There’s a new show in Shakopee: Mortensen vs. Loonan

The two Republicans trade insults in their third primary battle

By: - August 1, 2022 6:00 am

Former Shakopee Rep. Bob Loonan pretends to shield his face from primary opponent Rep. Erik Mortensen, whom he called Pinnochio during a recent debate. Screenshot from Shakopee Chamber debate video.

Former state Rep. Bob Loonan entertained lawmakers and lobbyists at the close of the 2018 legislative session by standing in the Capitol rotunda and playing the bagpipes. 

His successor, Rep. Erik Mortensen, doxxed a colleague and was subject of an HR complaint on his first day in office. 

“Bob is a go-along-to-get-along Republican who will do nothing meaningful to rock the boat and change things at the Capitol,” Mortensen said during a recent debate with Loonan.

Mortenson and Loonan may have few policy differences, but the Republican pair couldn’t be more different in style and approach to politics. Loonan owned an insurance agency on Shakopee’s Main Street for decades. He’s a backslapper willing to make a deal.

Mortenson is a pugilist who wants to burn it all down while live tweeting it.

They’ll battle in the GOP primary for the third time on Aug. 9. They first faced off in 2018, when Mortensen beat Loonan in the Republican primary after the latter was arrested (though not convicted) of drunk driving. 

Mortensen had his own long-ago DUI arrest back in 2001; the DUI was dismissed and he was convicted of careless driving.

The difference: Mortensen’s DWI didn’t happen one month before the election, and he went on to beat Loonan in the 2018 primary, but lost to former Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke in the 2018 blue wave that put the Democrats in the state House majority. Two years later, Mortensen beat Loonan in the primary again, and Mortensen went on to narrowly defeat Tabke, maybe with the help of a pot party spoiler.

Through it all, Loonan and Mortensen have been trading charges of political dirty tricks.

Now, it’s round three of Loonan v. Mortensen. and like some Hollywood sequels, the animosity between the rivals is more over-the-top incredible with each edition.

In recent weeks, the Scott County Republican Party tapped itself in, as it has before. In 2020, Loonan accused party officials of helping Mortensen by moving the endorsing convention at the last minute without informing all the delegates.

This time, the party filed a complaint with the state saying Loonan’s campaign literature violated state law by falsely claiming their endorsement. 

The county party chair, Dale Even, donated $3,300 to Mortensen’s campaign from 2018 through 2021.

Even is also the project manager for the Southwest Light Rail green line extension, which is four years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. Mortensen was the only House member to vote “no” on a bill to audit the project. 

Loonan says the campaign flier in question appears to be from his 2016 campaign, in which he was endorsed by the county party. During a July 18 evidentiary hearing, the county party called as its one witness Erik Mortensen to testify about the campaign flier polluting the political landscape in Shakopee. 

Mortensen said he found the flier, but couldn’t recall where he found it.

Mortensen put out a press release saying Loonan was fined $10,000 and suspended from teaching continuing education classes for insurance agents for three months. Court documents show he provided false information regarding credit hours on applications and agreed to stop in 2014.

Loonan got in trouble again in 2019, when an undercover Commerce Department investigator went to one of his classes, during which Loonan spent a lot of time talking about things other than the subject of the instruction: ethics.

“The topics discussed included the legislative process, his opinion of the constitutionality of ‘whiskey plates’ and his personal experience in which he was arrested for driving under the influence, including participating in a breath and urine test, and the impact the arrest had on his campaign for re-election to the Minnesota Legislature. None of this time was spent tied to any matters in the ethics curriculum.”

Loonan told the Reformer he basically got into trouble “because I tell too many stories” during classes.

He also talked during the class about storm chasers, door knockers, public adjusters, workers’ compensation, his experience as a legislator, his re-election strategy, fundraising efforts, his party affiliation and the Second Amendment.

In November, Loonan was suspended from teaching courses for six months and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine for the 2019 infraction.

