Scandal-plagued Minnesota GOP picks a quiet new leader in David Hann

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The scandal-rocked and cash-strapped Republican Party of Minnesota needs to reunite its divided supporters and motivate disenchanted donors with the 2022 midterm a year away.

Enter David Hann.

In a sharp pivot, Minnesota GOP activists picked the soft-spoken introvert who helped orchestrate the 2016 Republican takeover of the state Senate as their new party chairman.

He steps into the role at a critical moment. The party is attempting to move past the turmoil of the past few months, when a major donor was charged with sex trafficking and Hann's outspoken predecessor Jennifer Carnahan was ousted.

Hann intends to shift party leadership out of the limelight.

"The state party chair is not the center of the political universe in Minnesota. We're just not. You want your candidates to be," Hann said, as he laid out his vision for the organization he took over on Monday. "We have a job to do. The job is to build an organization and make sure those ideas get communicated effectively and that we have the capabilities to help the campaigns be successful."

He has a lot of building to do, he acknowledged. Carnahan resigned amid allegations that she created a toxic workplace and failed to address sexual harassment. The state Republican Party now has just a few staff members. His Edina office is largely empty, lacking even a computer on his desk. Donors, concerned by the recent drama in the party, have petered out, and Hann must try to convince them the party is back on track.

Hann, 69, is familiar with leading an organization at a turbulent moment. He became the state Senate GOP leader in 2012 after the party had lost its Senate majority, and as it was reeling from the resignation of former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch following her relationship with a staff member.

"Trying to bring that group together to focus on [retaking the majority] was difficult. But we were successful, and it convinced me that it's possible to do that," he said. While he helped Republicans take back the majority in 2016, he lost his own race for the district that includes part of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.

Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, now an independent, was DFL majority leader when Hann led the minority. The minority leader spends a lot of time trying to "throw sand in the gears" of the ruling party's efforts, Bakk said. However, he said Hann was professional and never made issues personal.

"He'll be a steady hand," Bakk said. "And right now that party pretty badly needs one."

But Republicans need more than a kumbaya moment as they seek control of the Legislature, governor's seat, other statewide offices and U.S. House seats in next year's election. They need candidates and cash.

In addition to a number of gubernatorial and attorney general candidates, they have strong congressional hopefuls, some of whom have not yet announced their campaigns, Hann said. And he noted there's a "good candidate" who will soon declare a bid for secretary of state — a race in which there is so far no GOP contender.

In his first days on the job, Hann said he's met with a number of donors as he starts to build up what the party has in the bank. The GOP ended 2020 with $8,447 in cash on hand, while the Minnesota DFL Party had $722,940, according to state campaign finance documents. Hann said the party doesn't have any long-term debt, but it does have bills to pay off.

The party has also had to donate tens of thousands of dollars to charity that they received from Anton Lazzaro, who was arrested by the FBI on sex trafficking charges in August and who had a close relationship with Carnahan. And the party is paying for an independent investigation of the sexual harassment allegations, as well as a full financial audit and review of its human resources protocols after Carnahan's departure.

Donna Bergstrom, who was selected as deputy chair and will work alongside Hann, said she has heard over and over during the past year or two that people have lost confidence in the party and stopped donating money to it.

"I would see us really trying to reach out again and build the party back up from the grassroots level, as well as pulling in those big donors again and saying, 'You can come back in, it's safe. We're back together, we're united. We're a good team here going forward,' " said Bergstrom, who was GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson's running mate in 2018 and made an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate last year.

Ted Lovdahl said he called Hann immediately after Carnahan resigned. Lovdahl, who is chair of the Eighth Congressional District Republican Party, said Hann's experience in the state Senate — and the relationships with donors that he cultivated during that time — made him a top pick to rebuild the fractured party.

"I found him to be an extremely honest man, and I like that. If he tells you something, you can bank on it," Lovdahl said, adding that Hann is a "strong family man."

Hann, who lives in Eden Prairie, said he spends a lot of time with his wife, four children and nine grandchildren, and reading history, philosophy and theology. Aside from politics, his career includes 25 years at Deli Express, where he was a senior manager.

He grew up in Minneapolis, where his dad was involved in local politics. He didn't see himself in politics when he was young, because he isn't the "loud, boisterous" sort, but gravitated toward it when his kids were young because he wanted to see policy change.

"There are two kinds of people who end up going into politics, people who want to be something and there's people who want to do something. And I am definitely in the latter category. I wanted to fix the education system," he said, so he ran for school board and eventually state Senate.

He still sees education as a top priority and hopes Republicans can take control of state government and expand school choice, as well as addressing public safety and economic and election integrity concerns.

His Democratic counterpart, DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, said Hann comes to the job as a policy wonk with legislative experience, and that isn't necessarily the same skill set needed to win elections. A successful party leader has a broad range of relationships, can unify people and quickly draw up a plan to win, he said.

Martin noted that Republicans may benefit from the fact that the party that doesn't hold the presidency typically fares well in a midterm election and some candidates can win without much party support. But he said having a strong state party has a major impact.

"He inherits a party that is deeply divided right now, a party that is deeply in debt and the morale couldn't be any lower as they face investigations into all types of scandals," Martin said. "It's going to be a challenge, to say the least, for him to get the party back into a place where they actually can start winning elections again."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

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