.
MacDonald says Murphy is tough to beat because of her name recognition, but the new part of the district might give him a better chance of picking up votes.
“I see it as an opportunity,” he said. “It gives me more of a level playing field.”
MacDonald said he’s noticed the district getting a bit more Republican, despite the lock Democrats have had on legislative seats in and around Duluth. He said he’s a realist and doesn’t expect a revolution like 2010 for Republicans in the Northland.
What MacDonald called “tempered enthusiasm” about the new voting bloc could be tamped down by one quirk that seems to fall in Murphy’s favor.
Her first job as a teacher was in Clover Valley, the area in the Lake Superior highlands halfway to Two Harbors from Duluth. It’s part of the new district.
“It’s like the cycle of life,” she said, laughing: “Just in time for the autumn of my life.”
She went to a harvest dinner in Clover Valley and ran into six former students. While door-knocking in Two Harbors, she said she kept running into people with the last name of Beck and kept wondering if former student Ted Beck was still in the area.
At last, she came to a home and was greeted by him.
“He said, ‘I was wondering when you would get here,’ “ she said.
Both candidates said the stretched district is taxing them.
“It’s a little bit more of an effort,” MacDonald said.
Murphy said that while it took only 30 minutes to get to parts of Carlton County, getting up to the Two Harbors area can be an hour.
Neither is complaining much; they say they’ve enjoyed meeting new people.
MacDonald said he’s found Two Harbors to be a friendly, “down-to-earth town.”
Murphy is finding that residents are well-informed about redistricting. She’s glad she didn’t take up space on her brochures to explain the changes instead of telling about her qualifications.
MacDonald is zeroing in on himself as well while knocking on doors.
“You try to not be longwinded,” he said. “Because you know you’re interrupting their lives.”
District 5 unique
In the Grand Rapids and Bemidji region, three incumbents will fall in the new Senate District 5. That’s because all three races there, two for the House and one for the Senate, feature incumbents battling incumbents. It’s the most unusual result of redistricting this year, and the races have garnered statewide attention as the balance of the Legislature could be transformed if one party can sweep there.
Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick of Deer River says she’s been met at doors in the new western part of 5B with what could be a deflating question.
“They were puzzled,” she said. “They asked me, ‘Where’s Larry?’ “
That’s a reference to fellow Republican Rep. Larry Hawes of Walker, who was shifted north into District 5A. He faces Rep. John Persell of Bemidji.
The two Senate incumbents are Democrat Sen. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids and Republican Sen. John Carlson of Bemidji. It’s a race and a district that has outside money pouring in from each party and special-interest groups.
“There’s been steady improvement in voter education, but some still don’t comprehend it all,” said McElfatrick’s opponent, Democrat Rep. Tom Anzelc. “There’ll be some surprises on the ballot for some people.”
While he would like to offer a “ninth-grade civics lesson on redistricting” during his door-knocking sweeps, he’s in a race against time to make his case to those in the western part of the district. He’d rather draw the distinction between himself and McElfatrick.
Anzelc said he has good name recognition since he’s always used the population center of Grand Rapids for his advertising. After rattling off breakdowns of likely Republican and Democratic voters in various parts of the district, he said the city of 11,700 people will probably decide the race.
“This will get decided by Grand Rapids,” Anzelc said. The district is much more compact than it was in 2010, when Anzelc would find himself campaigning north to the international border. He is seeking his seventh two-year term.
McElfatrick said there are many pockets, and one population center can’t be her sole focus.
“There’s a lot more to the district than Grand Rapids,” she said.
McElfatrick surprised the region in 2010 when she unseated 14-term House member Rep. Loren Solberg of Grand Rapids.
“People there know who I am,” she said of Itasca County.
But the district snakes southwest from Grand Rapids toward Remer, Backus and Pine River in Cass County. Both candidates are from the northernmost reaches of the district. They lost the resort areas in the north and some Iron Range to the east, gaining a more rural and agrarian area into Cass County. McElfatrick lost Aitkin County.
“I was a real stranger to them over there,” McElfatrick said of voters in Cass.
Both candidates have a withering attitude toward all the outside influence on their race. But they both are finding a bright lining.
At least the stuffing of mailboxes with third-party literature is getting their names out there, Anzelc said with a wry laugh.
The two also agreed that they hardly have an adversarial relationship. After all, they both served in the House representing adjoining districts.
“I saw her every single day,” Anzelc said of this year’s session. “When we parted in the spring, I said, ‘See you in the summer.’ “
McElfatrick talked of numerous bipartisan bills in the last session and supporting and listening to Anzelc on occasion. She was part of Republican wave in 2010 that many have said has added to the partisan bickering in St. Paul. Republicans have been called unreasonable and unmoving when it comes to issues as they control both bodies of the Legislature.
“They sense it’s very partisan,” McElfatrick said of what she’s heard on the campaign trail.
“I don’t feel we’re enemies,” she said of Anzelc. “I just like everybody.”
Anzelc started his introduction campaign with mayors and township supervisors and worked his way down and over to Cass County.
“Then it’s ‘Jump in the pickup and get out there,’ “ he said.
By Mike Creger