Three vie for open Southwest House seat

Two lawyers will square off against a former auto repairman Nov. 5. in the race for Southwest’s open District 63A House seat. District 63A covers Armatage, Kenny and parts of Lynnhurst and Windom.

DFLer Paul Thissen, 35, an attorney living in Lynnhurst, will be favored in the district now represented by DFLer Mark Gleason. However, Thissen’s opponents — Republican Tim Erlander, 61 and the Independence Party’s Ron Lischeid, 54 — are banking that Minneapolis’ politically mixed 13th Ward, coupled with blue-collar Richfield residents, could push them over the top.

Gleason lost his seat earlier this year in an unsuccessful bid for state auditor, then losing his party’s legislative endorsement to Thissen. Gleason declined to run in the September primary.

In the primary, Erlander made a relatively strong showing, garnering 1,107 votes compared to Thissen’s 1,980; neither was opposed in his own party. Lischeid earned 160 votes, though the primary’s required party-line balloting may have held down his totals.

The candidates Thissen, the son of educators, grew up in Bloomington but attended school in Richfield. He later graduated from Harvard, and earned a law degree at the University of Chicago. Finally, he became a business lawyer.

Thissen said that his legal career has brought him a lot of volunteer work for nonprofit organizations. That facet of his professional life got him interested in politics.

"In the legal work, you become exposed to a lot of other problems that are associated with folks that are less advantaged," Thissen said. "Just to get a little more leverage is kind of why I wanted to run for this office."

Erlander, once a DFLer, said his political outlook changed in the mid-1970s while he was a lawyer operating a private family-law practice in Minneapolis.

Erlander had been raised DFL — his mother was in advertising; he never knew his father. He served in Vietnam, starting an independent family-law practice in the early 1970s. It was around that time, he said, that news came of New York City’s bankruptcy and its request for a federal bailout. His outlook instantly changed.

"[New York] had been wretchedly mismanaged and basically it was a case of one program after the other that the city couldn’t pay for," Erlander said. "That’s when it became clear that liberal social programs don’t work, period."

By the late 1980s, Erlander was active in GOP politics, assisting in various campaigns for Richfield city offices. He unsuccessfully ran for Richfield City Council in 1996, and for legislative seats in 1998 and 2000.

Like Erlander, Lischeid started out a DFLer, and gradually drifted right. The son of a Marine fighter pilot killed in Korea, Lischeid was raised by his mother and stepfather, who moved the family to upstate New York. He returned in 1966 to attend the University of Minnesota, and stayed after graduation to launch a series of auto repair shops. Lischeid also worked in the restaurant and vehicle rental industries over the years.

The realities of business drew out his nascent conservatism, he said. Nonetheless, he shrugged off his Republican Party affiliation because he couldn’t pass the party’s abortion "litmus test." "They kept telling me I wasn’t a real Republican," he said, "so I decided they must be right."

He joined Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1992 and stayed as it evolved into today’s Independence Party. Along the way, he ran unsuccessfully in a number of legislative races as an Independence Party candidate. He also ran for the District 63A seat earlier this year as a DFLer — to avoid the stigma of association with Gov. Jesse Ventura, he said. Thissen beat him for the DFL nomination on the first ballot.

"This is my seventh trip to the plate," Lischeid said. "I’m 0 for six right now."

Three-way race Erlander positions himself as the conservative of the group, contrasting himself with Thissen, who Erlander said "believes in the liberal dream unadulterated."

Thissen doesn’t argue that Erlander is more conservative, but he shrugs off any suggestion that he is the ultimate liberal.

"If the ‘liberal dream’ means that I think we need to make long-term investments in good schools and I think we need to make investments in our transportation system so that we can have some economic viability," Thissen said, "… then I guess I’d be a liberal."

But Thissen said a threatened $3 billion state budget deficit calls for fiscal responsibility. "And honestly, I don’t think that the solution [Erlander] proposes, which is to essentially cut $3 billion in state expenditures because he signed the no-new-tax pledge, is a very responsible approach or realistic approach," he said.

Not surprisingly, Lischeid stakes out the middle ground. "Paul [Thissen] probably represents what people think the DFL represents," Lischeid said, "and Tim [Erlander] represents very well the common notion of what people think Republicans represent.

"I would like to think that I represent that large majority in the middle that consider themselves to be in the sensible center, that are tired of the gridlock, that want things done," he said.

Erlander and Lischeid hope that the southernmost part of Minneapolis has enough of a fiscally conservative streak to swing the election their way. Both Erlander and Lischeid point to Ward 13, which elected non-DFLers Steve Minn and Barret Lane to the city council in recent years, as evidence that they have a fighting chance on Election Day.

Thissen thinks they could be right.

"I don’t think anyone should take any district for granted," Thissen said. "And I think people are more independent and thinking about the issues a lot more."

But Thissen said he is confident he is working hard enough to prevail, and plans to have knocked on every door in the district twice by Nov. 5.

"I really feel good about how the race is going to turn out," Thissen said.