State Sen. Justin Eichorn tries to hold off Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, with control of Senate at stake

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, the DFL candidate for state Senate, does some socially distanced campaigning this summer. Courtesy photo.

Justin Eichorn helped flip the Minnesota Senate when he beat then-Sen. Tom Saxhaug by fewer than 600 votes in northeastern Minnesota’s District 5 as part of a red wave in 2016, when Donald Trump was at the top of the ticket.

This year, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party hopes to win the seat back with Rita Albrecht. The Bemidji mayor charges that Eichorn, who lives in Grand Rapids, has largely ignored her city, the largest in the district.

The district is clearly in the crosshairs: Albrecht said at least five organizations have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative digital and print ads against her.

One mailer blamed her for doing nothing to stop the rioting, looting and arson in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death, she said.

It’s no mystery why corporate and labor groups would spend heavily. The stakes are high: If Republicans can maintain their current slim 35-32 hold on the majority, they can continue to thwart first-term DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s agenda while helping to shape how a $4.7 billion budget deficit will be erased during the next legislative session. Also on the agenda next session: additional police reforms, an expansion of government health insurance, paid family leave, legalization of marijuana and the redrawing of congressional and legislative maps.

All of that means the campaign up north has been more vicious than Albrecht expected.

“Lucky for me, in eight years as mayor, I’ve had a little practice in letting it roll off me,” she said.

Albrecht is no shrinking violet, criticizing Eichorn for a lesser known history of alleged labor violations, and his absence from whole swaths of the district.

Eichorn did not respond to a request for an interview.

Pivot counties

The sprawling district — which includes parts of Itasca, Cass, Beltrami and Hubbard counties — is home to more than 1,000 lakes. And it includes crucial “pivot counties” that voted for Trump in 2016 after going for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, according to Ballotpedia.

Bemidji and Grand Rapids were redistricted together in 2010, and the area has historically been represented by a Democrat, Albrecht said.

“We think this is a winnable seat and we’re gonna make it happen,” Albrecht  said.

Getting through Eichorn won’t be easy, however. Trump won the district by nearly 7,000 votes in 2016.

Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, voting on the Senate floor. Courtesy photo.

Eichorn grew up in Grand Rapids, was the third generation to work at his family’s outdoor store and runs a small business there, according to his website. During his first campaign, he said his family’s store sold a wide range of firearms, and he learned early on the importance of the Second Amendment. He promised to be one of the Capitol’s staunchest supporters of the right to bear arms, fighting any additional restrictions on gun owners.

On his campaign website, he has said good-paying union jobs in mining, forestry, trucking and other industries are the backbone of a strong economy in northern Minnesota, which has long relied on taconite, timber and tourism.

“Recently our way of life has come under fire by groups who think they know our land and resources better than we do,” he said.

He has vowed to “support mining every chance I get in St. Paul and not just when it’s election season.”

“Mining is one of Minnesota’s greatest natural resources,” his campaign site says. “Strong mining operations will help bring back great middle-class jobs that we greatly need.”

(Taconite mining is not controversial in the district; copper-nickel mining, especially near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, is a fiercely debated issue.) 

Eichorn introduced legislation to give iron ore mining workers additional unemployment benefits. He also introduced a bill to prevent the state from closing a minimum-security boot camp in Togo, about 40 miles north of Hibbing, and another bill that would require the state to sell a St. Paul storage facility — purchased during the pandemic to store human remains — and use the money to prop up the Togo prison budget.

Albrecht says Bemidji people rarely hear from their senator: the Bemidji City Council has not had a visit from Eichorn in four years, she said. 

“I want to be someone who represents the whole district because I recognize that everybody needs to have someone that cares about their voice,” she said. 

Eichorn has lately been ducking events such as a League of Women Voters forum and Bemidji State University Student Senate forum. He did participate in a recent debate hosted by the local PBS station, where he said it’s time to reopen businesses in Minnesota, even as COVID-19 has begun to spread rapidly again.  

From A&W to city planning

Albrecht, 65, grew up in northern Minnesota, went to Bemidji State University and owned the A&W in Bemidji with her husband Mike for 11 years. She went back to school when her two children were in high school, then became assistant planner for Bemidji and worked as a community development director and tribal planner for the Leech Lake Band of Objibwe.

She was elected mayor in 2012 after serving two years on the Bemidji City Council, and her fourth term as mayor ends in December. She was “happily retired” from her job as northwest regional director for the Department of Natural Resources last year and not planning to run for another office when she was encouraged to run for the Legislature. She felt like her region needed a strong voice.

“I do think my experience is something that would be valuable to have at the Capitol because I’ve just lived the kind of issues that affect us here and that the Legislature tends to take up,” she said.

Minnesotans are sharply divided on the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline, but the two candidates agree it should be replaced. 

Albrecht said she wants to move away from fossil fuels, but right now the country still uses oil, and pipelines are the safest way to transport it.

Albrecht calls Eichorn a union buster, because his family’s car dealership, Eichorn Motors, was charged with a litany of labor violations — including refusing to bargain with the United Auto Workers International Union — after he and others bought the business in 2006. An administrative law judge wrote in 2008 that Eichorn Motors was a “brazen recidivist and egregious violator that has clearly demonstrated a general disregard for its employees’ fundamental rights.”

Eichorn has also supported right-to-work laws.

Eichorn made headlines in May when he compared homeless people living in tents to recreational camping. He questioned why people could live in tents in St. Paul even as campgrounds remained closed due to the pandemic. (Campgrounds opened shortly thereafter.) 

In a statement to the Bemidji Pioneer, Eichorn said he may have “missed the mark” while trying to convince Walz to be aware of the problems caused by his pandemic-related orders.

Dennis Barsness of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party of Minnesota and Robyn Smith of the Legal Marijuana Now Party are also on the ballot. Barsness and Smith did not respond to requests for interviews.

As the Reformer reported in June, Smith appears to be a Republican plant to siphon votes away from Albrecht. She admitted she was recruited to run by a Republican and would be glad to help Republicans hold onto the Senate.

Albrecht said the shenanigans are a sign that Republicans are desperate to win, even if it means tricking the electorate. 

“It just shows that they will use every trick and tactic in the book to try and sideline good candidates and mislead the electorate,” she said.

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