Mills mulls a 2016 run?

I may have spoken too soon in saying Stewart Mills wasn’t going to take another swing at the 8th District in 2016. There are leaves rustling on both sides of the aisle.

On one hand, you have Democrat anxiety about the possibility Republicans will level the same kind of national attention and money toward the race in Minnesota in 2016 as they did in 2014.

At the Democratic National Committee meeting in Minneapolis last week, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan was given a choice speaking position during the same general session stage that included Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz openly fretted in her introductory/closing remarks about Nolan’s seat being vulnerable. From the live-tweeting of the event:

When I included that DWS described the seat as “quite vulnerable” in my writeup of the DNC meeting, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee snapped the quote up. The Democrats may be fulfilling their own prophecy by making their fears so public, and inviting the GOP to take another swing at Nolan.

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Then you have movements from Stewart Mills himself. Although he hasn’t yet openly called it one way or the other on a 2016 run, he has appeared or will appear at several Republican events in the 8th. Here’s a a quote from his speech at the Beltrami County Republicans dinner Aug. 27, as witnessed by my successor at the Bemidji Pioneer, Matthew Liedke:

“During the last election cycle we came so incredibly close,” Mills said. “Even though election night was bittersweet, my experience running for Congress was one that left me ultimately richer. It gave me an appreciation not only of our part of Minnesota, but also the entire nation.

“We do have a magnificent America, we do have a country we can be proud of,” Mills added. “But we need to make sure we have leadership in Washington D.C. that is going to keep America great. That is going to stand up for our value systems, not just here domestically, but also abroad.”

But wait, there’s more.

In his remarks Thursday, Mills added he has not decided on whether he will run for office again in the 2016 election.

“I’m not exactly sure what the next election cycle holds for me,” Mills said. “But we do, in whatever capacity, have to stand up for our magnificent America.”

I mean, those quotes could be just Mills generally encouraging his fellow GOPers to send Republicans to D.C. But they could be also be Mills encouraging them to send a very specific Republican to D.C.

He also plans to keynote a gathering of the Aitkin County Republicans Sept. 30.

With every new event Mills does, and the longer he refuses to outright rule out a 2016 run, the more it looks like he could be gearing up for round No. 2 with Nolan.

Trollin’ Nolan and the hair force

At first I resisted joining the chorus of Twitterati and writing a blog post about Stewart Mills’ new hairdo. But you people have forced my hand.

It all began on Wednesday when former MN08 candidate Stewart Mills tweeted a photo of his new haircut, a consequence, he said, of some singeing due to a grilling incident.

As it did during the 2014 election, Mills’ hair got some attention. The Star Tribune did a reaction roundup and a separate article based on an interview with the GOP’s Brad Pitt.

It wasn’t until the last paragraph (not counting another Mills quote re: his ‘do) that the story got around to reporting on whether Mills would actually run again in 2016, but hey, I’m just splitting hairs here.

That wasn’t the last of it, though. Mills’ once and (possibly) future opponent, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, fired off a tweet of his own, kicking it into full troll mode:

There you have it, folks. The first issue of the 2016 election in Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District is officially…. haircuts.  Getting serious for a second, my money would be on Mills not running again, because his campaign committee was terminated earlier this year. Also, in the few times Mills has tweeted following the election last year, he’s referenced on multiple occasions the bitterness of the attack ads that ran against him.

But on the other hand, national Republicans put gobs of money and effort into the district last year, and Mills did garner interest nationwide. It’s impossible to tell now unless Mills himself announces.

I suppose summer is less a time for substance and more a time for letting your hair down. That is, what length of hair you have left.

Stormy weather, inside and outside

It’s been a week since I started at the Brainerd Dispatch as their politics/government reporter. The idea is for me to take over for Mike O’Rourke, who retired this year after about 30 years of covering the political beat. By comparison, it’s been three years since I graduated from college- so I figure if I can do things about 1/3 as well as Mike did them, I’ll be sitting pretty.

It turned out to be a heck of a time to start. It’s been raining seemingly nonstop since I moved- I had to pull off the highway while driving to my new apartment for the first time, and yesterday I had to take refuge in a gas station when another rainstorm caught me while I was out biking. Their power went out, but they gave me a trash bag to make into a handy poncho.

