ST. PAUL -- When you vote for a state auditor candidate to keep tabs on your tax dollars, you will have a very clear choice.
Minnesotans can pick an aggressive watchdog who strikes fear in the hearts of local government officials or a diplomatic teacher who helps those officials avoid mistakes.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto, a Democrat, is the latter.
"My approach is trying to help local governments do the right thing first, rather than trying to catch them doing the wrong thing," she said in a recent interview.
Her Republican challenger, former state Auditor Pat Anderson, is a hard-hitting watchdog. Her campaign mascot is a fierce-looking, 7-foot plastic bulldog.
"When people do bad things, I'm going to go after them," she said.
Their race is a rematch of their 2006 contest in which Otto unseated Anderson in a national wave election for Democrats. "I lost because I had an R behind my name," Anderson said, adding that the tide appears to be turning this year.
The auditor's job is mostly technical. She oversees spending by about 4,300 cities, counties, school districts and other local government entities, but not state government. She holds local officials accountable for more than $20 billion a year in taxpayer funds.
While the job may sound like bean counting, the race is spicy. The candidates trash each other's records.
Anderson recently filed a complaint against Otto with an administrative law judge accusing the auditor of falsely claiming to be "three times as productive" as Anderson was. When the judge dismissed her complaint earlier this month, Anderson protested that Otto "got off on a technicality."
Otto said the evidence showed she opened four times as many investigations as her predecessor. Nonetheless, Anderson said, "I think Rebecca just does the basic legal functions of the office. She's just keeping a chair warm ... I don't think they (local officials) fear her."
Should they? "Absolutely they should have some fear, because if they don't fear the auditor, who's elected by the people to be a watchdog, we've got a big problem."
When Otto announced she would seek a second term last winter, she joked that she's the "Rodney Dangerfield of constitutional officers" because her office doesn't get much respect.
"If you're looking for an auditor who simply does the bare minimum and in her own words gets no respect, then Otto is the candidate for you," Anderson said.
Otto is equally harsh on her challenger. She charged that Anderson politicized the auditor's office, made costly errors, allowed a security breach to occur and lost the trust of local officials "because she bashed everyone."
"The main differences between us are that we can either go back to the hundreds of millions of dollars of errors, security breaches and a partisan auditor, or we can move forward and make Minnesota a national leader again in excellent and efficient government," she said.
Anderson acknowledged that her office made a typo in a dollar figure in one report and an error in calculating percentages in another. But she said she quickly and publicly corrected those errors.
Every auditor commits errors, she said, noting that Otto had to correct a mistake in a 2008 Winona County financial statement. But the errors are rare, she added. "The (auditor's) staff is 99.99 percent accurate.
"The difference is that I don't run around the state saying that Otto is making millions of dollars of errors," she said.
The security breach was a laptop computer stolen from a locked room in the auditor's office, Anderson said. At the same time, computers also were stolen from several other offices in the same building.
"To say I allowed it to happen is ludicrous," she said. "She makes things up and exaggerates."
Otto accused Anderson of using "partisan, judgmental language" in financial reports that were supposed to be objective. For instance, she said, in a 2003 report on local government aid, Anderson arbitrarily defined "essential services" -- libraries not included -- to argue that cities could cut spending and advocate her "small-government ideology."
She cited several other instances where Anderson used "misleading, alarmist or demonizing" language in reports in apparent attempts to influence state policies. "That's the Legislature's job, not the auditor's," Otto said.
In response to the partisanship charge, Anderson said, "I've gone after as many Republicans as Democrats, and I've cleared Democrats." For example, she issued reports that exonerated Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and state Rep. David Dill, both DFLers, of alleged wrongdoing.
She issued another report that confirmed DFLers' contention that state aid to schools was declining and one that criticized Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's signature JOBZ rural economic development program.
As for Otto's charge that she bashed local officials, Anderson said she provided guidance and praised them for good work and "slapped their hand when it was in the cookie jar ... I held them accountable. She (Otto) doesn't."
The most striking difference between the two candidates is their style.
Otto sees her job as "quiet, behind-the-scenes work." She boasts that she has only held one press conference during her four years in office.
By contrast, she said, Anderson was quick to call press conferences to publicize "honest mistakes" by local officials.
Anderson said she was proud to use the office as a "bully pulpit for fiscal sanity."
She takes a more expansive view of the auditor's role than the incumbent. She said she could "absolutely" help the Legislature and next governor erase a projected $5.8 billion budget deficit.
Lawmakers and the governor will make the tax and spending decisions, she said, but she would aggressively analyze state funding policies for cities, counties and school districts and offer budget-balancing options to the policymakers.
Otto said she also would provide "accurate numbers" to the governor and Legislature to "inform their decisions." But she thinks balancing the budget is the governor's and Legislature's job, not the auditor's.
Both candidates said the auditor's work should be non-partisan. "But as a conservative, I'm more of a tightwad," Anderson said.
Besides keeping tabs on tax dollars, Otto is passionate about another issue: Conserving energy. She is arguably the "greenest" state constitutional officer.
She and her screenwriter husband, Shawn, built a "passive-solar, wind-powered, geothermal and superinsulated" home on their small farm in May Township north of Stillwater. She won a national award for her program that helps local governments find money to make investments that cut their energy costs.
While auditors don't get a lot of ink or air time, both candidates have devout supporters.
At a fundraiser last week at the Chisago Lakes Golf Club in Lindstrom, Barbara Grams of Wyoming, Minn., was one of about 40 Republicans who showed up to contribute to Anderson's campaign. She said she's been a fan since Anderson "got a lot of things done" as mayor of Eagan from 1998 through 2002 and "saved the taxpayers' money" as auditor for the next four years.
"She is a strong woman, and we need strong women in office," Grams said.
A couple of nights later, former Minnetonka Mayor Karen Anderson, a past president of both the League of Minnesota Cities and the National League of Cities, was among about 25 supporters who attended a fundraiser for Otto at a private home in Minnetonka.
"The two auditors before Rebecca played 'gotcha' with cities," Karen Anderson said. "When they found a problem, they broadcast it to the world and took credit. Rebecca helps (city officials) find problems and fix them. That's why I'm supporting her."
Otto, 47, was elected to the state House for one term in 2002 and previously served on the Forest Lake school board. A former public school teacher and small-business co-owner, she holds a bachelor's degree from Macalester College and a master's degree from the University of Minnesota.
Pat Anderson, 44, now of Dellwood, served on the Eagan City Council for eight years before she was elected mayor in 2002. After Otto defeated her for auditor in 2006, Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed her commissioner of employee relations, where at his direction she worked herself out of a job by merging her agency with the finance department.
The founder of two small businesses, she received a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota and master's degree from Hamline University. Until last year, she was president of the Minnesota Free Market Institute, a conservative think tank. She launched a campaign for governor last year but switched to the auditor's race after placing third in a gubernatorial straw ballot last fall.
Other candidates for auditor are Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board member Annie Young of the Green Party and Grassroots Party nominee Kenny Kalligher of Duluth.