Star Tribune: New Secretary of State Simon is crisscrossing Minnesota

By Patrick Condon

Minnesota’s new secretary of state is taking the implications of his job title seriously.

In office six months, Steve Simon has visited 48 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. Planned August visits will take him to the counties of Roseau, Kittson and nine others in the farflung northwestern corner.

“You can’t do this job well by just sitting at a desk in St. Paul,” said the DFLer, who prior to winning statewide office represented Hopkins and St. Louis Park in the Legislature for a decade. “I want to be a secretary of state for all Minnesotans, and I don’t think you can do that if you’re not in all of the state.”

Simon says the responsibilities of the office demand close contact with local government officials, business owners and voters everywhere in the state. The secretary of state manages elections and promotes voter turnout; licenses Minnesota businesses and nonprofit organizations; and administers the state’s Safe at Home law, which allows survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking to maintain confidential addresses.

“The first question I tend to ask is, ‘How are we doing?’ ” Simon said. “And I invite constructive criticism. It’s not about back-patting and praise, but soliciting real advice about how we’re doing our job.”

Of course, visibility around Minnesota benefits the ambitious politician. Simon’s office heavily promotes the trips via news releases and social media, and they often generate favorable coverage in local media. “Sec. of State pays rare visit to county,” announced a recent headline in the Pipestone County Star.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., has set an example for fluffing up a statewide profile with frequent in-state travels, by visiting all 87 counties every year. Recently Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a possible candidate for governor in 2018, came up with her own twist by announcing plans to visit all 75 state parks and recreation areas.

Simon, who defeated Republican Dan Severson by about 22,000 votes last November, is considered a political up-and-comer. The 45-year-old is a favorite of DFL activists for his past outspoken support of gay marriage. Simon also acquired a reputation in the House for an ability to work effectively across party lines. He was a frequent sponsor of election law reforms, which laid the groundwork for his secretary of state candidacy.

That bipartisan approach may have seeded his success in pushing several election-law changes this year, including the assurance of time off from work on Election Day for all Minnesotans, and a loosening of some restrictions around military voting. Simon said he hopes in upcoming sessions to push for true early voting in Minnesota, and a shift of the primary election from August to June.

As to his travels, Simon dismissed the idea of a political motive. He noted his predecessors were also frequently on the move around the state. His office provided figures on modest cost of the trips so far: an average of $38 per county visit. Simon said he usually drives his own car, eats fast food or packs a lunch, and never includes an overnight stay.

“We’re on course to hit every county in our first year,” Simon said. “It’s not a promise, but we’re on course to do it.”