Fossil fuel interests back the status quo by donating to MN primary candidates

By Sam Benson
MN350 Action volunteer leader

In primaries across the United States, progressives and climate-focused candidates have been enjoying success and gaining momentum. Challengers including Cori Bush in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman in New York have defeated established centrist incumbents, while progressive representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib have fought off more moderate challengers.

With Minnesota’s Aug. 11 primary approaching, progressives are looking to turn this momentum into more victories. This year, MN350 Action has endorsed a wide slate of candidates who are committed to challenging the status quo and advocating for a more just and sustainable clean energy future.

While progressives might appear to have the momentum, fossil fuel companies and their corporate backers are lining up to support establishment candidates and the status quo they represent. Two such candidates are state Sen. Erik Simonson, who represents District 7 in Duluth, and state Sen. Jeff Hayden, who represents District 62 in south Minneapolis. Both Simonson and Hayden are veteran legislators who lost the DFL endorsement this spring to progressive challengers (Jen McEwen and Omar Fateh, respectively) who ran to their left and emphasized their environmental credentials.

Sen. Erik Simonson: a history of defending fossil fuel interests

During his time in the Legislature, Simonson has repeatedly shown his commitment to defending the interests of fossil fuel companies. He’s been so successful in these efforts that in the past, he’s received awards from a coal industry group. In the 2020 legislative session, Simonson voted in favor of the Clean Energy First Act (SF1456), which, despite its promising name, was little more than an attempt at greenwashing by Republican groups and utility companies. In addition, he currently serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Utilities Committee. If the Democrats regain the majority in this fall’s election, Simonson could become chair of this committee crucial to passing climate and clean energy legislation. 

This spring, Simonson lost the DFL endorsement to McEwen, a lawyer and environmental activist. DFL delegates backed McEwen by a margin of 70 percent to 29 percent, prompting Simonson’s big business allies to spring into action: The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has repeatedly lobbied against clean energy and climate legislation, has donated $750 to Simonson’s campaign. This is the largest single donation by the MN Chamber of Commerce in this election cycle.

Sen. Jeff Hayden: $ from the fossil fuel industry

Hayden likes to claim that he is a “pragmatic progressive,” but based on the financial support he’s received, his allegiances are closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests. His campaign has received hundreds of dollars in donations from lobbyists who represent Flint Hills Resources, Marathon Petroleum, and Otter Tail Power Company. His campaign has also benefited from multiple promotional mailers sent to voters by the corporate-backed Together Minnesota political action committee.

These donations come despite Hayden’s recent pledge to refuse donations of $200 or more from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, and PACs. Sen Hayden also recently failed to join 34 other legislators in signing on to a letter to the Pollution Control Agency opposing Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 expansion project. 


In the meantime, the political action committee Together Minnesota, which has spent heavily in support of Simonson and Hayden, received $500 from lobbyist Judy Cook, who lists the Lignite Energy Council (a coal industry group) as one of her clients. Cook’s employer, Cook-Girard, represents Enbridge as one of its clients. It’s clear that the fossil fuel industry has a strong interest in re-electing Sens. Simonson and Hayden. 

If we want to see significant climate legislation that leads to a more just and equitable society, we must ensure that our elected officials are committed to advocating for the best interests of their constituents, not corporations.

This starts with elected officials refusing donations from fossil fuel interests that stand in the way of climate action. We strongly encourage Sen. Simonson, Sen. Hayden, and other Minnesota political candidates to reject the corporate influence on our politics and return donations from the Chamber of Commerce, fossil fuel companies, and their lobbyists. 

Sam Benson lives in south Minneapolis and works in the non-profit field. He has been volunteering with MN350 Action since 2018.