Petition accuses Minnesota senator of not living in district; he calls it 'absurd'

A Republican state senator in a key district faces a petition filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court seeking to disqualify him from the Aug. 9 primary ballot over his residency, but the complaint has ties to his GOP rival.

The petition filed by Judy Olson of Glenville says state Sen. Gene Dornink failed to move into Senate District 23 ahead of the election. Unlike members of Congress, state legislative candidates must live in their districts for six months prior to the general election. Redistricting drew Dornink's Hayfield address out of his old district, requiring him to move this May.

Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court ordered both parties to submit arguments by Monday, eight days before the primary. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea also asked the petitioners to explain why they didn't file their complaint sooner.

Three people said in the filing that Dornink continued to live in Hayfield after the deadline to move, noting that they saw a well-kept vegetable garden, cars with Dornink campaign logos, and Dornink himself working in the yard. Meanwhile, there did not appear to be anyone living at the Brownsdale address that Dornink used to file for office, they said.

Dornink refuted the allegations. He said he has lived in the Brownsdale home -- within the new Senate District 23 boundaries -- since May.

"This is an absurd complaint," Dornink said in an emailed 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."

The petition cites the work of a private investigator, Keith Haskell, who has the same name as the campaign manager for Dornink's Republican primary challenger, Lisa Hanson.

Reached by phone Friday, the attorney who filed the petition, Richard Dahl of Brainerd, declined to say anything about Haskell.

"I'm not going to comment at this time, so that's all really I have to say, OK?" Dahl said before hanging up.

Hanson paid Haskell $3,000 in May and June for his services as her campaign manager, according to her campaign finance report. Haskell is also listed as campaign manager in a February story from Rochester TV news station KTTC about Hanson's entry into the race.

On Friday, Hanson said by phone that Haskell was no longer her campaign manager. She would not say why or when he left the campaign.

"That's a personal question that I'd rather not answer," she said.

This district is a critical one for both parties in the Senate, where Republicans have a narrow majority. Two years ago, Dornink flipped this seat that had been in DFL control. The winner of the Dornink-Hanson primary will face Democrat Brandon Lawhead in November.

Hanson defied Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 shutdown order at her Albert Lea wine bar, rising to prominence as a symbol of the pandemic-era restrictions. She was ultimately sentenced to 90 days in jail before deciding to run for public office.

Allegations over a candidate's primary residence are nothing new in Minnesota, especially during elections that take place after redistricting, when many candidates are forced to move into a new district to stay in the Legislature.

This month, the state Supreme Court declared state Rep. Steve Green the automatic winner of the GOP primary in Senate District 2 after finding that his only Republican opponent lived in the St. Paul suburbs and not in the northern Minnesota district for which he filed to run.