Julie Blaha, left, and Ryan Wilson. Credit: MPR News

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This story comes to you from MPR News through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

The under-the-radar campaign for state auditor is between DFL incumbent Julie Blaha and GOP challenger Ryan Wilson of Maple Grove. An early September poll found that the two are in a tight race with Blaha leading by one point.

What, pray tell, does the State Auditor do? “The Office of the State Auditor oversees local government financial activity in Minnesota by performing audits of local government financial statements and by reviewing documents, data, reports, and complaints reported to the Office,” according to the agency’s website. The Office analyzes financial information from local governments that then serve as the foundation of reports it issues.

The auditor also represents the public on boards involved with issues such as investments, economic development, housing, and pensions.

Blaha, who earned her undergraduate degree from St. Cloud State University and a master’s degree in Education from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, is a former middle school math teacher. She rose to be president of the teachers’ union, Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota. Blaha later became the first female secretary-treasurer of the 300,000-member Minnesota AFL-CIO. She was elected auditor in 2018, winning against Republican Pam Myhra by 6 points.

On her campaign website, Blaha states that she has increased funding to reclaim work lost over the past 15 years, rebuilt relationships across the state including in rural areas and stopped the privatization of key state audit work.

Wilson is the founder and former CEO of Symbios Clinical, a medical device company based in Blaine. He later graduated first in his class from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Several news outlets have said Wilson is a constitutional lawyer. In 2020 he joined Lawyers for Trump as a volunteer Election Day poll watcher. He also has aN MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. Wilson is married and has five children.

Wilson said he wants to bring a sense of “business acumen” to the Office.

Two minor-party candidates—Tim Davis with the Legal Marijuana Now Party and Will Finn with the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party of Minnesota, who Minnesota Reformer reported is actually Kevin Finander—are also running. MPR News did not include information from either as little public information is available about either’s stances.

Key issues

Here’s where each candidate stands on the issues that have emerged as the most important in this race:

Transparency

Wilson said he is running for the auditor position because of “recent reports of significant fraud in Minnesota’s safety-net programs and the gross mismanagement of large infrastructure projects,” according to his campaign website. Government transparency and accountability has had a “disturbing regression” in recent years, he added.

Wilson blames Blaha for some of the largest financial scandals in the state’s history, including the FBI investigation into the now-dissolved nonprofit, Feeding Our Future. To date, 49 people have been charged with crimes related to the alleged $250 million embezzlement of COVID-19 nutrition funds.

Blaha says the State Auditor’s Office had no oversight role in the scandal. “Ryan Wilson spends more time talking about entities examined by the Legislative Auditor than he does those examined by the Office for which he is actually running,” she said in a statement to MPR.

“Though he has been informed numerous times that the Department of Education’s Feeding Our Future issue … were under the OLA’s (Office of the Legislature Auditor) jurisdiction as state agencies, he continues to imply the State Auditor is somehow at fault,” Blaha said. 

Wilson said that if he is elected, he would work to answer questions the public had about where public funds were going.

Blaha said on her campaign website, “I oversee about $60 billion in government spending, mostly at the local level. That oversight is made up of: Examinations, like audits and investigations, support, like training and financial tools, and analysis, reporting data that people need to make decisions based on facts.”

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)

ESG has emerged as a new issue in the auditor’s race. It’s an idea that Blaha advocates for, but that Wilson opposes. It’s been termed by Republicans as “woke investing.”

What is it about? ESG is a set of criteria used to screen investments on corporate policies–such as climate change, social justice and equity–and encourage companies to act responsibly. The criteria also help investors avoid losses when companies that have engaged in risky or unethical behaviors are held to account.

The auditor is one of four members of the State Board of Investment responsible for investing $130 billion in state assets. These include three Statewide Retirement Systems, various defined contribution plans, non-retirement accounts, and tax-advantaged savings plans.

They discussed the topic face to face during a WCCO debate held at the Minnesota State Fair in August.

Blaha said that regardless of one’s opinion of the environment, climate change needs to be considered when it comes to investments. “There are significant risks and there are significant opportunities in how climate is changing and how we’re transitioning energy,” she said. “The evidence is overwhelming, and it’s also common sense. How many of us are sinking our savings into coal right now?”

“When I’m state auditor, I will not play politics with our pensions,” Wilson said. “We must put return on investment first.” ESG investments are underperforming, he said, citing stories by Forbes and The Financial Times.

Wilson also noted that the state “missed out on” coal as a “great investment over the last six months.”

“We need to be asking that our chief investment officer get the best return on investment possible for our pensioners so that our teachers, firefighters, our union members, our hard-working government workers, our policemen … have the pension they were promised,” he said.

“We are long-term investors. You cannot be running around trying to day trade with my pension,” Blaha responded.

Blaha retorted “The idea that it’s falling in disfavor is only with a very small group of MAGA Republicans that are trying to discredit this.”

Education

Not usually a topic of discussion in the State Auditor’s race, education has emerged as an issue, perhaps due to Wilson’s platform prioritizing kids and students.

Wilson said people he meets while campaigning across Minnesota often bring up schools.

“Is the money making it to the schools, Ryan?” they ask him, he said in his opening statement at the WCCO debate. “We’re happy to give more, some people say we give too much. But regardless, they want to know that once the money is there, is it making it to the classrooms so the teachers can teach and the kids can learn.”

He later noted the decrease in math and reading scores. “We cannot abandon our kids and that is what Auditor Blaha did.”

“Many students are struggling to make up for learning loss incurred during the pandemic. My plan will utilize [state auditor] resources to provide data and transparency to support local decisionmakers as they craft local solutions centered on student success in the classroom,“ he wrote on Twitter.

