Rep. Bill Luther Defends Seat in Heated Minnesota Battle

Democratic Minnesota Rep. Bill Luther said he was pushing corporate accounting reform before corporate accounting reform was cool, experience he said should go a long way to helping shaky investors in his congressional district regain confidence in the ever-wavering stock market.

"We will probably see additional instances of corruption, I think everyone is expecting that," Luther told "It's a very difficult situation and all I can do is tell [constituents] that I’m going to do everything I can to shore up confidence in this economy."

Luther said he was way ahead of corporate fraud legislation that passed Congress this week and was sent to President Bush for his signature. Long before the current Enron and WorldCom scandals broke, he said he called for the creation of an independent accounting oversight panel and restrictions on auditors providing consulting work to companies.

But the four-term representative from the suburban Twin Cities area is more likely to have to shore up constituent confidence in himself than the market, political analysts say, a task made more difficult by redistricting that is forcing Luther to move from the 6th to the 2nd Congressional District.

"Other than those Democrats who are involved in member-versus-member races, Luther is the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the country," said Stu Rothenberg, political analyst and author of The Rothenberg Political Report. "He is in big, big trouble."

Luther is going up against an opponent who has twice come close to toppling the Fergus Falls native and son of a long line of dairy farmers.

John Kline, a retired career Marine Corps officer who held several positions in the Washington military establishment, barely lost to Luther in 1998, 50-46 percent, and in 2000 by a 50-48 percent margin.

Now, Luther and Kline are going face to face again, but this time in the newly-mapped 2nd District made up of about 40 percent of Luther's old district and 60 percent new faces, many of whom are from a more rural and Republican region.

"He knows it's going to be an uphill battle demographically. It's gotten very heated and there is an enormous amount of interest in this race," said Kline, who moved to Minnesota with his native-born wife in 1994.

But Luther, a prolific fund-raiser — as of June, he had $1.3 million in the bank — and stalwart moderate Democrat, said he is not giving up so easily. He points to over 25 years of public service for Minnesota as an advocate of fiscal discipline, consumer advocacy and his plum assignment on the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"I think it comes down to experience. I've spent my life working as an advocate, fighting for people and the things I care about," he said. "I'm in a perfect position to really use my lifetime experiences to help people in a very challenging time in this country."

His campaign, however, is not in such a perfect position, with accusations of dirty tricks and political chicanery riddling the race.

A firestorm broke out among local media outlets this month when third-party candidate Sam Garst, who was running under the "No New Taxes" party label, admitted that he was a big-time Democratic supporter who had joined the race to help siphon off conservative votes from Kline.

When asked about the ploy, Luther spokesman Bob Decheine told The Associated Press that he was amused by the tactic, and acknowledged that he did not discourage Garst when he told him he entered the ring just before the filing deadline. By all accounts, Garst is still on the ballot.

Charges of skullduggery for his campaign's knowledge of the ploy notwithstanding, Luther said that he is on target politically with the district, and called Kline an "extremist" who toes the conservative line.

Kline, who has nearly $380,000 on hand, said he wants to share his military experience in this time of war as well as hold down the growing federal bureaucracy and encourage growth in the private sector. He also admits that he wasn't going to run a third time, but the national Republican Party drew him back into the ring.

"The White House has looked at this, the National Republican Campaign Committee says we can win this, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says they can't lose another Democrat," he said. "There will be a lot of money poured into it."

Carl Forti, a spokesman for the NRCC, said the party certainly sees this race as an opportunity to pick up a congressional seat at a time in which the GOP must heavily guard the seven-seat majority it holds in the House.

"This race is one of the top challenger races in the country and one of our best opportunities to beat an incumbent Democrat," Forti said. "We will be fully behind Mr. Kline."

But Kim Ruby, a spokeswoman for the DCCC said that neither the party nor Luther is going to back away from a challenge.

"Luther has run against Kline twice before and won handily. This is someone who is used to running tough campaigns," she said.