Otsego caucus: Otsego Republicans support Thompson, Ortman and Emmer; DFL couple won’t leave politics up to fate

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

With the state’s Republicans aiming to reclaim the governor’s office along with the U.S. Senate seat that the party lost in 2008, a strong number of Otsego Republicans entered the Prairie Center hall for caucus night Feb. 4 to cast votes in straw polls that reflect favored candidates.

In the straw poll for governor, 28 Otsego residents cast ballots for attorney and conservative media personality Dave Thompson, of Lakeville, against 12 votes for public relations executive and State Rep. Kurt Zellers, of Maple Grove. Attorney, former state legislator and current Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, of Plymouth, received eight votes, while 18 in the party caucus said they were undecided among six candidates.

Attorney and state senator Julianne Ortman, of Chanhassen, got the most support from Otsego Republicans in their straw poll for U.S. Senate. Her 24 votes in the caucus compared with 23 undecided among six candidates. Business owner Mike McFadden, of Mendota Heights, received 15 votes from the Otsego crowd while chiropractor and State Rep. Jim Abeler, of Anoka, drew nine.

In a straw poll for the U.S. House race from the 6th District, where the party’s incumbent Michele Bachmann will step down, Otsego Republicans gave overwhelming backing to fellow Wright County resident Tom Emmer, of Delano, an attorney, conservative media personality, former state legislator and his party’s candidate for governor in 2010.

Emmer drew six times as many votes in the Otsego straw poll as all ballots combined for challengers including business owner and former state legislator Phil Krinkie, of Shoreview, and business owner and Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah, of Lino Lakes.

Caucus attendees also have the task to nominate and elect precinct officers for two-year terms. Area Republicans and Democrats will caucus again in February 2016, when other politically active residents could become officers for these precincts.

To volunteer as a precinct chairperson, however, comes with a certain level of responsibility that few people are eager to consider. That particular leader is tasked with coordinating campaigning in the precinct for the party’s candidates.

When Robert Schuster, a convener for Otsego’s Republican caucus, heard no nominations for the first of their two precincts, he and the crowd still sat in silence for maybe 30 seconds before Kathryn Syverson volunteered as precinct chairperson. She had been seated alone in a front row. An Otsego resident since 2007, Syverson said that she had previously registered as a delegate for district conventions which followed the 2012 party caucus.

For the role of vice chairperson in the precinct, Mike Berg offered his experience with the duties. Berg said that through six years in Otsego which have followed nine years each in Delano, Albertville and Eden Prairie, he has served as a Republican precinct chair six or seven times.

The owner of a factory automation business in Maple Grove, Berg said in an interview that he found himself aligning Republican when his three children were in grade school, which coincidentally was also when Ronald Reagan stepped up in national politics to win the presidency in 1980. “He just had a way of expressing himself and explaining politics in easy-to-understand terms,” said Berg. “He kind of won my heart. I knew he was a true conservative.”

Syverson said she voted for the incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980. However, soon after her college graduation in 1981 she became co-owner of a recreational vehicle business, and “I became a Republican really fast,” she said.

Syverson is now a service coordinator for disabled adults. “I think this is an important mid-term election,” she said at her caucus. “I think (our party) needs to change the focus to enthusiasm and offense. We need to not be on defense anymore.”

Syverson and Berg sat on their side of Otsego’s Prairie Center hall while residents from a second city precinct showed as much early restraint in volunteering as officers. Berg offered a plea that finally convinced some of them to raise their hands.

“There is some work involved,” Berg said, “but I have to say, with the state of our politics right now in the Republican Party, we need people who are willing to step forward. … My daughter still kids me that I took her for one of her birthday parties, with her friends, on one of my literature drops (campaigning door-to-door), just so I could buy them pizza.”

For Otsego precincts of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is likely to nominate incumbents Mark Dayton for governor and Al Franken for U.S. Senate in 2014, a total of six people arrived for party caucuses at Otsego Elementary School.

Husband and wife Patrick and Carolyn Jansen were the only two people there from their particular precinct. Patrick agreed to register as their precinct chairperson, with Carolyn supporting him as vice chair.

The Jansens met each other in San Diego while serving in the Navy. Patrick, a native of Fridley and Columbia Heights, was a submarine sonar technician for 14 years including service during Operation Desert Storm. Carolyn, originally from Florence, Ore., worked 20 years in naval communications.

The couple has lived in Otsego since 2001.

Patrick said that he was raised in an actively Democratic family – “When I was a toddler, I was going to some of these (caucuses)” – and he has stayed with the party as a strong supporter of unions, he added.

The Jansens have attended caucuses together since 2004. “It (can be) hard to have a say in how your life is built,” said Carolyn. “This gives you an opportunity to have that say.”

Patrick added, “If you do not get involved, you’re leaving your fate in other people’s hands.”