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Brandon Stahl, Duluth News Tribune , Published September 05 2012

Daughter of Minnesota House candidate says he abandoned her

DULUTH, Minn. - A write-in candidate for the House 7B seat in Duluth has a 20-year-old daughter who claims he abandoned her when she was 2 and since then has never made an attempt to contact her.

Erik Simonson, an assistant Duluth fire chief and president of International Association of Firefighters Local 101, acknowledged that he has not seen his 20-year-old daughter, Leah Simonson, in 18 years. But he said the characterization that he abandoned her is wrong.

“That’s not true. I’ve paid my child support,” he told the News Tribune. “To say the word ‘abandoned’ leads people to believe that I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.”

Simonson announced his candidacy on Aug. 21 after the news that state Rep. Kerry Gauthier engaged in oral sex with a 17-year-old at an Interstate 35 rest stop in July. Gauthier said the next day that he would not run for re-election.

Simonson has been endorsed by many prominent area DFLers, including state Sen. Roger Reinert and state Rep. Tom Huntley, and he is the only candidate who is seeking the DFL endorsement at Saturday’s nomination convention for the 7B seat.

His daughter said she is coming forward now because she feels what her father has done to her is wrong.

“I wanted him to know that he is so against Gauthier for what he did and his actions — and that’s not OK — but I want him to know that what he did is not OK, either,” said Leah Simonson, who is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota Duluth and works full-time at a Duluth restaurant.

“He cannot keep pretending that he doesn’t have a third daughter that he has nothing to do with. It’s not OK for him to talk so badly about somebody else’s actions when his are no better.”

In response, Simonson — who said he would see his daughter now if she wants — explained his absence from her life as part of a mutual decision with his ex-wife made at the time of their divorce.

“When you have parents that separate in a child’s very young age, I’m not a big believer in back and forth, especially when things are not always good between the two (parents),” he said, explaining that he and his ex-wife, Carrie Simonson, were often fighting then. “If there’s an opportunity to maintain some stability by just having one parent, personally, I think that’s the right thing to do.”

His ex-wife disagreed, saying it was not a mutual decision for him to stop visiting their child.

“That’s a lie,” Carrie Simonson said.

Divorce records show Simonson filed for divorce from his ex-wife in 1993 when their daughter was just over a year old. The agreement stipulated that they were to have joint custody of their daughter, with Carrie getting physical custody and Erik “reasonable and liberal visitation” rights.

Carrie Simonson said her ex-husband would visit with his daughter every other weekend for about a year until the two had a fight over how little time he spent with his daughter during one of those visits.

The next weekend it was his turn to take their daughter, Carrie Simonson said, “he said he wasn’t coming.”

“And then I never heard from him again,” she said. “I don’t ever remember there being a moment of ‘I’m not coming back again.’”

Carrie Simonson said she never tried to stop her ex-husband from visiting with their daughter.

“He’s had joint legal custody of her her whole life. He had the right to check on her schooling, her medical care; he had the right to do all of those things,” she said.

Court records show that neither party has filed any complaints about visitation rights over Leah.

Leah said around age 5 she began sending cards and school pictures of her to her father, but he never responded to them.

“When I was younger, I went on a field trip to the (Duluth) fire hall, and I was standing in the doorway to his office,” she said. “He looked up at us, and looked back down.”

Leah said when she was 13 she tried calling her father, but he didn’t answer the phone and didn’t return a message. A few years later, she said, she went to see a therapist because of her relationship with her father.

“I didn’t ask much about him growing up,” Leah said. “I didn’t think much about it until got to be 16, 17 years old, and I sat down with (my mom) and was like, ‘What really happened? I need to know why.’ That’s when I realized that he just left for no reason. It’s not that he just left me, but he left his parents, and his brother and his sister — he doesn’t have any contact with any of them.”

On his House 7B Facebook page, Erik Simonson says he lives in Duluth with his wife, Holly, and two daughters.

Simonson said he doesn’t know of any cards sent to his home by either Leah or her mother.

“You forget things over the years. I would not forget that,” he said, adding that his ex-wife’s version of events “are not true.”

Erik Simonson’s mother, Beatrice Simonson, said she, her husband and their daughter haven’t had contact with their son and brother since he stopped seeing his daughter. She said she and her husband wanted to maintain a relationship with their granddaughter.

“It’s sad. It’s a heartache,” she said. “But there’s nothing you can do.”

Erik Simonson said he has spoken with his brother several times but that he hasn’t spoken with his parents or a sister for about 18 years.

“We just disagreed at the time about the way things were happening, and chose our separate ways,” he said.

Carrie Simonson said her ex-husband has always paid the $600 in monthly child support they agreed to when they divorced, but noted that the money was automatically deducted from his paycheck by St. Louis County.

While the order also stipulates that Simonson will have to pay more in child support should he take another job or earn more in income (Simonson has taught firefighting classes at Lake Superior College), she said she was never concerned with that.

“The child support was more than adequate,” she said.

The divorce agreement also required that Simonson pay half of Leah’s health care. Carrie Simonson said she was required to send him the bills first, but he wouldn’t respond to them. She would then send them to the county, which would require Erik to pay them.

Erik Simonson said he has always complied with the child support and health-care payments required of him in the divorce agreement. He said he never received any bills from his ex-wife.

“I stepped up to the plate and I paid my child support on time through all these years,” he told the News Tribune. “I’m not understanding why this is an issue now that needs to go to the media, but apparently somebody wants some attention, I guess.”

Leah Simonson said she has often blamed herself for what’s happened, and she takes Simonson’s lack of contact with her personally.

“He has two other daughters, and he sees them every day,” she said as she cried, “and I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.”

Leah said she isn’t sure if she wants to see her father today.

“He’s had plenty of opportunity to fix things with me,” she said.

But Simonson said he would meet with his daughter if she wants to.

“That would be a personal decision between her and I at this point,” he said. “I just think it’s odd that this is the way she reached out to me.”