The Week in Politics: Longtime Legislators Lose, Politicians Run Into Legal Problems and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | August 12, 2016

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Veteran Incumbents Ousted in 3 States

Several legislators lost their seats in state primaries Tuesday, some of whom had served in their position for decades. In a few cases, their defeats reflect changing demographics in their districts. 

In Minnesota, two Democratic candidates who were refugees as children -- Ilhan Omar and Hmong-American Fue Lee -- unseated incumbents in a pair of Minneapolis districts. Omar, a former city council aide, defeated Phyllis Kahn, who was first elected to the Minnesota House in 1972. And 24-year-old Lee defeated state Rep. Joe Mullery, who had been in that job since Lee was 4.

If Omar wins in the fall, she'll be the nation's first Somali-American legislator.

"Ilhan obviously ran a very good campaign and mobilized a lot of people that we didn’t see before in previous elections," Kahn told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Two other Minnesota legislators were defeated on Tuesday -- state Rep. Tom Hackbarth and state Sen. Sean Nienow, both Republicans. Hackbarth had initially indicated he wouldn't run again and ended up losing the party's endorsement and the primary to businessman Cal Bahr. Nienow, who had filed for bankruptcy after reneging on a loan, lost to Mark Koran, a former state Department of Revenue employee.

In Connecticut, state Rep. Ernest Hewett, a six-term Democrat, was unseated by Chris Soto, the founder of an education nonprofit who is of Cuban descent. Soto relied on Hispanic voters in racking up a large margin against Hewett in the New London district.

In Vermont, Republican state Sen. Norm McAllister, who had been suspended due to pending sexual assault charges, was easily defeated in his primary on Tuesday.

Drunk driving played different roles in two Wisconsin races. Despite a highly publicized drunk driving conviction last year, Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick prevailed in his primary. And Jimmy Anderson, who was paralyzed in a 2010 crash involving a drunk driver that killed his parents and his brother, won a Democratic House primary.

In what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called the worst political ad of the year, an outside group accused Anderson of being insufficiently true to the progressive cause because he didn't sign a petition to recall GOP Gov. Scott Walker in 2011. Anderson, outraged, explains that the reason he didn't sign was because he physically couldn't.

"I was shocked to find out that a group that endorsed Walker in 2010 and 2014 paid for an attack ad criticizing me for not signing my name at a time in 2011 when I had not yet regained the ability to hold a pen after the crash that killed my family and left me paralyzed," Anderson told the Journal Sentinel.

Barnburner of a Governor's Race Takes Shape in Vermont

The Vermont governor's race is expected to be among the most competitive this fall, and the field is now set.

Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott survived an expensive challenge from retired Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman to pick up the GOP nomination on Tuesday.

With Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin stepping down, Sue Minter, a former legislator and state transportation secretary, won the Democratic nomination. She outpaced former legislator and Google executive Matt Dunne, among other candidates.

The office has switched party hands every time it's opened up since 1968. Republicans are optimistic about Scott's chances, since he's well-liked and is the type of moderate Republican who can win in Vermont. The Republican Governors Association wasted no time, releasing an ad the day after the primary.

But Democrats believe Minter will hold the seat in one of the bluest states in a presidential year.

"Scott's got an uphill battle because of the presidential race," said Bert Johnson, a Middlebury College political scientist. "That R next to your name hurts you, even if you are well-liked."

Crime and Punishment for Politicians

Numerous public officials around the country found themselves in various forms of legal trouble this week.

The trial of Kathleen Kane, the Democratic attorney general of Pennsylvania, began on Tuesday. She faces perjury and obstruction charges for allegedly leaking grand jury materials and lying about it.

Also on Tuesday, a judge refused to reduce the 14-year prison sentence he handed down in 2011 to Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois. Blagojevich was convicted of abusing his office, notably in attempting to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. Blagojevich is now expected to remain imprisoned until 2024.

In New Jersey, a former aide to GOP Gov. Chris Christie said that the governor lied during a 2013 news conference regarding the scandal over the closure of the George Washington Bridge. In a text message sent during that press conference, Christine Renna texted, "Are you listening? He just flat out lied about senior staff and [aide and campaign manager Bill] Stepien not being involved."

Christie said the accusation was "ridiculous." The text message was included in a court filing Tuesday from lawyers representing Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who faces federal charges related to the traffic jam incident.

The mayor of Fairfax, Va., resigned on Thursday. Scott Silverthorne was arrested last week and accused of attempting to trade methamphetamine for sex.

Two mayors in California also face charges. El Monte Mayor Luis Aguinaga stepped down, having admitted to receiving tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from a city contractor. He has promised to plead guilty. And last week, Stockton Mayor Anthony Ray Silva was charged with having contributed to the delinquency of minors at a summer camp he runs for disadvantaged children. Silva was charged with felony eavesdropping for allegedly recording a strip poker game and for providing alcohol to underaged children.

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