Pete Stauber is a St. Louis County commissioner. He’s also running for Congress in Minnesota’s 8th District -- which is that gigantic swing district up in the Iron Range.
These two parts of Stauber’s life were never supposed to touch. But, according to emails wrested from St. Louis County by the Minnesota Democratic party on Tuesday, it appears they did.
In 2017, while he was serving as county commissioner, Stauber used his St. Louis County email to do some opposition research on the district’s current representative, Democrat Rick Nolan. At the time, Nolan was his biggest competition. He later decided not to run.
Stauber was looking into Nolan’s voting history and forwarded “damaging information,” as the Star Tribune put it, about another potential opponent to Mike Thom, a regional director for the National Republican Campaign Committee.
“Look at this,” he wrote of a meeting on veterans’ issues Nolan planned on holding. Then he suggested Thom look for more info on Nolan’s “anti-veteran” voting record so he could add some energetic members of the opposition to the proceedings: “I need Nolan’s anti-veterans votes to get people there.”
Later that year, the RCC’s press secretary sent a note to Stauber about Nolan’s support of net neutrality, saying Democrats had “realized that their arguments were easily disproven” and didn’t make a whole lot of sense to the average voter. The message speculated that if Nolan wanted to make it a “campaign issue,” it might actually be “a plus for us.”
“Agreed!” Stauber wrote back.
There were others. Scheduling television interviews with a Fox News reporter. Receiving an article from a committee director called “Why House Democrats Could Have a Minnesota Problem.” Forwarding an email about meeting with congressional representatives in Washington.
For weeks, St. Louis County has been trying to keep these emails under wraps. The Minnesota Democratic Party had to sue to get its hands on them, which is how the case ended up in front of 10th District Court Judge Stoney Hiljus. County Administrator Kevin Gray told the Duluth News Tribune that the standoff between the county and the DFL had been nothing more than a misinterpretation of the language of state statute and county policy. Previously, the county had been calling the emails “private” information. He assured that they would comply with the court’s order.
For all the fuss it caused, the email release has been more of a pop than a bang. None of the messages looks like a conspiratorial bombshell or smoking gun -- in one email, Stauber even tells the sender to use his private email address instead -- but that may not really matter. County policy says elected officials can’t use funds, equipment, supplies, employees, or facilities to support their campaigns. His opponent, Joe Radinovich, has been quick to point that out.
“These emails are clear evidence that [Stauber] has been openly and knowingly violating the law and county policy to use taxpayer resources to advance his political agenda,” Radinovich’s campaign manager, Jordan Hagert, said in a statement.
Stauber’s campaign didn’t respond to interview requests, but spokesperson Caroline Tarwid told MPR that Stauber “respects the court’s decision,” just like he did when the county “looked into this matter and found no wrongdoing.”
There’s no telling how this will impact the midterms, which are mere days away. What it will certainly impact, as the Star Tribune pointed out, is open records law. From now on, we know: Emails like Stauber’s have no right to stay secret.