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Tom West: Nothing for certain in District 7B

When Dale Swapinski jumped from the DFL to the Independence Party this week, he kicked over every foregone conclusion in the District 7B race. It was a foregone conclusion that Mike Jaros would win his 14th term in the House. It was a foregone co...

When Dale Swapinski jumped from the DFL to the Independence Party this week, he kicked over every foregone conclusion in the District 7B race. It was a foregone conclusion that Mike Jaros would win his 14th term in the House. It was a foregone conclusion that he would cream his Republican opponent, Marcia Hales. It was a foregone conclusion that District 7B would remain the strongest DFL bastion in the state outside of the core precincts in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

But Swapinski's entry into the race changed all that.

Suddenly, the sure thing has become not just a two-person but conceivably a three-person race. It is still a long shot but no longer preposterous that a district as strongly DFL as 7B could send a Republican to St. Paul.

However, if one were headed to Vegas, the odds still suggest that Jaros is the early favorite. A proven vote-getter, he has won the favor of Duluth voters 13 times. Except for his first race 30 years ago, he has never received less than 57 percent of the vote. In fact, in 2000, running against token Republican candidate Larry Lownie, Jaros amassed his largest vote total ever, 11,163.

In addition, a voting history exists from another three-way race four years ago -- the one that elected Jesse Ventura governor. In Jaros' district, DFLer Skip Humphrey was the voters' favorite with 44.9 percent of the vote. In the district then represented by Willard Munger and now by Swapinski, Humphrey received 48.6 percent of the vote. Neither Republican Norm Coleman nor Ventura received more than 30 percent in either precinct. However, the problem facing Jaros is that two-thirds of the district he would represent if he wins has never voted for him before. That's because they were in the district represented by Swapinski. Thus, the question to be answered by voters this fall is just how deep does party loyalty go?

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And more troubling for Jaros is that in spite of his record vote total, Swapinski amassed an even greater vote total in his district, 11,549, in spite of the fact that he was running against a better known candidate than Lownie. Allan Kehr, his Republican opponent, was seeking office for the second time.

Undoubtedly, DFLers will accuse Swapinski of sour grapes. After all, he narrowly lost the DFL endorsement to Jaros just a couple of months ago. However, he could just as easily have gone after Jaros in the DFL primary and the grapes would not have been any more sour.

Swapinski has built his political reputation as an abrasive sort, unafraid to take on the powers that be. During the last City Council election, he got into a spat with Chamber of Commerce President David Ross when the Chamber ran a negative TV ad attacking Councilor Greg Gilbert. Swapinski and Ross traded barbs, and then Swapinski sent a letter to his DFL colleagues suggesting that they boycott the Duluth Days lobbying effort. That brought more criticism. However, Swapinski's response was, "Don't they understand that every time they criticize me, my approval rating goes up in West Duluth?"

The second question, then, after gauging party loyalty, is just how anti-establishment is West Duluth? Deep enough to abandon the DFL?

Swapinski said that the old guard DFL never supported him in his 1999 special election victory over Will Munger Jr. He beat him in the streets. And after losing the endorsement to Jaros, he said that a number of veteran legislators from both parties told him that he had more to offer the state than Jaros would. They encouraged him to run.

He finally made the jump to the Independence Party, he said, because the party's leaders were so encouraging. Jack Uldrich and Dean Barkley both told him how badly they wanted him, and then he met with the party's gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny. He said he offered the funds left in his campaign treasury (under $2,000) to Penny, but Penny declined, telling Swapinski to keep the money and run himself. "I consider myself a Democrat," Swapinski said, "but I've always been an independent one."

All of this has Hales thanking her lucky stars.

A West Duluth native and a former city councilor, Hales is as strong a candidate as the Republicans have had for a seat in the western half of the city in a long time. She grew up in the house where her mother still lives at the corner of 47th Avenue West and Fourth Street. She notes that when she ran unsuccessfully a year ago for an at-large council position, she did well in the western precincts.

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The challenge facing Hales, however, is whether she can break through the reality that the Republican base in West Duluth is about 25 percent. To win a three-way race, she needs another 10 to 15 percent of the vote. Given the DFL strength and Swapinski's incumbency, votes that swing Republican will be precious victories.

Like Swapinski, she recognizes the DFL strength and is positioning herself as more of an independent. Her campaign chairs are retired UMD professor Roger Fischer, an erstwhile DFLer, and Denfeld government teacher Joe Vukolich. "I'm trying to have a big tent approach," she said.

A growing issue in northeastern Minnesota is whether the area would be better off with representatives from more than one party, what with the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and a governor from the Independence Party. All three candidates can make the claim that they will be better positioned than the others to help the area, but each claim will depend on the result of the races for governor and for control of the Legislature statewide.

This is one to watch.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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