Blaha told him the auditor should refrain from conjecture.

“You’re implying that schools aren’t using their money properly. It’s really important that we do not speculate on what’s going on … It doesn’t matter what you think, it only matters what you know,” she said. “And if the auditor speculates you can cause real problems for schools who are trying to pass levies right now.”

In my work as a teacher and on school finance issues, I’ve advocated for our public schools, the students and families that rely on them, and the educators and staff who make it possible,” Blaha said in a written statement to MPR News.

“To strengthen our public school system, I laid the groundwork early in my term to develop a school team to rebuild education oversight expertise that has been lacking for over two decades. I was able to secure funding, support from education stakeholders, and won legislation that would build our school expertise without stressing school budgets. As COVID-19 pressures ease, I’m eager to continue building this team.”

Other issues

MPR News also reached out to both candidates to ask their stances on other issues important to Minnesotans.

Abortion

Blaha: “Health and human services are a significant part of local government budgets, so we need an auditor who understands that healthcare includes abortion. An auditor pushing an anti-abortion agenda could disrupt local access to reproductive care, particularly for low-income Minnesotans. I’m proud of my history supporting abortion rights as a president of the National Organization for Women of Minnesota and am proud to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s list,” Blaha told MPR News in a written statement.

Wilson: “It’s really not a part of our race,” he told MPR News.

Economy and tax policy

Blaha: “Minnesotans want to know that their tax dollars work for them. During my term, my office prevented over $549 million in budget errors through our audits, brought over $23 million in tax increment finance funds into compliance, found over $4 million in local government fraud, and increased our oversight of federal funds by $20 billion. 

Because significant local revenues come from the state as Local Government Aid, County Program Aid, and Township Aid, my office now analyzes trends in these revenue streams and shares these findings so local officials and lawmakers can create funding policies that lift local economies,” Blaha told MPR News in a written statement.

Wilson: As auditor, “The closest we can affect the economy is making sure government works well, money’s not being wasted, that it’s going to where it needs to go. And when we do that, we can help create an environment where people’s dollars go further and also a climate that’s friendly for businesses. If businesses see good government, they’re going to want to come to Minnesota, and if they see waste and abuse and fraud, it’s going to shoo them away,” he told MPR News.

Farming and rural Minnesota

Blaha: “My family’s farming history and my work interpreting Minnesota’s agricultural history at the Oliver H. Kelley Farm serves me well in my role on the Rural Finance Authority (RFA). The state auditor serves on this board to help oversee $368 million in assets to support farmers when they are just starting out or facing financial challenges. My approach to serving on the RFA is to listen to the farmers first, then follow their lead by providing a fiscal oversight lens to their ideas,” Blaha told MPR News in a written statement.

Wilson: Referring to the RFA, he told MPR News, “being able to represent (farmers) on those boards … is an important part of the state auditor’s role.“

Guns

Blaha: “While gun control doesn’t directly fall into the realm of state auditor, I’m proud that my office contributed to criminal justice reform in a larger sense by providing data that helped pass bipartisan reform of criminal asset forfeiture laws. By revealing how small forfeitures do little to decrease crime, but inflict disproportionate damage on low-income Minnesotans, we bolstered the argument to eliminate small forfeitures. This led to me receiving a gold star endorsement from Protect Minnesota, a leading gun violence prevention organization,” Blaha told MPR News in a written statement.

Wilson: MPR News could not find recent public comment on the issue.

Health care

Blaha: “Because health and human services are a significant part of local government budgets, particularly at the county and city levels, the state auditor has a role in analyzing local healthcare spending. With good data, community members can make effective decisions about healthcare. In my program, The State of Mainstreet, I brought together neighbors, local government staff, and local government officials to share trends and best practices for improving local community health,” Blaha told MPR News in a written statement.

Wilson: MPR News could not find recent public comment on the issue.

Immigration

Blaha: “Minnesota’s immigrants are essential to building vibrant communities and strong local economies. The state auditor needs to understand that value across the spectrum of her work. For instance, the state auditor serves on the board of Minnesota Housing, which invested $1.92 billion last year to improve housing for more than 93,000 households, some of them new immigrants. Because of my commitment to supporting our newest Minnesotans, I was able to help customize that support in a way that gives them a solid start, which leads to more stable local economies,” Blaha told MPR News in a written statement.

Wilson: MPR News could not find recent public comment on the issue.

The 2020 Election

Blaha: “I work with the county auditors across the state who not only oversee local finances, but also administer our elections. I’ve seen first hand how diligently they work to conduct fair, complete, and accurate vote counts. In addition, the evidence is clear that Minnesota’s elections are well run, carefully checked, and worthy of our trust. I accept the results of the 2020 election and am confident Minnesota will continue its tradition of effective election administration this year,” Blaha told MPR News in a written statement.

Wilson: “The 2020 election was a fair election and Joe Biden is our president. Minnesotans take pride in their elections. We have a history of high voter turnout and an engaged electorate. For example, I was a volunteer poll watcher during the 2020 election. I didn’t know if I was watching Republican or Democrat votes being cast; I was there to help bring transparency for all voters, regardless of party. The more people that participate in the election process, the better that process is for all Minnesotans. Voters spoke in 2020 and elected Joe Biden, and voters are eager to have their voices heard in 2022,” Wilson said in an email to MPR News.

MPR News reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this guide.

Correction: (Oct. 10, 2022) A previous version of this guide misstated the full name of Wilson’s law school. We have also clarified that his involvement with Lawyers for Trump was as a volunteer and not in a legal capacity per the Wilson campaign. The current version has been updated.

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Regina Medina

Regina Medina is a correspondent with the MPR News Race, Class and Communities team.