Far-sighted activists or urban invaders?

With the DFL dominant in Southwest, local Democrats are pouring time and money into legislative races elsewhere. Sometimes, their involvement becomes an issue.

It's an election-year ritual, like politicians kissing babies, making promises they won't keep and trying to tear out their opponents' hearts and lungs. It's the time-honored tradition of Minneapolitans lending aid and comfort to candidates in the suburbs and outstate.

Because Minneapolis is a Democratic-Farmer-Labor party stronghold without a single Republican local officeholder, many Southwest DFLers have turned their energies toward retaking the Minnesota House, which went Republican in 1998. (The state Senate, which remains in DFL hands, is not up for election this year.)

For example, Southwest DFL State Sen. Scott Dibble and State Reps. Frank Hornstein and Margaret Anderson Kelliher have "adopted" two suburban DFLers -- stuffing envelopes, door-knocking, attending events and throwing fund-raisers for Steve Simon, who is running in St. Louis Park/Hopkins and Sandy Peterson in New Hope/Crystal/Plymouth.

Southwest Democrats bring energy, talent and money. But in suburban and outstate Minnesota, they also bring controversy -- at least to rival campaigns -- as meddling outsiders.

Below, we take a look at three out-of-town campaigns local activists are affecting.

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Heather Martens is a Kingfield mother who has found a political home in Eagan working at least 20 hours weekly as unpaid campaign manager for House DFL candidate

Christine Harbron.

Martens said her odyssey to Eagan began a couple of years ago when she and like-minded people from Southwest and the suburbs became concerned about reduced public school funding.

"I went to talk to my legislators and they completely understood what I was talking about," she said. "But some of the other people, from the suburbs, talked to their legislators and they came back said it was like talking to a wall."

She said too few suburban legislators represent their constituents on important issues such as education.

"They're really representing extremist ideologies," Martens said. "These are people put in by extremists, and the way it was done was by misleading the public into thinking they're not really extremists, that they're pro-public-education and everything good."

Martens includes the man she's working to defeat, Rep. Tim Wilkin, among those conservative radical who've managed to fool constituents while promoting an agenda that includes a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Said Harbron, an attorney and accountant, "Anything having to do with family, he's an extremist on."

Wilkin, as you might expect, denies being a radical, pointing out that "the vast majority of people in the state of Minnesota, and in this district, support the marriage amendment."

He also noted that he was trying to eliminate Minnesota's $4.5 billion deficit when he voted to reduce "extraneous spending" on schools.

"I don't know how you could consider that extremist," he said.

Wilkin, who owns a sales company, said he represents a suburban view of political issues while his opponent reflects a Minneapolis perspective, as do her urban volunteers.

"In the past, Minneapolis has wielded tons of power in the Legislature. When House Republicans took over in the '98 elections, that kind of came to an end," he said. "They still wield plenty of power in the Senate, but [in the past] they pretty much got their way and the suburbs suffered. We don't like being viewed as the wallet of the state, where people just come in and harvest the dollars and spend at will."

Wilkin said one detail he's not up on is the number of people working on his campaign, though he said he's sure that they're all from his district.

Martens said Harbron's campaign would have "scores" of people from surrounding communities working on it -- with widely varying degrees of participation -- before it's all over on Nov. 2.

She noted that it takes her only 15 minutes to drive to Eagan, where she has friends and family, to work on Harbron's campaign.

"It used to be that people looked out for one another because they had friends and family throughout the state. That's important to remember," Martens said. "We're not little islands."

Something's burning

Seven-term Minnesota House member Greg Davids, an insurance agent, represents District 31B, in the state's rural, southeastern corner. The heart of Davids' district is Preston, a pretty big town in those parts, as its 1,426 residents might tell you.

Davids' opponent is DFLer Peggy Hanson, who owns and operates the Cady Hayes House Bed & Breakfast in Lanesboro, a nearby town of nearly 800. She moved to the area 15 years ago from Minneapolis, where she'd worked as an attorney and a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities and the Association of Minnesota Counties.

Though these candidates live 120 miles from Southwest in a district that looks very different -- it's 98 percent white, and 65 percent of households earn less than $50,000 annually -- some local big names have lined up to dethrone Davids, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and just-about-everything-but-president Walter Mondale, an East Isles resident.

Those stars recently glittered at a house party/fund-raiser that raised over $2,000 for Hanson, thrown by Camille Gage of Kingfield.

Gage has a connection to Southeast Minnesota that includes a love of its vast expanses of trees and farmland. "I'm also a painter," the event coordinator at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs said. "I've been showing my artwork in a gallery there for about three years…so I go down there regularly and have made a lot of friends there."

She said that over time she became aware of area politics, including the controversy surrounding the proposed Heartland Energy plant.

