By Peter Passi
As he kicked off a news conference to announce his entrance into the District 7B race Tuesday, Erik Simonson shared a few thoughts on the beleaguered incumbent he seeks to replace — Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth.
“Before we begin, I would like to take a moment and thank Rep. Gauthier for his service to the folks right here in 7B and to the city of Duluth,” Simonson said. “While I do not condone his recent actions, my support is certainly behind him, the young man involved and their respective families as they seek the help they need in coming days.”
A throng of supporters stood behind Simonson as he declared his candidacy Tuesday morning at the Lake Superior Zoo. They included friends, family, firefighters and other backers, including former Duluth City Councilors Jeff Anderson and Greg Gilbert, as well as DFL party activist Joel Sipress.
Simonson said he hopes Gauthier will step out of the race, given recent disclosures about a July 22 sexual encounter the freshman legislator admitted to having with a 17-year-old boy at the Thompson Hill Rest Area, according to reports from law enforcement officials.
Gauthier again declined to return messages left on his cell phone voicemail Tuesday.
While Gauthier had received the DFL endorsement for re-election, the subsequent controversy over his actions during the rest stop incident has led several party leaders to call for his resignation. Even if he does not pull out of the District 7B race, the party could withdraw its endorsement of Gauthier, according to Colleen Nardone, an associate chairwoman for the 8th Congressional District DFL.
Simonson said Tuesday he will seek the DFL endorsement in the race.
Duluth City Councilor Jay Fosle, who announced last week that he would run as a write-in candidate for Gauthier’s House seat, said he will not seek the party’s endorsement.
Simonson, a Duluth assistant fire chief, has been a local firefighter for 22 years and was elected in 2003 to serve as International Association of Firefighters Local 101 president, a post he still holds. If elected to the statehouse, Simonson, age 44, said he plans to continue his employment with the Duluth Fire Department.
The campaign he launched Tuesday marks Simonson’s first run for public office.
Although he didn’t attend Tuesday’s press conference, District 7A Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said he, too, will throw his support behind Simonson and called for Gauthier to drop his bid for re-election. However, he said that Gauthier shouldn’t resign and instead should finish out his term.
“He needs his health care (coverage) and that will get him through to the end of the year,” Huntley said. “He’s going to be having some serious financial problems and obviously has some serious health issues.”
Huntley said he did not know whether Gauthier will be attending the special session on flood relief with other members of the Duluth delegation.
Even if Gauthier chooses not to seek another term, his name will remain on the ballot. Only Gauthier and his Republican challenger, Travis Silvers, will be listed since the primary election has already passed, according to Pat Turgeon, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota secretary of state’s office.
Consequently, Simonson and Fosle must run as write-in candidates.
Although much of the focus of the race, so far, has been concentrated on Gauthier and his actions, Simonson said Tuesday he hopes the discussion will shift.
“I want to spend my time talking with voters about the future of Duluth,” Simonson said. “I will focus on issues of importance to the district, issues such as Local Government Aid, controlled by the State Legislature yet a financial aid that makes up nearly 40 percent of Duluth’s general fund budget. It is this funding that helps us maintain public safety services and provide critical infrastructure to all of us.”
If elected, other issues on Simonson’s to-do list include restoring the Homestead Credit, promoting the idea of local governments forming regional partnerships, and obtaining emergency aid to help Northeast Minnesota recover from June’s crippling flood.
“The residents of this district deserve a representative who will focus on the issues, represent the people and work closely with other area legislators to ensure the best possible outcome for Duluth,” Simonson said.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, told reporters Tuesday that he expects Democrats on the local and state levels to join together to back a write-in candidate for Gauthier’s House job.
“We need to rally around a candidate,” Thissen said.
However, Thissen said before a Minneapolis rally with Joe Biden, he has not talked to any of the potential candidates.
DFL Party leaders have asked Gauthier not to continue his re-election campaign, while House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, seeks his immediate resignation.
“It’s the same effect,” Thissen said. “We’ve been pretty clear he is not the candidate we support.”
Thissen said he expects Gauthier to publicly discuss the situation in coming days. If Gauthier plans to continue his campaign, Thissen added, he will be at a special session planned for Friday to deliver disaster relief.
Talks on Monday did not involve Duluth-area lawmakers, other than Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, Thissen said, so there was no need for him to be in St. Paul working on relief legislation.
Gauthier missed a Thursday disaster-relief meeting, but in one a week earlier he was a vocal supporter for financial aid.
DON DAVIS, Forum Communications State Capitol Bureau reporter, contributed to this report.