By Ashley Grant
October 11, 2002
ANOKA, Minn. (AP) - After knocking off Rep. David Minge by 155 votes two years ago, Republican Mark Kennedy had every reason to believe landing his second term in Congress would be easier.
That was before redistricting put his house in new territory that runs north, instead of south, of the Twin Cities. And before a wealthy Democratic attorney came forward to challenge him.
Now, Kennedy's battle against Stillwater attorney Janet Robert has turned as bitter and nasty as any other this campaign season.
"The only thing she's said that's truthful about me was my name," Kennedy said.
Robert, in turn, cites "the lies" of the campaign.
The tone of the campaign is turning some voters' stomachs.
"I'm tuning them out," said Doug Sather, 64, a retired social studies teacher. "Let's get the damn thing over with."
Robert remains the underdog but has offset her political inexperience, and the district's Republican leaning, by turning to her family fortune. In August, she loaned her campaign $800,000 to launch an early television ad buy. With her latest ad buy on Friday, Roberts' campaign has spent more than $1.5 million for TV spots.
Kennedy raised $1.1 million through Aug. 21, but listed just $562,359 in cash as of that date.
All the money being poured into the campaign doesn't impress Sather, who's among the undecided in this new 6th District, which runs from Washington County east of the Twin Cities, northwest through Anoka and St. Cloud.
"There's got to be good people in there somewhere," he said. "Sometimes, they're a little hard to find."
Kennedy and Robert actually stand together on many issues. They both oppose abortion and support gun rights and funding for a commuter rail line running from St. Cloud to Minneapolis. They also both would push for the federal government to pick up its full share of special education funding.
One area where they differ is Social Security.
Kennedy has supported allowing young workers to invest part of their payroll tax in personal retirement accounts. He says it may help keep Social Security solvent for years to come; funding is projected to collapse in 2041 after baby boomers consume much of the fund.
Robert opposes allowing workers to invest any portion of their payroll taxes in personal accounts that could be invested in stocks or bonds. She said Social Security could be kept solvent by having the government repay money borrowed from the trust fund at a rate of 6 percent over inflation rather than at the current rate of 4.4 percent over inflation.
Both Robert and Kennedy come from corporate backgrounds and have made business ethics core to their campaigns.
Robert, a former Oak Park Heights city councilwoman, sits on the board of directors of her family's St. Louis-based private company, Siegel-Robert Inc. Kennedy, a freshman congressman, worked as chief financial officer for Department 56, as CEO for Shopko Stores and as an accountant for Arthur Andersen.
The Robert campaign says Kennedy has been weak on proposals that would strengthen laws against corporate wrongdoing. She also alleged in a recent television ad that Kennedy's action as CFO of Department 56 cost shareholders money.
Kennedy's name was removed from the shareholder lawsuit that a judge later dismissed as "groundless."
Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report, said Robert's hardball approach shows she means business.
"Her problem, of course, is that she has some of her own baggage on the issue," Walter said. "The bottom line is there is still ammunition for Kennedy to go out and define her as someone who has been ethically challenged."
And he has. In his first television ad, Kennedy said Robert cheated long-time employees of her family's company out of $22 million.
Robert was on the board of directors of her family's company, when company officials forced minority shareholders to sell their shares to the Robert family to reduce corporate taxes. They were offered $20 a share, and they sued, saying the price was too low.
A U.S. District Court judge said the shareholders should be paid about $60 per share and a federal appeals court upheld the decision.
The candidates will have a chance to defend their pasts and talk issues when they meet in their first debates this month.
Political analysts say Robert has an uphill battle.
"The amount of money she is willing to spend makes it worth watching, but I don't see it as turning over," Walter said.More from MPR