Neel recommended by 1st District caucus

Joel Sawyer

H. Bryan Neel leapt another hurdle in his race to gain a second term on the Board of Regents Wednesday when he received a key endorsement from his congressional district’s legislative caucus.
But the endorsement by 1st District legislators is non-binding and could be overridden by the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee, which recommends finalists to the Legislature for approval.
Neel called the recommendation a “strong endorsement” and said he hoped it would prevail in the Legislature. But, he added, “There are no absolutes in the world, particularly in the world of politics.”
Neel’s opponent, Winona physician Thomas Stoa, and some legislators suggested that the caucus endorsement might be rejected by the education committee as it was when Neel first ran for the board in 1991.
“It’s not over,” Stoa said. “I think you’ll see the real decision in the Joint Education Committee … that’s the vote that’s really going to be the handwriting on the wall.”
Despite the recommendations that come out of caucus groups this week, the education committee will interview all 12 candidates for the five open seats on the board.
In 1991, Neel received the same endorsement from the primarily Republican caucus, but the recommendation was overridden by the Democrat-controlled education committee. The committee forwarded Mankato attorney James Manahan to the Legislature.
Despite the setback and accusations of partisan meddling, Neel prevailed after intense lobbying persuaded legislators to back him rather than Manahan.
Similar cries of partisanship resulted in 1993 when Regents Julie Bleyhl and William Hogan won seats on the board. The education committee overrode caucus recommendations of Dallas Bohnsack in the 2nd District in favor of Bleyhl, and then-Regent Elizabeth Craig in the 3rd District, in favor of Hogan.
At the time, the districts had Republican majority representation.
The specter of the past reappeared Wednesday morning after the vote tally showed legislators had voted along strict party lines, with Republicans favoring Neel, Democrats Stoa.
“This is the kind of result that puts politics in (the process) heavily,” said Rep. Dave Bishop, R-Rochester.
Bishop said he thought Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, had “waved a flag” by criticizing Neel for his tenure on the board and what Pelowski said was Neel’s poor communication with legislators during that time.
“Some of the DFL members on the (Joint Education) committee might salute it,” Bishop said, suggesting that Pelowski and others who sit on that committee might overturn the caucus recommendation for partisan reasons.
“You can look at it as partisan,” Pelowski said, “but the party that’s in power has the authority.”
Neel defended himself against Pelowski’s criticism by telling caucus members he tried to be as open and accessible as possible.
He also said he thought it inappropriate to “walk the halls lobbying for issues” on his own because it disrupted the integrity of the board, which he said should speak with one voice.
But Neel’s defense did not persuade Pelowski.
“I can’t vouch for anything that he’s said he’s done (as a regent),” he said. Pelowski also added that as long as Stoa remains in the running, he would have the Winona Democrat’s support.
Sen. Steven Morse, DFL-Dakota, also denounced the partisanship the caucus vote displayed. Morse said decisions were made irrespective of the best candidate.
“I’m not saying (Neel’s) not qualified, but I’m saying Thomas Stoa is a better choice,” Morse said. “I feel very strongly that (he) would bring a breath of fresh air to the board.”
Because the 1st District is a Republican stronghold in the state, Morse said, Republican legislators seek to have it represented by a Republican regent.
“It’s no secret that the Republicans consider this their seat,” Morse said.
And that must change for the good of the state, Morse said. “We should fully consider the merits of the candidates without feeling compelled by clearly politically aligned caucuses.”
The Joint Education Committee will meet next week and forward one name per open seat to the Legislature for final approval. Legislators should name new regents by Feb. 28.