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Four file for special election to replace Minn. state senator tied up in sexual harassment claims

SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Two east metro politicians and a first-time candidate with behind-the-scenes political experience are running to fill the state Senate seat vacated by Dan Schoen, who resigned last year after allegations of sexual misconduct.

Former Republican State Rep. Denny McNamara and Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham, a Democrat, are the two major party-endorsed candidates vying to replace Schoen. But before they can face off, McNamara has a primary challenger in James E. Brunsgaard, who has served as a Republican Party delegate.

PREVIOUSLY: Lawyer: Schoen denies sexual harassment claims in midst of resignation

Libertarian candidate Emily Mellingen also filed to run for the seat.

Brunsgaard decided to challenge McNamara in the primary because he says the former Hastings lawmaker doesn’t adequately represent the community’s conservative values. He also takes issue with the way McNamara unexpectedly announced his retirement in 2016 after the candidacy filing deadline closed, essentially limiting who could try to replace him.

Brunsgaard says he’s a Christian conservative independent Republican and is highlighting his 20 years of military services and his business experience during the campaign.

“I know I’d be a good leader and a good choice,” Brunsgaard said. “I think I can win this thing.”

McNamara was a long-time House lawmaker, serving from 2003 until his retirement in 2016. He served as chair of the environment and natural resources committee when Republicans were in power and was also a member of the finance and ways and means committees.

Democratic candidate  Bigham is also a former House lawmaker who now represents much of the Senate seat she’s seeking on the Washington County Board of Commissioners. Senate District 54 includes Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Afton as well as the Dakota County communities of Hastings and South St. Paul.

Bigham, who has also served on Cottage Grove City Council, says if elected she’ll focus on getting more state resources for local needs like roads and schools. The Legislature has pushed too much of the burden for those services on taxpayers through local levies, she said.

Bigham also says she’d like to be part of efforts to address sexual misconduct at the Capitol. Fellow Democrat Schoen resigned after he was accused of inappropriate behavior including unwanted sexual advances.

“I want to be part of the change at the Capitol,” Bigham said. “I believe I have the experience to restore the public trust in government.”

The primary is schedule for Jan. 29 and the special election is Feb. 12.

House seat

Also up for special election this winter is House District 23B, which was held by Republican Tony Cornish until he resigned after also being accused of sexual impropriety. The seat represents several rural communities near Mankato.

Republicans Jeremy Munson and Scott Sanders filed to run for the seat as well as Democrat Melissa Wagner. The race has the same primary and special election dates as the Senate seat.