St. Cloud’s increasing diversity — and polarization — are the scene for key race between state Sen. Jerry Relph, and DFL challenger Aric Putnam

By: - October 29, 2020 6:00 am

State Sen. Jerry Relph, R- St. Cloud, faces DFL challenger and educator Aric Putnam. Courtesy photos.

Minneapolis was the epicenter of this year’s racial reckoning, but for several years racial strife in St. Cloud has served as a prologue, roiling the region’s politics and seeding a perennial battleground in Senate District 14. 

The St. Cloud district is home to a rapidly diversifying population. About 11% of the district’s population is foreign-born, with immigrants primarily from Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. This influx has at times been met with anti-immigrant hostility in a district Donald Trump won by 8 points. 

Despite Trump’s victory here in 2016, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party considers educator Aric Putnam a top challenger to state Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, who won by just 148 votes in 2016; DFL Gov. Tim Walz won the district by 4 points in 2018.. 

The city’s already volatile racial politics were heightened just months before the 2016 election, when a Somali American stabbed 10 people at a St. Cloud shopping mall, an attack which would later be claimed by ISIS despite no substantiated evidence to link the culprit with the terrorist organization. 

A year later, City Councilman Jeff Johnson introduced a draft resolution that would have placed a moratorium on refugees settling in the area; the measure failed by a 1-6 vote

As Election Day nears, the district’s two major candidates are making a last effort to convince voters that their policies are what’s needed to bridge the divides in District 14. 

The district’s voters are making a high-stakes decision. Republicans hold a narrow 35-32 majority in the state Senate. The outcome of this race could determine the fate of a wide range of policies, including taxes and spending on schools, social services and health care; environmental and other regulations; gun control and marijuana legalization. And, the next Legislature will be tasked with using the 2020 census to redraw legislative and congressional maps, shaping Minnesota politics for the next decade.

The educator: DFL challenger Aric Putnam

When Aric Putnam, 48, thought of running for office in 2018, he sat down with his daughter — one of two children — to ask her what her thoughts were on the subject.

Her response? “But dad, then you’d have to talk to people, and people suck.” 

Putnam was surprised by her cynicism given his own idealism, he said.  

Raised in California, Putnam received a PhD from the University of Minnesota and in 2003 was hired as a professor of communication at the College of Saint Benedict at Saint John’s University. 

In addition to teaching, he serves on the boards of four local nonprofits.

Teaching, especially the history of social movements, is part of what inspired Putnam to get involved in politics, he said. 

“I think when you actually look at the history of people trying to make the country better, it’s inspiring,” he said, “When you see how much has changed and you’re very serious about that change, you realize how much more change can happen.”

Putnam ran for the state House twice in 2016 and again in 2018 and lost both times. Those campaigns served as lessons for organizing, he said.

His key priorities, he said: Health care, affordable housing and schools. 

“I see schools as being the major mechanism of growing the middle class and social mobility. And right now, we’re not adequately investing in them,” he said.

“In [District 14], there could be a kid who’s concerned about the gopher bounty,” he said, referring to the bounties placed on pesky rodents that can pose problems for crops or manicured lawns. “He’s sitting in a public school next to a kid who grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya.”

“Those two kids are in the same classroom, and in terms of potential, I think it’s gonna be great when those two kids realize that they have common interests. But now, neither of their interests are being served,” Putnam said. 

Putnam said he recognized the toxic divide in the city’s politics: “Here, there’s a country club community, and then there’s the rest of us,” he said.  

Putnam is optimistic about his chances, especially with the district’s new diversity. But that won’t be enough to close the sale, he said: “I don’t believe that demographics are destiny, but I think we’ve got more people who are inclined to vote for a Democrat now than we used to. I’m hopeful.”

The veteran: Republican Jerry Relph

The Republican Relph had a full life before politics. 

Born in Boston but raised in New Jersey and Ann Arbor, Mich., Relph is a 1966 Carleton College graduate. 

After joining the Marine Corps and serving in Vietnam, Relph came back to Minnesota. He attended William Mitchell College of Law and practiced law for more than a decade before starting LakeMaster, a GPS lake mapping business. He is married, with two children, four stepchildren and three grandchildren.

Relph entered politics in 2016, when he narrowly won the Senate seat. 

“I’ve found great reward in being able to help people. The job is one that is about helping people and representing constituents and giving them a forum where they can feel free to talk,” he said. “And maybe we won’t always agree, but we will know that we’ve had a good conversation, and that they’ve had a fair opportunity to be heard.”

He has volunteered with St. Cloud Public Schools and has served as a board member for the United Way, the United Arts of Central Minnesota and for Anna Marie’s Alliance, a domestic violence shelter. 

Relph said he hopes to cut wasteful government spending, especially in the Department of Human Services Child Care Assistance Program, after a Legislative Auditor report found the government was deficient in preventing, detecting and investigating fraud. 

Relph wants to the Legislature to invest in infrastructure without raising gas taxes, and reduce or eliminate state property taxes to encourage the development of small businesses.

In early March, Relph sponsored the first COVID-19 response bill in the state, which allocated $21 million to public health. He has also advocated for increased wages for personal care attendants.  In 2018, Relph co-sponsored a foster care “bill of rights,” according to WJON.

If re-elected, Relph said he would prioritize education spending in the upcoming legislative session, . 

He said crime has become a big issue for his constituents. He pointed to a 2005 community policing agreement that St. Cloud signed with community members and local organizations — a collaborative effort by those of diverse backgrounds. Relph hopes to continue such bipartisan efforts going forward.

Relph made an explicit argument for divided government: “We’re the only state in the country with a divided Legislature, and we’ve managed to do many good things,” he said, citing the recently passed infrastructure bill and 2019’s budget agreement. “I would hope that we can keep that balance,” he said.

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Dylan Miettinen
Dylan Miettinen

Dylan Miettinen is a Reformer intern. A fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota, he was born and raised in Omaha, Neb. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. He's also worked for CNN, the Minnesota Media and Publishing Association and the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast.