A former mayor and cop in Austin looks to win back lost DFL ground in Greater Minnesota

Gun Rights

Tom Stiehm, a former Marine with a 30-year law enforcement career, disagreed with charges leveled against former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter and the three cops assisting Derek Chauvin when George Floyd was killed.

It’s an opinion you might not hear from other Democratic politicians in Minnesota, but Stiehm — who is running for the state House in Austin as a DFLer — has made law enforcement central to his campaign.

“You know, you get one Democrat up there that talks about defunding the police, and the next thing I know it’s like every Democrat in Minnesota is for defunding the police,” Stiehm said. “When I started running I said my motto should be: ‘re-fund the police.’”

Yet Stiehm said the event that really vaulted him back into politics was the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters looking to disrupt the 2020 election process. And the gruff and gregarious former 14-year mayor of Austin, pictured on his website next to a motorcycle, is betting that voters are turned off by “extremes in our parties” — enough to back what may be a longshot bid for office in a region where the DFL has lost voters.

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The Austin area was once a Democratic bastion, in part thanks to union support in the meatpacking industry. But in 2020, voters ousted eight-term DFL Rep. Jeanne Poppe and five-term Sen. Dan Sparks in legislative districts that swung toward Republicans in the Trump era.

The hometown of Hormel is an example of how Republicans have won nearly all of Greater Minnesota outside of a few large regional centers and a swath of northeastern Minnesota.

“I think our area had seen just so many times where their representative had voted with metro Democrats” on things like gun regulation bills, said GOP Rep. Patricia Mueller of Austin, who is one of only two Republicans since 1962 to represent the area in the House. “And that was a shift.”

This year, there is a short list of places in Greater Minnesota where the DFL has a chance of reclaiming lost ground in the party’s effort to keep its slim House majority. One is Mueller’s House District 23B, where the campaign reflects local divisions over Trump and the 2020 election, abortion, metro liberals, inflation, guns, farm policy and, notably, policing.

The DFL and its allies have not poured money into the race, suggesting an uphill battle for Stiehm. But there is also a case of recent party success: Democrat and ex-Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger won Mower County by a solid margin in the August special election for the 1st Congressional District.

Either way, Stiehm illustrates the type of candidate Democrats think might win in Greater Minnesota.

A cop turned mayor

Stiehm’s life in Austin can be traced through many seminal moments for the city. He was on duty policing during the P-9 strike at Hormel in 1985 that roiled Austin.

When the city later diversified and immigrants, many of whom were Mexican or Guatemalan, faced a backlash from white residents, Stiehm said he was elected in a close 2006 race “because everybody thought I was gonna throw the immigrants out of town.”

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“I never said I would, but I never said I wouldn’t,” Stiehm said. “My opponent said he wouldn’t.”

Stiehm, who said politically he’s been “kind of more right wing my whole life,” softened on the issue. He said after holding forums he realized it wasn’t in Austin’s best interest to try to boot anyone out, and he said he realized his politics align more with Democrats. The city has since been praised for becoming more welcoming to immigrants after many moved to the city for meatpacking jobs at Hormel or Quality Pork Producers.

Mower County is more diverse than many counties in Greater Minnesota. The 2020 Census says the county has a larger proportion of Hispanic/Latino and Asian residents compared to the state as a whole, and a much larger Black population than surrounding counties, thanks in part to African immigrants who have settled there.

Oballa Oballa is among Stiehm’s fans. He fled violence in Ethiopia in 2003 and immigrated to the U.S. a decade later from a refugee camp in Kenya. After moving to Austin in 2015, he said he marched into Stiehm’s office as a Riverland Community College student and declared that he would like to be involved in the community. Stiehm appointed Oballa to the city’s Human Rights Commission, and a few years later he was elected to the city council.

Oballa said he is campaigning for Stiehm and said Austin needs a representative who is welcoming to immigrants and improves affordable housing and child care access.

