Minnesota lawmaker goes from GOP backbencher to leading critic of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

2019-08-28 | Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS _ Minnesota state Rep. Steve Drazkowski tells a story about getting soaked in a rainstorm on his way to a TV studio in Minneapolis for an appearance on Fox News. People don't use umbrellas where he comes from in rural Minnesota, he says.

In Drazkowski's telling, he's just a guy from the sticks, raised on a farm. "If we did well," he said, "we got supper."

But the end of his story _ an appearance on the nation's most watched cable news network to criticize U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar _ reflects his growing national profile as a leading opponent of the liberal Minnesota congresswoman, a member of the "squad," all women of color, who have been in a summerlong public feud with President Donald Trump.

In the past few months Drazkowski has rocketed from conservative backbencher to a leading Minnesota critic of the Somali-born lawmaker, repeatedly raising questions about potential immigration, tax and campaign violations _ charges that have taken hold in conservative media nationwide.

His most recent news conference, last Thursday, came amid an international dust-up over the Israeli government's decision acquiescing to Trump's request to bar Omar, an outspoken critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, from entering the country.

The multiple controversies surrounding Omar also have helped elevate Drazkowski from a family shoe-store owner from Mazeppa, Minn., to perhaps one of the best-known state legislators in Minnesota.

As the go-to guy for Fox News personalities to talk about Omar, Drazkowski, following a dozen years in the Minnesota House as a vocal but little-known conservative firebrand, has been given a national platform for political fundraising as he mulls a run for Congress.

Despite having created a breakaway Republican caucus in a direct challenge to a four-term Minnesota House GOP leader, Rep. Kurt Daudt, Drazkowski says he has received calls from national conservative groups and prominent Republicans recruiting him to run in the 2nd Congressional District in the south metro region of the Twin Cities.

The 54-year-old businessman's claim to political fame is due largely to his dogged pursuit of Omar. In June, after Drazkowski made a complaint to a state board alleging Omar's misuse of campaign contributions, the Minnesota Campaign and Public Disclosure Board revealed that she used campaign money for a tax lawyer to amend two years of tax returns.

She was forced to amend the returns because she filed a joint return with a man who was not her legal husband. She has since divorced the man she was married to at the time. Drazkowski cites the work of conservative journalists who say the man she divorced was her brother, alleging they married for immigration purposes.

Omar has said little about her taxes, marriage or divorce filings, other than to deny that she had married her brother, a claim she calls "absolutely false and ridiculous." She declined to comment on Drazkowski.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin has come to her defense: "It's frankly embarrassing that Drazkowski has nothing better to do with his time than grift off the accomplishments of better leaders to build his own profile," he said in a statement.

Drazkowski, who has done five interviews with Fox News' Tucker Carlson since June, says it all started because he gets email updates from the Minnesota campaign board, and he actually reads them.

His colleague Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said that's typical. "He's a hard worker, and that gets you a lot of the way there," he said of his colleague.

The email from the board mentioned Omar had paid a fine for filing her "statement of economic interest" months late, right after delegates endorsed her for Congress at a DFL convention. It wasn't her first infraction. He dug in and started looking at her reports, finding she had accepted honoraria to speak at public colleges, even as she was supposed to be overseeing them in the Legislature.

His campaign against Omar is not his first skirmish with an elected official. In 2009 he filed a Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board complaint against then-Wabasha County Attorney James Nordstrom, who was found to have improperly charged Drazkowski with illegally campaigning at a polling place on Election Day 2008. Nordstrom was cleared of violating ethics rules, but the case continued a history of bad blood. Nordstrom also had sought to prosecute Drazkowski in 2005 on charges of fifth-degree assault against his own daughter. He was acquitted by a jury.

Drazkowski said the charges were politically motivated and served to bolster his fear of governmental abuse of power.

Unlike the legal spats with Nordstrom, Drazkowski's pursuit of Omar has put him on the edge of the volcanic racial politics that have erupted since the election of Trump, who recently picked up on the claim that Omar married her brother.

Drazkowski is unfazed by the countercharges of racism leveled by Omar and her backers.

"It doesn't matter what you look like," is how Drazkowski describes his view of race relations. He accepted as inevitable that he would be called a bigot. He also pleads ignorance about the implications of the term "white nationalism," alleging that "the left" has tried to dirty up nationalism, which he says is simply the virtue of loving one's country.

"Certainly there's racists out there. Is it the bulk of the population? Is it a large number of the population? Absolutely not," he says. "Is it more of a problem today than it was yesterday? Absolutely not. It's much less of a problem. It's diminishing over time. It's not increasing. The left wants you to think it's increasing. It's not."

The FBI reported a 17% increase in hate crimes in 2017, however.

Meanwhile, Drazkowski has seen his reputation grow _ along with that of Omar. The website he created, OmarTruth.com, has attracted more than 56,000 people to sign a petition calling for a congressional investigation of Omar. He has publicized it in news conferences and during TV appearances, but it has also bounced around on some of the Internet's darker real estate, such as the 4chan website and on a Facebook group supporting the conspiracy theory QAnon. Drazkowski said he's never heard of these sites and has no control over where the petition appears.

Whatever the fate of Drazkowski's petition, it has provided the lawmaker with a list of 56,000 signatories, each providing either an email address or phone number _ a small army that can be quickly mobilized for campaign contributions or political organizing.

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This follows an earlier move he made on Republican leadership in the Minnesota House, where he displays the head of a 13-point buck in his office. Former Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, chaired the GOP caucus after the 2018 election when Republicans lost their majority. Drazkowski made a bid for leader but withdrew before the balloting began, she said.

"I think there's a lot of sour grapes _ the caucus overwhelmingly backed (Minority Leader Kurt Daudt) and have stuck with him," she said.

Drazkowski and three Republicans formed their own breakaway group called the New House Republican Caucus. Drazkowski cites a class he took while pursuing a master's degree at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs about what he calls "authentic, ethical leadership." The old Republican caucus leadership wasn't providing it, Drazkowski says.

Daudt declined to comment.

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Drazkowski has previously denied planning a run for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District, held by DFL U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, but he acknowledges considering it.

"I probably won't," he says.

"I don't do enough hunting and fishing as it is. And I still need to kill the bull moose."

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