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Eyes on key races in battle for Legislature
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
September 9, 2002

When voters go to the polls for the primary election, some will find their legislators on the ballot, along with challengers seeking to unseat them. Minnesota's legislative caucuses will be closely watching a handful of those races. Three have been flagged by the caucuses as the most competitive. The incumbents being challenged include a state senator facing the former senator he replaced and the assistant Senate majority leader.

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, 33, argues that voters should keep a young legislator in office. "My opponent chose to leave office. He did good in the past, but he chose to leave. And now we have someone new in that we need to stick with."
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

The race most observers say is too close to call is a battle of new blood versus experience. In Senate District 50, covering northern inner-ring Twin Cities suburbs, a longtime former lawmaker is challenging the legislator he recommended to succeed him.

Steve Novak, DFL-New Brighton, served in the Legislature for 26 years. During his time at the Capitol, he was a committee chairman and carried major legislation such as the Prairie Island nuclear waste storage bill. Novak says there's been a general decline in leadership in the Senate over the past few years.

"And I believe that my experience and seniority and past record of success would be helpful, both to my district, and also to the entire state in terms of being part of the mix of people who are going to be asked to resolve what are now going to be very substantial challenges," Novak says.

Novak gave up his Senate seat two years ago to challenge DFL-endorsee Betty McCollum for Congress in the primary. He lost. He supported then-state Rep. Satveer Chaudhary of Fridley to replace him in the Senate, and Chaudhary won. Now Novak thinks he'd be a better senator than Chaudhary.

"I don't feel he represented me very well as his constituent, and I don't think he represented our district very well at all, and, you know, why hire the apprentice if you can hire the master craftsman for the same amount of money?" Novak says.

Chaudhary, 33, argues that voters should keep a young legislator in office. "My opponent chose to leave office. He did good in the past, but he chose to leave. And now we have someone new in that we need to stick with."

Chaudhary mades his point over and over recently when he knocks on doors in a townhome development in New Brighton. One woman driving past saw Chaudhary, and pulled up to tell him that Novak lives in this development.

"Oh, I wonder if we knocked on his door?" he asked.

"Good for you if you did," she said. "I'm glad to see you again out, I have always passed on what a good job you do of keeping in touch with us."

Chaudhary is the first Asian-American elected to the Minnesota Legislature. He has the backing of his party, but that's no guarantee of success in what's likely to be a low-turnout primary.

One of Chaudhary's Senate colleagues, Assistant Majority Leader John Hottinger, DFL-Mankato, also isn't taking the primary for granted. Hottinger moved to St. Peter after redistricting put him in the same district as another DFL senator. He's being challenged in the primary by Troy Haefner, a political newcomer from Mankato who lost the Republican endorsement for the seat to former state Rep. Julie Storm.

Hottinger calls Haefner's challenge a "dirty trick" designed to get Republicans to cross over and vote against him in the DFL primary.

"If Democrats alone voted in the Democratic primary, there would be no question that they would know he's somebody that hasn't been involved in the community, hasn't campaigned, hasn't done anything. But this is all a smokescreen for extremist groups, in my judgment, to try and sneak through a stealth primary," he says.

Haefner has the backing of the anti-abortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, but he says he's a moderate who isn't conservative enough to get the Republican endorsement. The 30-year-old real estate developer says running as a Democrat isn't a dirty trick.

"I'm young enough and dumb enough to think I can make a change. And it's time to get fresh blood in," Haefner says.

Many observers consider Hottinger the likely next Senate majority leader if he's re-elected and Democrats remain in control of the Senate.

Republicans are closely watching a House primary between incumbent Dennis Ozment of Rosemount and challenger Judy Lindsay. Lindsay is a school board member who's criticized Ozment's record on the show-what-you-know Profile of Learning graduation standard. Neither candidate received party endorsement.

Ozment, Hottinger and Chaudhary aren't the only legislators facing primary challenges. Five other lawmakers will be on the primary ballot for their current seats: DFL Sen. Linda Higgins, Republican Rep. Barb Sykora, and three House Democrats - Matt Entenza, Bill Hilty and Joe Mullery.

The legislative caucuses say they're not worried about those races.

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