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Petition seeks to kick state Sen. Dornink off GOP ballot; chief justice asks, why so late?

The petition claims that Sen. Gene Dornink hasn't been living in the district he seeks to represent.

Sen. Gene Dornink
Sen. Gene Dornink.
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BROWNSDALE, Minn. — A complaint filed with the state Supreme Court seeks to remove state Sen. Gene Dornink from the Aug. 9 primary election ballot as the GOP candidate for Minnesota Senate District 23 race for failing to establish legal residency in his new district.

The petition argues that Dornink, a first-term Republican state senator, has not lived in the district he seeks to represent for six months prior to the Nov. 8 general election as required under the state constitution. That failure, it argues, should lead to his name being stricken from the ballot or votes for him not being counted.

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If that were to happen, it would eliminate the need for a primary election in that district.

“If the GOP is going to scream and cry ‘election integrity,’ then election integrity needs to be for everyone,” said Glenville resident Judy Olson, who filed the petition. “There needs to be integrity throughout.”

Dornink had been a resident of Hayfield while serving the current Senate District 27. But when the 2020 census led to a redrawing of senate districts in Minnesota, Dornink's district moved.

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When the new district maps were released in February, Dornink found his Hayfield residence placed him into a redrawn district with another Republican, Sen. Carla Nelson, in Senate District 24. He told local news media that he planned to move to Glenville, where he has a property that would place him within Senate District 23 and out of conflict with Nelson.

But in his affidavit of candidacy filed in May, Dornink put his new residence not in Glenville but in Brownsdale, where he owns a two-bedroom bungalow. It also is situated in Senate District 23.

Dornink declined to be interviewed for this story, but called the complaint “absurd” in a press statement.

“Maybe these investigators didn’t see me the six times they visited because I am working during the day and campaigning in the evening,” Dornink said.

On Friday, in a court response, Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea pointedly asked why the petition wasn’t filed sooner and why it shouldn’t be dismissed because of the lateness of the hour.

Absentee voting for the primary began June 24, more than a month ago, and Olson brought her complaint forward Thursday, July 27, 2022, 12 days days before the primary.

Dornink is the GOP’s endorsed candidate for the Senate race and is running against Albert Lea business owner Lisa Hanson.

Hanson, a first-time candidate, gained name recognition for her willingness to defy Gov. Tim Walz’s lockdown orders during the pandemic. She served 60 days in jail for failing to pay a fine in connection with her refusal to close her business, Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro, according to KEYC News in Mankota, Minn.

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Freeborn County Auditor-Treasurer Pat Martinson told the Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice in a statement that there was not enough time to print corrected ballots or reprogram election equipment that did not include Dornink’s name.

“It would damage the integrity of the election to alter already-printed ballots,” Martinson.

One of the affidavits in support of the effort to remove Dornink’s name came from Keith Haskell, who served as Hanson’s campaign manager for a time but later resigned, Hanson said.

Haskell describes several journeys to Dornink’s various residences that he says substantiate the claim that Dornink and his family were still living in Hayfield and outside his new district prior to May 8.

Haskell said he videotaped his visits and talked to neighbors to verify the claim.

On a visit to Dornink’s Hayfield residence on May 8, the last day for which he would be eligible to meet the six-month residency requirement, Haskell said he saw multiple vehicles on the property, the lawn was well-maintained, and toys were on the lawn.

“From my visit, it was clear that Gene Dornink and his family still resided at the Hayfield address,” Haskell said in the affidavit.

Three weeks later, a trip to Dornink’s Brownsdale residence yielded little evidence of habitation, Haskell claimed. There was no garbage container on the property as there were for other residences. No lights were on. No vehicles were in the driveway. No one answered when he knocked on the door.

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But Haskell brings his own question marks as a witness.

According to Minnesota criminal records and a July 29 MinnPost article, Haskell was convicted of impersonating a police officer after giving vehicular chase to two teens who he suspected had stolen $10 worth of snacks from an Owatonna grocery store. He pleaded guilty to a theft charge in South Dakota. Earlier this year, Haskell was cited for driving on a suspended license in Winona.

Last December, Haskell disrupted a school board meeting in Brainerd when he refused to stop speaking when his time was up, forcing the board to take a brief recess. Haskell railed against the board with claims that it was taking away citizens’ rights. He also claimed that masks don't work against the pandemic.

Haskell did not return calls seeking comment.

Olson, the petitioner, said the reason for the lateness of the filing is that it took time figuring out how to file an election law complaint. She went to law libraries and researched documents. She filed her complaint first with the Mower County Attorney’s Office, but was told that it had to go directly to the state Supreme Court. Eventually, she turned to and paid an attorney for assistance.

It also took time and multiple trips to Dornink’s various residences to compile evidence that she says shows that Dornink is still living in Hayfield, in his old district, she said.

“The judge wants to know what took so long to file this,” Olson said. “Well, Gene Dornink didn’t file for his senate run until May 24. Even though we suspected on May 25 that he wasn’t living there (in Brownsdale), if I’m going to push an action, I want more evidence than one trip to the property.”

A decision by the chief justice could come within days.

Cameron Davis, Faribault County Attorney, said that “to allow for the effective administration of the primary election,” the county suggested a decision by the court come either Wednesday or Thursday. If Dornink’s name were removed from the ballot. It would be treated as if the primary were unnecessary and the “results would not be canvassed.”

Hanson, the primary challenger, said Dornink risks handing the seat to Democrats. And if that happens, it could tip the political balance to Democrats in a body that is narrowly controlled by the GOP.

“The Democrats are waiting in the wings,” she said. “If Judy Olson’s petition is not successful, and Gene Dornink were to win the primary, the Democrats will have no problem disqualifying Gene. I think we all know that.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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