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St. Cloud area voters pick two Democrats in special election

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Larry Haws, a DFLer, won an easy victory in Tuesday's special election to fill a Minnesota House seat in the St. Cloud area. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The campaign leading up to the election was an unusual one. A week before the election, the state Supreme Court removed a Republican from the House ballot after Democrats raised questions over the candidate's residency. The election won't change the balance of the House or Senate. And political experts aren't sure if the election is an accurate gauge of what might happen in this fall's election.

Collegeville, Minn. — This was supposed to be a sleepy election with little interest outside of central Minnesota. But controversy was stirred up in the House race when Democrats questioned Republican candidate Sue Ek's residency.

Just a week before the election, the state Supreme Court agreed with a lower court ruling that Ek hadn't lived in St. Cloud long enough to be a candidate. Ek was dropped from the ballot.

The next day her mother, Kay Ek, announced her candidacy, but the attorney general's office said it was too late to put her on the ballot. So Kay Ek ran a brief and unsuccessful write-in campaign. She was defeated by a wide margin by DFLer and Stearns County Commissioner Larry Haws.

Haws said it was unfortunate the residency question over-shadowed other campaign issues.

My precinct is one of two that neither President Clinton nor Sen. Wellstone ever won in St. Cloud, and we won. So maybe there is a change.
- DFL Sen.-elect Tarryl Clark

"I was not involved in the residency issue. I tried to stay focused issues like health care, education, transportation, better government," Haws said.

Haws will now fill the House seat recently vacated by fellow Democrat Joe Opatz, who resigned his seat after 13 years to take an interim position as head of Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

Republican Kay Ek said she knew a write-in candidacy was a long shot. She thinks her daughter would have won the election if her name had remained on the ballot.

State GOP Party spokesman Mark Drake said the Ek case made it difficult for the Republicans in either race to win.

"It was hard to get the message out when you had the Ek situation constantly in the news," Drake said.

The other contest in the special election was to the fill the Senate seat vacated by Republican Dave Kleis. Kleis resigned his spot after being elected mayor of St. Cloud in November. Democrat Tarryl Clark defeated Dan Ochsner, a Republican and St. Cloud radio host, by about 2,000 votes. Independence Party candidate Dan Becker came in a distant third.

With two Democrats winning in typically conservative central Minnesota, Clark sees continued momentum for the DFL going into the fall elections.

"My precinct is one of two that neither President Clinton nor Sen. Wellstone ever won in St. Cloud, and we won. So maybe there is a change," Clark said.

The St. Cloud election means Democrats will hold onto a seat in the House and gain one seat in the Senate. But that won't change the balance of the Legislature. The DFL is already in control of the Senate, and Republicans still control the House by a slim margin.

Minnesota State University, Mankato political science professor Joe Kunkel expects Democrats will crow over the election results, and some Republicans may be a bit concerned. But Kunkel says people shouldn't read too far into what it all means for the fall.

"I wouldn't draw any really firm conclusions about the future based on the special election. I think that Democrats can take a slight amount of encouragement from it, but it's anybody's guess on how it's going to turn out in November. We have a legislative session to go through, practically a whole year of politics to run through," Kunkel said.

A whole year of politics may not seem like much for the newly elected legislators from St. Cloud. They face another election in November.