Observers have already used the weather besieging Minnesota as a metaphor for the tempest raging inside the State Capitol. Gov. Dayton has chosen $150 million for public preschool as his line in the sand, repeatedly threatening to veto the entire E12 education funding bill if the Legislature doesn’t add the money.  If he follows through and forces the Legislature to go into special session, that could mean some nasty political ramifications for Democrats extending as far as the elections next year.  Regardless of whether he actually gets his way in a new funding bill and the additional money is put in during the special session, “Democrat governor Mark Dayton vetoed the bill that gives our kids an education” is going to have too nice a ring to it for Republicans to pass up. Dayton may be “unbound” but his fellow DFLers certainly are not.

Dayton is already getting criticism for the perceived heavy-handedness of trying to compel the Legislature to sign off on legislation without giving them enough time to consider the details.  Dayton put forward the idea when he first released his budget proposal near the   beginning of the session this past winter, however, which takes away from that argument somewhat. The pre-K proposal took heat even back then, though.

If there is a special session– and it’s looking more and more every hour that there will be– Dayton has floated the idea of meeting on the Capitol lawn, which would put the state’s government at risk of storms both metaphorical and literal.


Mentally ill inmate bill makes it to the big time

The Minnesota House of Representatives released its omnibus health and human services budget today– and while a lot of the attention focused on the bill’s cuts to MinnesotaCare, there was some news in there for Bemidji, too. Tucked inside the 354-page bill was a provision by Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji to put $1.5 million in state money toward the planning and development of a mental health center in Beltrami County for people under arrest or undergoing a mental health crisis. The Beltrami County facility would, in turn, serve as a pilot program to help understand how to develop more centers in Minnesota.

Our own Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp went down to St. Paul to testify for the bill at a hearing at the Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday. Hodapp said 70 percent of the inmates at the county jail had mental illnesses, or 2,100 of the 3,000 people booked last year.

In a release touting the bill, Hancock said it was “making headway,” and that it would make life better for those mentally ill people who need help.

“We’re talking about helping folks that do not belong in jail, the emergency room, or back on the street,” Hancock said. “In some crisis situations Beltrami County law enforcement has to transport people with mental health issues to Fargo, North Dakota. This legislation would provide needed assistance locally.”

Hancock also gave some more details about what the facilty would look like. It would have eight to ten crisis beds in Bemidji, and would also “provide a three day program dealing with various stages of inpatient and outpatient care and housing.”

There’s obviously a lot of support in Bemidji for the mental health center idea: over 100 people liked the Pioneer’s Facebook post with a link to a Session Daily story on the hearing, as of about 5:45 p.m. on Thursday.

The trick now is to channel that support into pressure on the Legislature to actually pass the bill. A companion to Hancock’s House bill in the Senate is up for possible inclusion in  their omnibus HHS bill, which hasn’t been released yet. Even if the mentally ill offenders bill moves forward in the Senate and passes on the floor there, it still has to survive conference committee between the Senate and the House.

There’s still a long road for the funding proposal to travel, but Hancock is right- it is making headway. It’s up the Bemidji-area legislators like Hancock, John Persell and Tom Saxhaug to light the fire under committee chairs and make sure the mental health initiative survives. It’s also up to Beltrami County citizens –and those people across the state interested in the welfare of mentally ill inmates– to voice their support beyond a Facebook “like”.

The “bull hockey” tournament

Image credit: MN House Public Information Services

Image credit: MN House Public Information Services

Earlier today the valiant Bemidji High School Lumberjacks hockey squad had a hard-fought loss against the aristocratic cake-eaters over at Edina in the state tournament. I was the only one in the newsroom for a time, as my coworkers all huddled around some pizza in the breakroom, watching the game on TV. I had fun hearing their cries and hoots of joy during scores or blocked shots, clear across the Pioneer’s building.

Seems like hockey was on Rep. John Persell’s mind too, in a big way. (Hat tip to Sally Jo Sorenson at Bluestem Prairie for picking this out. Without her hawk-like vigilance of committee meetings, moments like this would go unreported).   On Tuesday, the House Environment committee, of which Persell is a member, heard a bill introduced by Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who replaced Persell as House Majority Whip when the GOP took control of the House in 2014.  Essentially, the bill makes it harder for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to institute new water quality standards, by forcing a “cost benefit analysis”  and requiring the MPCA to get legislative approval before each new standards is implemented.

