Minnesota state auditor Rebecca Otto to run for governor
ST. PAUL — Three-term Minnesota Auditor Rebecca Otto will run for governor, she told the Pioneer Press, joining what is expected to be a crowded race to replace DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
"I'm different. I'm authentic," she said in a Friday interview. "Minnesota has given me great gifts. I love this state. I want to see it have the very best future possible."
With Dayton leaving office after his current term, the 2018 race for governor will be without an incumbent for the first time since 2010. Minnesota is considered prime territory for either party to pluck.
Otto, who has long said she was considering a run for governor, is the third Democrat to announce that she wants the job.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said in December that he would vie for the seat. State Rep. Erin Murphy, of St. Paul and a former House majority leader, was the first to formally declare her interest shortly after the 2016 election concluded. Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Attorney General Lori Swanson and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz are possible contenders.
So far, only one Republican — activist Christopher William Chamberlin — has said he is running. But at least half a dozen prominent Republicans may enter the fray. Among those who have not ruled out a bid: House Speaker Kurt Daudt; Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (a 2014 gubernatorial candidate); U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Erik Paulsen; and outgoing Republican Party Chair Keith Downey.
Otto, 53, has three statewide election victories to her credit — plus a term as a state representative — but she may not start the race with a high profile. Although two other auditors have become governor in the past — former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson held the post, as did Dayton — the office has not been terribly prominent.
But Otto said her combination of biography and ability will serve her well.
In an interview at her rural Marine on St. Croix area home, she repeatedly spoke of her ability to unify people. In a special election she won a House seat in a largely Republican area and has won election to the auditor's seat, despite a Democratic primary in 2014 and a strong Republican wave.
Before she was in public office, she worked to pass a school levy that had failed before, she said. She has also worked with sometimes feuding volunteer firefighters in her office and led a group of Democratic environmental and traditional industrial interests in discussions about the divisive issue of sulfide mining.
"I have a knack of bringing together people and helping Republicans, Democrats, everybody, and really working to solve problems that make our lives better," she said in an interview.
But she has also been the subject of controversy in recent years.
In 2013, she was the lone vote against allowing nonferrous mineral leases in northern Minnesota as a member of the state's executive council. That — plus her long record of speaking out for environmental issues — caused her to be painted as anti-mining and was seen as a slap to the job-hungry Iron Range.
"I was concerned about the financial liabilities. Although that was difficult, I was able to help the public understand why it's important we protect ourselves financially," she said. "It doesn't have to be anti-jobs, anti-anything. It's really just about getting things right and making sure we're the very best we can be as a state."
Soon after her vote, signs appeared in northern Minnesota asking people to "Dump Otto." The next year, former St. Paul Rep. Matt Entenza ran against her in a primary. Otto won with 81 percent of the vote in the primary and just over 51 percent of the vote in the 2014 general election.
In 2015, Otto was thrust into the spotlight again over a law tucked into a budget measure that allowed counties to hire private auditors, rather than use her office's services. Her legal battle over that law, which she says violates the constitution, is now on appeal. Her office has accumulated $250,000 in legal bills over that fight.
"What people keep saying to me is 'Fight it, please fight it, and let us know how we can help.' They know the importance of this office and they know they don't want 'the fox guarding the hen house,' " Otto said.
Critics say her legal battle is a waste of taxpayers' money over a provision that allows counties to manage their books efficiently. Since the new law has been in place, many counties have said they will hire private firms to do the auditing work the state office had done in the past.
But most of the work she has done in the auditor's office since 2007 has been inconspicuous.
The state auditor's office watches over local governments' budgets and other state finances. She has also kept a tight watch on her office's finances, she said, returning money allocated to her office to the state's treasury when possible. Cobbling together grants and working with partners, she led the office to create a visual database of Minnesota's aging infrastructure.
Announcing her campaign more than 600 days before Minnesotans will pick their next governor, Otto hopes voters will get a chance to see her in a new light. She is planning a statewide "listening tour" around her campaign.
"It's really about understanding the challenges but also the dreams of all people around the state," Otto said. "Launching this listening tour gives lots of people an opportunity to engage with me in a different way and consider me in a different role."
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.