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State Supreme Court to decide candidate's eligibility

The state Supreme Court is poised to take up the issue of whether Sue Ek is a legal candidate for the Minnesota house. Ek is a Republican running in a special race to fill a house seat in central Minnesota. But critics say she doesn't live there.

Collegeville, Minn. — DFL officials began asking questions about Sue Ek's eligibility to run as a House candidate in St. Cloud in early December. They said Ek was breaking the law, because she hadn't lived in St. Cloud for the six months required to run for state office. Their proof was a housing affidavit Ek signed last summer saying she lived in St. Paul.

Ek didn't return calls requesting an interview for this story, but recently she defended herself saying she's just like many St. Cloud residents who commute to the Twin Cities. Ek says she lives with her parents in St. Cloud, and drives to her office in St. Paul for work. Her office is in a home also owned by her parents. A St. Cloud resident has filed a complaint, and now the issue is headed to the state Supreme Court.

In 2002 DFL state Sen. John Hottinger also faced a residency challenge. Less than a year before the election, the state went through its regular redistricting process and Hottinger found himself living outside the district he represented.

"The line change meant I was about a mile outside of my district," Hottinger said. "And it was my district in the sense that over 90 percent of the district I now represent is the district I used to represent. It made a lot of sense for me if I want to continue in the Legislature to establish a new residence,"

Hottinger did that by renting a small apartment in the new district and changing the address on his driver's license and voter registration. State GOP officials said that wasn't enough to establish residency and that he wasn't actually living in the new district. They sued to have Hottinger's name taken off the ballot. The state Supreme Court kept Hottinger on the ballot, and he ended up winning by a narrow margin. Two years later Hottinger still feels the lawsuit lacked merit. He says it was a dirty campaign trick.

Now the political tables have turned. It's state GOP officials that say the latest court fight over residency is for political gain.

Political analysts say challenging residency in a campaign can make sense for both political and legal reasons. From a political point of view it's used to show a candidate is more connected to an area than his or her opponent. It's a legal issue only when there's hard evidence that someone doesn't meet residency requirements. But those requirements aren't black and white.

Joe Kunkel, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota in Mankato, says technically a candidate doesn't need to live in an area to run for office, as long as they establish residency six months before an election.

"They don't have any definition for the number of nights you have to sleep there. There's nothing like that to prove that somebody actually is living in the house or not," Kunkel said.

The courts only remove a candidate's name from the ballot in extreme cases according to Kunkel. He says courts are more likely to side with a candidate and let the voters sort it out.

Minnesota's Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer says the court's hands-off approach is a good thing. Kiffmeyer says her office will have nothing to do with the Ek case; that's up to the Supreme Court. But Kiffmeyer, a Republican, says the residency rules can be interpreted broadly.

"Especially when this area of the law is so full of the individual who makes their intentions. Their intentions weigh heavily here, not just the facts or certain pieces of information," Kiffmery said.

Intent is likely to be a big part of Sue Ek's defense. GOP officials say the key piece of evidence against her, the signed affidavit, amounts to a paperwork mistake. They say she intended to say she was renting a home with an office in St. Paul from her parents, but was not a resident of St. Paul.

At any rate, if the Supreme Court takes the case, it's expected to rule quickly.

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