In response to testimony, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, went on a rant against the watershed experts sitting across from him, who had testified earlier. While he claimed at the start it would be “respectful” it turned out to just be threatening:

I was offended by the arrogance of the bureaucrats that testified here today in saying that we weren’t qualified to make decisions.

You wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the Legislature. Or your funding, your pensions, or your planning, your operations. We gave you rule-making authority, of which many of us regret.  And the reason we’re here today, and we have some of these bills, is because of this arrogance. And instead of standing between the EPA and the farmer, and the businessman, and the miner, and the power companies, what you people, it seems like, are doing is worshiping the shrine of the EPA, and saying ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ It’s just offensive.

Persell was riled up enough to invent a whole new cuss-word to express his disgust with the bill (and probably with Cornish, too):

Rep. Cornish, you kind of stole my thunder a little bit. You’re offended, I’m offended too. But not for the same reason, MPCA doesn’t bother me. Although, we don’t get along on everything.

But I’m offended. You look at this map and most of the sewer treatment plants in Minnesota did the right thing. We did the right thing in Bemidji 30 years ago.  Thirty years ago! And instituted phosphorus reductions so we could save Lake Bemidji, Big Wolf Lake, Andrusia, Cass Lake, Winnibigoshish, on down the Mississippi River, through all of them, so we could send you all down here cleaner water.

Cleaner water! And now a few sewer treatment plants, a few cities want to say, ‘oh no, not me, we don’t want to do this.’

Well, bull hockey. That ain’t right! That ain’t fair! That ain’t the way we do things in Minnesota!

I just want to say I support what you’re trying to do, MPCA. Let’s do the right thing here and support standards the way they’re supposed to be developed.

You can see the whole Persell speech right here:

Contrary to what Rep. Cornish believes, part-time elected legislators that may or may not have any idea of what phosphorus even is are most certainly not more qualified than the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to regulate pollution. Also contrary to what Cornish believes, the primary directive of the MPCA and the watershed groups is to combat pollution, not combat the Environmental Protection Agency.

A-Bakk-alypse Now

So the big Capitol news this week is obviously the fracas between Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Thursday over Dayton’s pay increases for his cabinet. Before Dayton said Bakk “connives behind my back” and Bakk obliquely told Dayton through a reporter, “this is not a kids’ sandbox”, I got to see the warning signs of the impending kerfuffle firsthand.

I actually was in St. Paul the day before, for the Bemidji Day at the Capitol volunteer lobbying event, where both Dayton and Bakk were speakers. They were never in the same room (third floor of the State Office Building) at the same time, though.

After Dayton was done speaking to the Bemidji group, his press assistant invited me to come down a few floors and ask him some questions as he left. I got to take part in what’s called a “media scrum”, where a bunch of reporters cluster around a public figure and ask the person questions. This was my first scrum ever at the Capitol, and I got to stand in a secluded hallway beside reporters from the Associated Press and MPR while we asked questions of Minnesota’s governor together.

I went first, and stammered out a question on some legislation that was specific to Bemidji and that Dayton said he hadn’t heard of.  Then, the other reporters immediately launched into questions about the pay raise fight, which until that point had been mostly limited to Dayton and House Republicans. Even then, Dayton was showing obvious and pointed frustration with people’s criticism of the raises- the Q and A I was in on produced quotes such as Dayton’s assertion the Republicans were showing the “definition of hypocrisy”.  I could hear the anger in Dayton’s voice as I was standing there beside him.

At the now-infamous press conference the next day, Dayton likened his situation to Pres. Obama, a fellow Democrat executive at the end of his rope when it comes to Republican legislative leaders second-guessing him.

There’s more similarities, though. Like Obama, Dayton has been re-elected to a second term, and used that success as a factor in deciding that he’s going to be more assertive in putting forward his agenda and speaking his mind on the things that matter to him.

Bakk is an Iron Range-adjacent DFLer from a district that’s pretty far from Duluth. His relative conservatism has clashed with Dayton’s ideas in the past, and it was only a matter of time before the two butted heads again. There other signs Wednesday that pay raises would be the next battlefield the two fought on, mainly in the written statement from Bakk that he had “reservations” about the increases.