“The only way that I can describe Mayor Tom Stiehm is like a father and a great mentor,” said Oballa, who left the council after moving out of his ward but is running for an at-large seat this year. “You call him in the middle of the night — he will get back to your phone.”

Stiehm, who had a mayoral reputation as a savvy operator but who can clash with people who disagree with him, said he’s most proud of keeping up city infrastructure during the budget crunch of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Jan. 6, policing, led Stiehm to run

Stiehm did not seek re-election as mayor in 2020. But he said he was spurred to run for the House as a Democrat, largely because of disgust with the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to overturn results of the presidential election.

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Poppe, the former lawmaker, manages the campaign with help from Stiehm’s wife, ex-wife, son and daughter.

Stiehm has blasted Mueller for attending an event in April 2021 hosted by the group Minnesotans4Freedom. That organization was created, according to local reporting, by a man who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 and who doubted the legitimacy of the 2020 election, but who later criticized the violence and said he remained outside the Capitol.

Mueller posted on Facebook at the time that it was “fun to join so many Patriots” for the event and share a legislative update. In an interview, Mueller condemned Jan. 6 rioters and said it’s untrue to insinuate she believes they are patriots. On Jan. 11 that year, days after the attack, Mueller signed a letter with other state House Republicans condemning violence in D.C. and violent rhetoric at a “stop the steal” rally in St. Paul. She also said she didn’t know the Minnesotans4Freedom organizer had been at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Mueller said, however, that she does believe people are frustrated with changes made to the election process without legislative approval. “Do I think that the president is the real president? I think that the craziness of this is that we will never know,” Mueller said. “Do I think there’s enough votes to flip the election? No.”

Regardless, Stiehm paints himself as a political centrist driven to the DFL by a far-right GOP. Support for Trump, he believes, has faded. “I think most people are in the middle,” he said.

Abortion has become a top issue in the campaign, and he said he supports access to the procedure. Mueller opposes state-funded abortion and prefers a ban on all abortions after 12 weeks, except if the mother’s life is in danger.  She said she hopes Republicans send a constitutional amendment to voters that would remove protections for abortion access ordered by the state Supreme Court in Doe v. Gomez.

Police, and police endorsements, are key issues

Policing has been another pillar of Stiehm’s campaign. It’s an issue where he probably breaks the most from the DFL, and it’s a topic that has animated many in and around the city of 26,000.

Stiehm said that’s in part because an Austin officer killed Kokou Chistopher Fiafonou, a Black man, in December of 2021. Stiehm objected to “anti-police demonstrations” in the wake of the killing. He said protesters were calling for the officer to go to prison for decades before an investigation had even begun. The cop was not charged with a crime. Stiehm said police departments in the metro might have a trust problem, but not in Austin, where he said officers kneeled with marchers during a rally protesting the murder of George Floyd.

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Police should be held to a high standard, Stiehm said. But they should also feel appreciated and not like they’re constantly under a microscope. And Stiehm called for more police funding and money for potential officers seeking higher levels of education in an era when the public expects more from cops. In Austin, like many places around the state, the police department has struggled to find new applicants for open jobs.

Stiehm said he believes some of the officers involved in high-profile killings of Black men have been treated wrongly.

For instance, Stiehm said former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter should not have been charged with first-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last year, calling the shooting a “mistake.” She was convicted on the count. 

Stiehm also said it was “bullshit” to incarcerate the three former Minneapolis officers — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — who were with Derek Chauvin when Floyd was killed. “OK, they’re wrong, fire them, do whatever,” Stiehm said. “They would have been severely punished if they intervened.” All three officers were fired and convicted of violating Floyd’s civil rights. Lane in May plead guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter, while Kueng and Thao will face state trials on the issue.

Poppe told MinnPost in 2020 after losing her election that she had a big regret: not seeking the endorsement of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers association in an election that turned in part on fear of unrest in the Twin Cities spreading locally.

