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Primary election battles take shape in Minnesota's District 1

The retirement of a longtime state senator in northwest Minnesota has opened up multiple intra-party battles leading up to the Aug. 9 primary election.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election in the fall, ending 36 years in public office. That means a new face will represent Minnesota's most northwestern counties in the state Senate.

"It's an opportunity that does not come around very often, when an incumbent leaves like that," said East Grand Forks attorney Mark Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate for the seat. "People (have) been waiting in the wings probably for that, knowing it was going to happen."

That includes Edwin Dale Hahn, a former Thief River Falls City Council member who is running in the primary election against Johnson. He officially kicked off his campaign this week with an event at the Pennington County Fair parade.

The primary election determines which candidates will represent their party on the general election ballot in November.

Republicans

The primary won't be Johnson's first battle this year. He defeated five other candidates for the party's endorsement in April, but Hahn wasn't one of them.

Hahn said he has been planning to run for the seat since the winter, but didn't realize the political parties got involved in the race. He said he wasn't trying to circumvent the process by jumping into the primary and doesn't have a "personal vendetta" against Johnson.

"As spring approached, then I realized, 'Oh wow, there was a caucus system, there was some endorsements that were done,' " Hahn said. "I missed them."

Two days after he filed paperwork to run for office, Hahn said he got a call from someone in the Republican Party who "pressured" him to withdraw from the race. He declined to name the person who called him, but the incident led to his campaign slogan: "For the people, not the party."

An email to a state Republican Party spokeswoman was not returned Friday. Johnson said he was unsure who would have called Hahn, but he's fine with his decision to run in the primary, adding it will give voters a chance to vet the candidates.

"Everybody's free to do what they'd like to do, that's why we have primaries," Johnson said. "I think it's a great exercise of our liberty here to do that."

For his part, Hahn said he feels he's the "best candidate to serve the district," pointing to housing projects he worked on while he was a member of the Thief River Falls City Council and his time in the private sector. A former Arctic Cat employee, he started Trinity Land Craft, a "small-volume manufacturing company."

Johnson said he got into the race in part because of the "discouraging" small business climate in Minnesota. Johnson and his wife own Sage Legal in East Grand Forks, and he is also an owner of Johnson Concrete Construction in Mentor, Minn., according to a previous news release.

"I want to be able to take politics that have been normally done in St. Paul ... and bring it back home and making local decisions for local issues," he said.

Democrats

It's a two-man primary race on the Democratic side, as well. Kip Fontaine, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-endorsed candidate, will face Jual Carlson of Karlstad.

Carlson ran as a Republican in the 2012 primary for the Senate District 1 seat against Steve Nordhagen, who won that race with almost 73 percent of the vote. Carlson was also among the candidates for the Republican endorsement that Johnson ultimately won this year.

Carlson said he told local Republicans he wouldn't run against their endorsed candidate this year. He planned to run as an independent instead, but after he found out he couldn't do that, he chose to run as a Democrat.

"I'm a candidate of reform and correction," Carlson said. "It won't be politics as usual."

Fontaine, an attorney who manages the public defender's offices in Thief River Falls and Crookston, said he didn't know anything about Carlson other than his town of residence. Like Johnson, he doesn't have a problem with a primary challenger.

"That's a great thing about America and Minnesota politics," Fontaine said. "It gives opportunities for people to file for office if they choose to do so."

Fontaine said his professional career and volunteer efforts show he's a "problem-solver and consensus-builder by nature."

Fontaine added he has the personal endorsement of Stumpf, who did not return messages left at his home this week.

Valerie Solem, DFL chairwoman for Senate District 1, said she was unsure if she had ever met Carlson and declined to comment on his decision to jump in the race. She added Fontaine was unchallenged for the party's endorsement.

Fontaine "has just done so much work throughout the district in his professional life," Solem said. He "seems to connect very well with people."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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