Like many observers, my concern now is that the Bakk/Dayton flap will mean a much less productive 2015 legislative session. This conflict has already shown us examples of the classic Minnesotan passive-aggressiveness. Can we now see some classic Minnesota Nice?

Never on Sunday? Bemidji and the liquor sales ban

I read an interesting article from MPR’s Tim Pugmire today, about the chances for the Sunday sales debate rearing its head again during the 205-2016 session.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he voted against lifting the ban on Sunday sales in the past and will do it again this session when and if it comes up.

“Most of these liquor stores are small mom and pop shops, and they’d really like a day off,” Davids said. “It’s worked fine in Minnesota for many, many years. You know, if you open it up on Sundays you simply are spreading the same number of sales over another day. So, I’ve come down on the side of small business owners.”

That argument has been around for a decade, but it has a major logical flaw: nobody at the legislature is saying we should compel the stores to stay open on Sunday. The following has been brought up before, but Sunday sales opponents apparently aren’t getting the message: eliminating the ban would mean private liquor store owners and cities could open if they wanted to, or they could stay closed- it’s completely up to them.

Let’s say store A isn’t open on Sundays, but neighboring Store B is.

If competition from Store B is enough to make it financially essential for Store A to cave and open one more day every week – isn’t that proof their potential customers want to be able buy on Sunday? Can’t they just close on the day with the least amount of sales?

Also, how do we “know” adding Sunday sales would simply stretch out the profits over seven days? In Georgia, for example, a PolitiFact report rated a claim the state would gain an additional  $4.8 million in sales tax revenue as “Mostly True.”

A different MPR report, in 2013, got some liquor voices that aren’t tied to the Teamsters or the Municipal Beverage Association: the craft brewers. These artisan beermakers support lifting the ban.

Jamie Robinson, owner of Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub in south Minneapolis, supports Sunday sales. He estimated that his business loses between $12,000 and $15,000 in sales each year because he can’t sell beer in growlers on Sunday.

“Craft beer is really popular right now and we feel like there are 52 days a year when we have a product people want and they’re just not able to buy it because there’s a group of retailers out there who just won’t want to work Sundays,” Robinson said. “We’re open Sunday and we feel like we should be able to sell the products we have.”

Brewpubs, which produce their own beer, must also sell food by state law and are unable to distribute their beer to retailers. That means Northbound doesn’t depend on distributors or liquor stores to sell its product. Robinson said that breweries with taprooms, which often see the bulk of their business come from sales in liquor stores, have little incentive to cross distributors and retailers who oppose Sunday liquor sales.

“I’ve talked to several different packaging brewers and they’d like to see Sunday sales as well, I believe they just don’t want to rock the boat,” Robinson said. “That’s where everything gets hung up, there’s just not a big enough craft brewers voice out there at this point.”

In Bemidji, elected city officials I’ve talked to have spoken against Sunday sales at the two municipal liquor stores that put up some of the highest sales numbers in the state in 2013.

It would be interesting to see what Bemidji Brewing, our local brewpub, has to say on the idea. I contend they’d probably be in favor of legislation that could stand to generate more money for the City of Bemidji and private small businesses, as well as give the consumer more power in the process.

On police reform, look for common ground

As a politics/government reporter, it’s distressing to me to see just how polarized and politicized the attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement have become in recent weeks. It seems like commentators on the outside looking in are all hell-bent on portraying this as protesters and their liberal allies vs. police and their conservative allies. It reminds me of the narrative that surrounded the Iraq War: if you respected the sacrifices the troops themselves made but you opposed the war or the way it was fought, that supposedly made you a hypocrite.

It is possible to both respect police, and at the same time, wish for them to do better work. In many cases, the police themselves want to improve.  Law enforcement in Minnesota have been working toward the same objectives activists in other parts of the country have cried out for.  In fact, we’re lucky in Bemidji to have law enforcement officials working to improving their departments.  Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin is to be commended for his department’s openness to the idea of body cameras on patrol, even if the cameras aren’t very practical for the entire department at this point. Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp deserves similar praise for his work on the Legislature’s Offenders With Mental Illness Work Group. That said, there is always room for improvement so that police operate fairly and effectively in a diverse community like our own.


The Masons building: let it go, let it go

I was floored this morning when I fired up the Pioneer’s Facebook page and saw some 40 comments on my story about plans for the Masons building to be torn down, just since the story was posted last night. By comparison, most of the stories I do will get maybe three or four comments in a week.