‘They’d had enough of his antics and showmanship’

For his part, Mortensen made headlines before he even took office when he invited the attorney general and governor to a pandemic-be-damned Thanksgiving party just months before vaccines became widely available. Hospital ICUs at the time were filled with sick people, and doctors and nurses were begging Minnesotans to stay safe. 

He generated an “HR complaint” on his first day on the floor of the House because of something he said to House Speaker Melissa Hortman and a House aide — which he laughed and bragged about during a podcast.

He went on to doxx a colleague, and raise money off a dubious claim he’d been banned by Delta Air Lines for refusing to wear a mask.

In the process, he’s become the darling of a right-wing, anti-vaxx, anti-mask, “stop-the-steal” in-your-face, Action 4 Liberty group challenging “weak and feckless” establishment Republicans. 

Asked during a recent debate with Loonan about his greatest accomplishment in the Legislature, Mortensen said he helped build a handicap-accessible ramp. Then he bragged about how he’s inspired about 20 Action 4 Liberty types to run for office because they “want to join me at the Capitol.”  

Mortensen calls it a “liberty movement” and says 1,400 people have donated to him.

Loonan said Mortensen only raised that money because he hired a professional, out-of-state fundraiser. (Mortensen’s campaign finance report shows he paid a Missouri consultant nearly $12,000 last year for fundraising and public relations work.)

Mortensen refused to caucus with Republicans, and then got kicked out of the right-wing breakaway New House Republican Caucus, who defected from Republicans in 2018 to form a new caucus. 

During the recent debate, the pair discussed collegiality, even if they struggled to remain civil with each other. 

“They’d had enough of his antics and showmanship,” Loonan said. “I’m the only actual Republican running.”

Loonan said Mortensen was so ineffective he passed no bills and so toxic that other lawmakers didn’t want him cosponsoring their bills.

“I don’t like politicians, so I can live with that,” Mortensen replied, and said he has cosponsored bills that passed.

“I get things done because I work with people,” Loonan said.

Loonan said rather than social media bloviating, he has built relationships on Main Street, where he’s owned an insurance agency for 40 years.

Mortensen said he connects with people through town halls, like his virtual town halls where nurses talked about what it’s like to be an anti-vaxxer and a nurse. “Bob is a coward,” Mortensen said during the debate. “He has nothing to say about vaccine mandates.”

Mortensen predicted huge Republicans wins this November, but not for candidates like Loonan. “He’s a RINO through and through,” said Mortensen, referring to “Republicans In Name Only,” though Loonan has a conservative voting record.

“People are sick of all his squawking and chest beating,” Loonan said, noting that Mortensen pushed for lawmakers to get back to work in the capitol during the pandemic, and then rarely showed up.

“I still go to the Capitol every Tuesday,” Mortensen retorted, noting he was “the only one” who refused to wear a mask in the House instead of kowtowing to Democratic leadership.

“Bob would’ve slapped that mask on so fast,” Mortensen said. Loonan referred to Mortensen’s hard-edged supporters as “Mortpanzees.” 

Mortensen accused Loonan of nearly the worst thing ever for a Republican: not wanting to give huge, permanent tax cuts. Then Loonan told Mortensen not to get too close to him because “I don’t want you to take my eye out with your nose.”

“Don’t look right at me, Pinocchio!” Loonan said while mock-shielding his face.

And so it went. The moderator would ask a question, and they’d give a quick answer and then continue an argument.

Both of them whiffed a question about post-secondary education by talking about school choice and private school vouchers, even though post-secondary education means college. 

They agree on most policy questions, aside from cannabis legalization. Mortensen supports it; Loonan doesn’t.

The Democrat in the race, Tabke, didn’t want to comment on Mortensen and Loonan, beyond saying, “If elected this fall, I will continue to work with anyone who wants to benefit Shakopee. Both of the 54A Republican candidates are extreme… out of touch with our community and do not meet our civility promise standards.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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