Heartland is the brainchild of developer Bob Maust, who is Davids' father-in-law. If built, the plant would burn 10 million scrap tires a year, turning the rubber into energy to be sold on the nation's electrical grid.

According to a January City Pages article, Heartland's own consulting engineers estimate that the plant could annually emit 115 tons of sulfur dioxide, 122 tons of carbon monoxide, a quarter-ton of lead and more.

Davids says he has stayed on the sidelines whenever the project has been discussed in the Legislature.

"I don't think it'll [Heartland Energy] ever come to fruition, and they're just making a big deal out of something that's never going to happen," he said.

Davids insists he's not even supportive of the plant, saying repeatedly that he's neutral. "It would be a conflict of interest for me, so I've stayed out of it."

Gage and the hundreds of Heartland opponents in the area aren't convinced of Davids' neutrality.

She pointed to a tape of a phone call Davids made to Preston's mayor in which the legislator threatened to turn his lawyers loose on Heartland opponents: "Junkyard-dog-killing attorneys that will rip their eyes out and pee in their brains," Davids said.

(He later apologized for the comments.)

Gage said the Republican is vulnerable precisely because the tape belies his claims of neutrality in his father-in-law's project and because of the environmental damage the plant could cause if it's built.

Davids says he will win an eighth term because of his political differences with Hanson. "I'm a, you know, conservative," he said. "I'm pro-life, I'm supporting our troops…I support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. We differ on that, which is a big issue in my area."

Hanson said she's pro-choice, supports civil unions for same-sex couples and protested against the impending war with Iraq before the U.S. invaded last year by carrying a "Lutheran for peace" sign.

Said Hanson, "People down here have a real choice. [Davids and I] are quite different."

She said the area is often dismissed by DFLers as Republican territory because most local officeholders are GOP, but she said the area went for Mondale in his 2002 Senate race and for Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

"That's why I'm targeted [for help by Minneapolitans]," she said. "People think a Democrat can win down here if they actually run a real campaign."

Davids said he had no real problem with "extreme liberal lawyer-lobbyist" Hanson's "big city" fund-raiser with the former vice-president and Rybak, though he expects the good folks of his district to be turned off by it.

"It's the liberals meddling in outstate politics. It's the liberals meddling in a rural District, and it's not selling well," he said. "But I would like it if she could get me Walter Mondale's autograph. That would be kind of cool."

Kahn job?

Southwest legislators Hornstein, Dibble and Anderson Kelliher may be organizing to defeat north metro State Rep. Lynne Osterman, but mention outside volunteers and Osterman is quick to ask if they are "people like Phyllis Kahn."

Kahn, a 32-year legislator from Southeast Minneapolis, was caught this summer swiping Osterman's campaign literature from doorsteps. Kahn apologized, but Osterman clearly relishes bringing up the incident.

"It was so kind of her to volunteer to come out," she said, chuckling with undisguised glee and sarcasm. "She was just really curious about what we're saying [in our literature]."

In a more serious vein, she said of the volunteers working for Peterson, "At first glance, given the country we live in and given the fact that this really is a freedom of speech issue, if they feel the state of Minnesota would be better served by more of Phyllis Kahn…I don't blame them for that. I can see why they would be motivated to participate.

"Having said that, I hear from people in our district, 'I've never met these people before; who are they?'

"Does that speak well of my opponent that she doesn't have enough local people who will go door to door with her and say, 'I believe she's best for our district and here's why'? I think it's a very poor reflection on her, and it's a tactic I certainly wouldn't allow to be employed on my behalf," Osterman said.

Peterson has found herself on the defensive on the "outsiders" issue; the DFLer said it's "an absolute falsehood" that she has gone door-knocking with volunteers from outside of the district.

"I have many, many volunteers from the district. In fact, most of my volunteers are from the district," Peterson said. "The people who walk with me all the time are from [District] 45A. They are people who live here and are deeply invested in the community, and they're well-known in the communities of Crystal and New Hope, particularly."

She said people from Minneapolis and elsewhere in the state share concerns that go beyond the borders of their cities, which is why she's getting volunteer help from outside of 45A. Those volunteers, she said, drop campaign literature at houses, work the phones and do other mundane, though necessary, jobs in her operation.

"The 395,000 folks in our state who don't have health insurance, many of them who live in our communities as well as Minneapolis, are concerned about getting candidates elected who can make a difference in those crucial issues."

Peterson said Osterman keeps talking about Kahn in an effort to avoid issues such as cuts to education funding enacted by the Legislature.

Osterman said she talks about Kahn because it's a subject her constituents keep bringing up.

Peterson said that it's more important to her that people in Minnesota are eager to shift power away from legislators such as Osterman, who has signed on to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no-new-taxes pledge.

"We're at a point in this state where people are very frustrated, very angry and they want to see change. They'll work where it's needed to try to accommodate change. I don't think this is an extension of [Minneapolis'] power."