I was also surprised at the amount of negative reactions to the building plans. A lot of people apparently didn’t read the story itself, since they seemed to think some sort of business or tacky parking lot is going into the space. Rather, that couldn’t be further from what Watermark Art Center actually wants to do with the land after the building comes down.  As Watermark director Lori Forshee-Donnay said when I talked to her yesterday, the center aims to turn the plat into a garden where public art can be featured, possibly with some sort of pavilion for public gatherings. It’s a vast improvement over an empty, dilapidated building past that at this point can only suck up utility costs and pose a safety hazard.

We can only speculate as to the motivations of whoever donated the $250,000 for the Masons building to be purchased and demolished, but I have a theory: the person or organization donated the money precisely to save the space from becoming a parking lot or fast food chain location. They donated to Watermark specifically in order to prevent some other developer from coming in and turning the space into something commercial. They probably chose to remain anonymous because they anticipated the legion of haters suddenly throwing rocks at the idea of demo-ing the building just because it happens to be old. Where were all these people last spring, when news first broke of the temple’s condition?

Although it’s an ugly fact that the temple has to go away, it’s still a fact. The future green space is really the best possible outcome that could have happened, considering the amount of money it would have required to renovate the building.

The Masons are satisfied they did all they could to save the building. Why can’t some people in Bemidji be satisfied with a little change?

Open country, open meetings

I’m a bit late to this, but I wanted to put in my two cents to a post from Sally Jo Sorensen’s blog post from last week about the Minnesota Senate’s Rural Task Force. On her Bluestem Prairie blog, Sorensen took the Task Force to task for not recording its meetings via sound files or minutes, and failing to distribute document packets to the public. Although RTF subsequently released minutes from one meeting to her, my guess is it took some prodding. She apparently never got a comment from Saxhaug himself, but she did get a response from Senate Majority Media staffer Amelia Cerling explaining things.

I have heard back from Sen. Saxhaug’s staff and unfortunately don’t have good news to share. Because the Rural Task Force is not an ‘official’ Senate task force there is no audio/video or minutes taken. Likewise there are no digital copies of the documents handed out at the meeting.


If you are interested in attending the next meeting, it’s taking place on Dec. 8 at 10 a.m. I apologize for not being more help.


Please let me know if there is anything else I can assist with.

As it so happens, the Task Force is chaired by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, who I frequently cover on my beat as a member of the Bemidji-area delegation to the Legislature. He swung by the Pioneer office last week, and I figured I’d cut through all this red tape and just ask him why they weren’t recorded.

To his credit, Saxhaug actually beat me to it, bringing it up himself how “we got a little static from some people” about the lack of recordings. However, when I asked him about why they weren’t recorded, Saxhaug at first handed the question off to staffer Mitch Berggren, who was also at the interview. Berggren said the reason RTF didn’t record the meetings was partly because they didn’t have to and partly because they couldn’t.

“Under Senate rules, these are not official hearings,” he said. “No formal actions are being taken. They do not need to be recorded, there don’t need to be any minutes made public. It’s strictly informational, we’re not in session.  If it was a hearing by a committee, absolutely they have to be recorded and minutes have to be posted. One, (due to) the Capitol renovations… we don’t have cameras right now. So, the technology that everybody has come to rely on isn’t available in the building right now, due to no fault of our own. But the main reason is because, as a task force, not a formal senate committee, there is no requirement of recording them. And, we don’t have the means to get that information out.”

Saxhaug then chimed in.

“We thought that if we came up with some decent ideas, then it might be a reason for one of us to write a bill,” he said. “That’s kind of how we left it.”

Then I asked if there was still an ethical obligation to the taxpayers to record the meetings, even if there wasn’t a legal obligation.

After a pause,  Saxhaug responded.

“I think that it’s something that’s worthy enough of attention…there was plenty of people that attended, and… I didn’t feel like we were operating in a vacuum,” he said finally.

Driving all the way to St. Paul shouldn’t have been the only recourse for people wanting to be informed about RTF’s activities. I understand the task force is a new idea and the Senate is still trying to work out the kinks, but “we don’t have cameras right now” isn’t a valid excuse in the era of smart phones. At the very least, they could have posted audio on the senate website. Hopefully the upcoming meeting in December will be more open.