But Stiehm did not get the MPPOA endorsement either, despite his 30 years as a cop in Austin. “I left them a nasty message” in response, Stiehm recalled, laughing.

The organization backed Mueller, who serves on the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee. A spokeswoman for the MPPOA cited that committee job and said Mueller authored and passed pro-law enforcement legislation.

Mueller’s re-election pitch to voters

Mueller said the MPPOA endorsement was a “really big deal,” especially given Stiehm’s history. She has sent out advertisements touting the police support.

Mueller echoed Stiehm saying “what was being shown on the news and being said about police in general was not the experience in southern Minnesota.” And she said she built relationships with her local police chief and county sheriff, seeking counsel on legislation.

woman talks at a microphone

Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, is seeking a second term in the state House.

In 2020, Mueller pinned her victory in part on Poppe’s record on guns, including a “C” rating from the National Rifle Association, and the MPPOA endorsement. Mueller, who is endorsed by the NRA, said voters were worried about potential limits on guns such as red flag laws that allow a judge to take guns from a person determined to be a risk to themselves or others.

Stiehm is a gun owner who said he owns two semi-automatic rifles, opposes a ban on assault-style weapons and is supportive of gun rights. But he said he’s in favor of enhancing background checks and supports red flag laws. “I quit the NRA when they supported cop killing bullets” in the 1980s, he said.

Mueller is a teacher, currently subbing in Austin’s public schools after receiving her doctorate in May. The Republican said she emphasizes to voters that she can bring “unique representation” that a DFLer cannot in a metro-centric party. The area is “not the metro,” Mueller said, and doesn’t want big-government, one-size-fits-all solutions.

The major concern for voters is the economy and inflation, Mueller said, and she has supported tax cuts for people and businesses. Mueller said she’s proud of a workshop she helped put together teaching people who were interested in opening a child care business that was well attended by a racially diverse group of residents. The area, like many parts of the state, has a child care crunch.

“People are still struggling coming out of COVID,” Mueller said. “Having your paycheck not go as far is very concerning for many of my constituents.”

Ettinger’s CD1 showing boosts DFL hopes

The true legislative battlegrounds this year will be fought in suburban districts across the Twin Cities and in northeastern Minnesota.

After all, House District 23B, centered on Austin, also favored Trump over Biden by more than 6 percentage points. Perhaps as a result, the DFL and party allies haven’t shown signs of investing in Stiehm.

Doran Kasel, who chairs the Mower County Republicans, said Trump’s message resonated especially in rural parts of the districts, driving enthusiasm for other Republicans that continues. Kasel said Mueller won big in the county outside of Austin, while keeping her losses in the city within reason.

This year, he said the top issues are inflation, crime, and education, which play well in rural areas. In schools, he believes parents don’t agree with critical race theory and “pushing the transgender agenda.” State officials contend critical race theory is not part of the state’s K-12 teaching standards, and the DFL broadly argues opposing transgender rights is bigoted and have opposed policy restricting teachers from addressing gender and sexual orientation.

But there are other districts Democrats control with similar or worse numbers for the DFL. And Ettinger’s race in the 1st Congressional District has turned some heads, even though he lost the 1st Congressional District special election to Republican Brad Finstad.

Trump in 2020 won Mower County, which makes up most of Mueller’s district, with 51.8 percent of the vote. Ettinger won the county in the August special election by a relatively whopping 55.7 percent, running in part as a centrist frustrated by Jan. 6. Ettinger is on the ballot again in November in a rematch with Finstad.

Mueller said she didn’t think there has been a DFL resurgence.

“Mr. Ettinger has been incredibly involved in the community and has proven himself as a leader in our area because of his moderate stances on things,” she said. “I think that people were tired of the polarization of politics and he looks like a very safe choice. Here in Austin he is very influential and he’s been known in the area for decades.”

Stiehm hopes he fits the same bill.  “I won five elections in Austin,” he said.

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