This story has been updated.
The sudden emergence of Rep.-elect Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, this week when he invited the attorney general and governor to a pandemic-defying party has drawn new scrutiny of the suburban election he narrowly won over Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Brad Tabke.
A potential spoiler in the race: Ryan Martin, a 23-year-old pot party candidate who garnered 1,706 votes, or 7.4%, in a race decided by 554 votes.
Despite running under the Legal Marijuana Now party banner, Martin has ties to the head of Scott County Republicans and pro-pot congressional candidate Adam Weeks, another potential spoiler whose overdose death threw the 2nd Congressional District race into disarray.
Martin lives in Shakopee with his mother, who served as his campaign treasurer and who was dating Weeks until his September death (ruled accidental due to substance abuse caused by ethanol and fentanyl toxicity).
Weeks was also a Legal Marijuana Now candidate who garnered more than 20,000 votes in the race between Democratic U.S. Rep Angie Craig and her Republican challenger Tyler Kistner, despite his untimely death.
The Reformer reported earlier this year that several marijuana legalization candidates running in tight races have ties to the Republican Party, suggesting their intention in running might be to siphon votes away from Democrats. And in a few close races, the third-party marijuana candidate seems to have been the determining factor in Republican victories.
Since Weeks’ death, more evidence has come to light that his campaign was coordinated with Republicans. The Star Tribune reported late last month that Weeks left a voicemail for his friend Joey Hudson saying he was pressured to run in exchange for cash. In the voicemail, Weeks said he didn’t have any funding to run a campaign but Republicans were offering him $15,000.
Martin and his mother, Gabrielle Ulan, however, dispute that Weeks had such an arrangement.
“I don’t think Adam was pressured to run,” she told the Reformer Tuesday.
Martin’s connection to Weeks raises questions about whether he was also urged to run by Republicans to help Mortensen win and oust Tabke.
Martin — who works 12 hours a day, six days a week at a tire shop — said nobody asked him to run except his mom.
“I talked Ryan into running,” Ulan said. “He talked me into helping him run.”
Martin said he met Weeks while campaigning, and the two became close. In June, Weeks tweeted a photo of the two harvesting vegetables together at his organic farm.
“We hung out a lot,” Martin said. “He helped me. I’m not very social. He helped me talk to people; connect with other people a little bit better. I was really shy and he was very uplifted and outgoing.”
As her son’s campaign treasurer, Ulan reported to the state a $300 in-kind contribution of T-shirts from Weeks to Martin. Martin only reported about $300 in other donations for his entire campaign.
Ulan said all three met while running for office, as pro-pot candidates working together on campaigns.
Ulan said Martin ran for office because he’d long been interested in politics.
“I was like, ‘I’ll help you do it,’” she said, noting she’s friends with Scott County GOP Chairman Joe Ditto and Jordan Olson, who ran for the Shakopee City Council in 2015. “I was like, ‘I think I have enough people I know I can ask questions.’”
Ulan said she got to know Ditto because he is a regular at Cy’s Bar and Grill in Chaska, where she’s a server. When she bought a house in Shakopee three years ago, she got to know Ditto and Shakopee better.
Indeed, a Google map photo of her house shows Ditto and Mortensen campaign signs in the yard.
“That was from two years ago,” she said of the photo. “I like Erik Mortensen. I don’t think he’s a poor choice for our city.”
Then why did she encourage her son to run against him? Not clear.
Ditto confirmed Ulan is a friend, but eschewed the idea that Republicans encouraged Martin or Weeks to run to siphon votes from Democrats.
“I think he ran because he’s sick of the two-party system,” Ditto said of Martin.
Asked if Ulan was active in the Republican Party, Ditto said she’s a libertarian but she has caucused with Republicans “because she likes Mortensen.”
Ditto said Weeks was a friend of his, too, and called the insinuation that Weeks was pressured to run by Republicans “disgusting.” He said he knows who encouraged Weeks to run, and they’re “not Republicans” but “a couple of oddball people” who don’t like the government.
He said he’s not sure whether Martin took more votes from Tabke or Mortensen.
“I certainly wouldn’t assume that he took more votes from Tabke than Mort. You know Mort isn’t the typical political candidate … He’s certainly disliked by the Republican establishment as much as he is by leftists. So a lot of people may have thrown a protest vote over to Ryan.”
Aside from Tabke, however, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and U.S. Rep. Angie Craig all won their races there,* although the latter two also had their margins cut by pot party candidates.
Mortensen didn’t respond to a request for comment.
*Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the electoral outcomes in House District 55a, where GOP state Sen. Eric Pratt garnered more votes than his DFL opponent.