Somebody, nobody seems to know who, is polling Moorhead residents about the upcoming election for mayor.
It's the political silly season, a month before election day, and so nothing is surprising. But polling for a mayor's race? In Moorhead? The little city that pays its mayor $19,000 a year? That Moorhead?
Yep. Many residents say they've recently received the calls, which at times sound like they are message-testing for current Councilwoman Brenda Elmer, but later attach party affiliations to Elmer and political newcomer Johnathan Judd. Even though the local election is (supposedly) a nonpartisan race.
"Would you be much more likely, somewhat more likely, much less likely or somewhat less likely if you knew Brenda Elmer has lived in Moorhead for 20 years as a homeowner and small business owner and that she has three boys in the public schools?" the pollster asks.
"If you were told Brenda Elmer is a longtime Republican would you be more or less likely to vote for her?"
"If you were told Johnathan Judd was a Democrat would you be more likely or less likely to vote for him?"
The three candidates to replace Del Rae Williams are as stumped as everybody else. Elmer, Judd and Newzad Brifki all say they've received the polling phone calls, but say they are not responsible for them and don't know who is.
"Something's afoot. But I can tell you this: It ain't us because we don't have any money," Judd said.
"It has to be a third party getting involved in the race," said Elmer. "I wish they wouldn't be doing this. This is supposed to be a nonpartisan race."
Elmer does admit her campaign earlier did some automated polling that was "issue-oriented," because "I can't knock on every door to find out what people think is important." A Moorhead mayoral candidate conducting polling might be unprecedented.
The polling is just one more layer to an already odd race.
Elmer, for example, has raised an extraordinary amount of money for a local race. Much of it has come from Fargo.
Judd's campaign is texting potential voters directly, which has some wondering how it has their cell phone numbers.
And Brifki has yard signs all over Moorhead, and a billboard, but has yet to file the required campaign finance reports.
First, the money. Elmer's campaign finance reports from 2017 and 2018 show she has raised about $40,000 for her mayor campaign, far above the approximately $5,000 Williams spent to win a three-way race in 2013. Elmer's fundraising is more in the neighborhood of a competitive local state legislative race. Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, for example, said he'll spend about that much when he has a strong challenger, but normally spends about $25,000 in his re-election campaigns.
Elmer said the warchest is a defense against Minnesota Democrats, who she believes insert themselves into Moorhead politics. She says she's fought hard to keep city hall nonpartisan in her two terms on the city council.
"I had colleagues when I was thinking about running say, and I quote, 'Brenda is going to get the full force of the DFL mafia against her,'" Elmer said. "And I said, 'Jeez, then I don't want to do this.' That's why I actually thought about not running. But then nobody else stepped up and I announced. I felt I needed that money to fight against the special interests."
Much of her reported money comes from Moorhead, including $250 each from fellow council member Steve Gehrtz and his wife, but a large chunk of it comes from Fargo. Many of the names are familiar.
Former U.S. Representative and current North Dakota Republican Party chairman Rick Berg gave $300. Tom Dawson of Dawson Insurance gave $250. Richard Solberg of Bell Bank gave $600. Former Fargo commissioner and jeweler Brad Wimmer gave $200. Leland Swanson of Swanson Health Products gave $250. Mark Anderson of Blackridge Bank gave $500. Former Fargo mayor Bruce Furness gave $500.
"Some are business contacts. Some area business interests want to see the business climate improved in Moorhead," said Elmer, who owns a property management company. "Most of those who gave to me are small donors, $100 or less. And there's nothing that says I'm going to spend it all."
Judd, meanwhile, is having volunteers directly texting potential voters, who his campaign gleaned by purchasing DFL voter lists.
"Hi James," said one text obtained by The Forum. "This is Mara with Judd for Moorhead. Johnathan Judd is an accomplished attorney, youth coach, and the only union endorsed candidate. Can we count on your vote on 11/6?"
Judd said the texts are sent by a couple of volunteers using voter lists his campaign purchased.
"I was told early on that since I got into this race late and nobody knows me except for the parents whose kids I've coached, that I had to reach people directly," Judd said. "The only thing I spent money on was the lists, which were not expensive because, again, my campaign has no money. We included the union part because I am the only candidate endorsed by the AFL-CIO."
Judd filed a campaign finance report on Aug. 21 showing he raised $1,550 between July 26 and Aug. 21.
The number of yard signs Brifki has around Moorhead is second only to Elmer, and it might be close. He also has a billboard on 30th Ave. South. He has yet to file a campaign finance report despite receiving explicit instructions from the city when he filed to run. The city sent candidates an email reminder recently.
Minnesota law says "an initial report must be filed within 14 days after a candidate or committee raises or spends more than $750. Additional required reports must be filed once an initial report is filed."
"I haven't submitted the report yet," Brifki said via email on Wednesday, Oct. 3. "I will soon."