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Rematch in District 52B
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Rebecca Otto is a former teacher and small business owner, and says Minnesota needs to return to its tradition of bipartisanship. She's shown here at a fundraiser. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
One of the Minnesota legislative races that's being closely watched is District 52B in the Stillwater area; it's a rematch of last year's special election between DFLer Rebecca Otto and Republican Matt Dean. Otto won the seat last time, but some Republicans believe her victory was a fluke.

St. Paul, Minn. — Rebecca Otto isn't taking anything for granted. The Democrat from Marine on St. Croix won her seat with 54 percent of the vote in a Republican-leaning district, and she's been door-knocking ever since she was elected more than a year-and-a-half ago. On a windy fall afternoon last month, Otto campaigned in a Stillwater neighborhood that she'd already door-knocked about a dozen times. She was armed with a list of addresses where she hadn't already made contact with homeowners. After about a half-hour with little success, she finally hit pay dirt.

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Image Matthew Dean

Sheila Martin, a carpenter, tells Otto that she just moved to Stillwater, and plans to vote for Otto based on a recommendation from her new neighbor.

"My neighbor has heard you speak, has seen you in action so to speak, and says that you have a tendency to build bridges between warring parties, which he was very impressed with. So in that sense, I don't care whether you're Republican or Democrat, I care about whether you're getting people together rather than turning people off," Martin says.

That's a subject that's central to Otto's campaign. She's a former teacher and small business owner, and tells Martin that Minnesota needs to return to its tradition of bipartisanship.

"Because then we get the work done of the people, and we continue to keep our state a strong state, we maintain our competitive edge, our high quality of life," she says.

Otto says she wants to move away from the partisan gridlock at the Capitol. She touts endorsements from Democrat Walter Mondale and Republican Arne Carlson. Her Republican opponent, Matt Dean, says he'd much rather have the support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman.

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Image Steve Sviggum

"It kind of frames the race for what it is, which is a vision of the past versus a vision for the future ... People in this district really tend to track more and believe more that the current governor and the current senator are heading in the right direction," according to Dean.

At a coffee shop in Mahtemedi, another part of the district, Dean talks about the issues in the race. He's an architect from Dellwood who says he's focused on jobs, education and health care. He signed the Taxpayer's League no-tax-increase pledge, and says he supports the way Gov. Pawlenty has handled the state's budget crisis. He says voters are also concerned about social issues.

"Gay marriage is an issue that comes up, it's on people's minds, abortion is also on people's minds as it is every election, and I just tell folks who ask that I'm the only candidate who is pro-life, and I'm the only candidate who supports traditional marriage," says Dean.

Otto voted for a bill that would put a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot, a bill pushed by the district's senator, Michelle Bachmann. But Dean says Otto hasn't said whether she supports banning gay marriage. Otto was quoted in the Wall Street Journal telling a group of gay constituents that how she would ultimately vote on such an amendment was a private matter between her and the voting booth.

The speaker of the Minnesota House, Republican Steve Sviggum, says Dean is a better fit for the district. He says Dean should have won last time, except the DFL poured more than $100,000 into the race right before the election.

"It's almost unfathomable, it's unconscionable, how much money was spent there, and of course, then there's the controversy that took place," Sviggum says.

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Image Former Gov. Arne Carlson

Sviggum filed a complaint against Otto shortly after the election, accusing her campaign of lying in campaign literature. The literature said Dean sent his childern to a private school. It wasn't true, but Otto called it a mistake, not a deliberate lie. A judge later dismissed indictments against Otto and her husband and campaign manager Shawn Otto.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson called Sviggum's complaint part of the "politics of intimidation," and says he has come to admire Otto's work in the Legislature.

"She has taken up the budget as an issue and is emerging as one of the more knowledgeable members in the Legislature on the budget and heaven's knows, we're going to need it, because we're going into our third and fourth years of a deficit," Carlson says.

Republicans now control the House by a sizable margin of 81-to-53. If Democrats hope to win the majority, they believe they need to keep this seat. Matt Dean says the district leans Republican and with a high voter turnout expected, he intends to win.

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