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Steve Karnowski, Associated Press, Published December 29 2012

Top stories of 2012: Politics dominates Minnesota news

MINNEAPOLIS – Two Minnesota Republicans failed to make it onto the presidential ticket. Voters rejected efforts to enshrine in the state constitution a gay marriage ban and a requirement for presenting photo IDs at polling places. And Democrats took control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time since 1990 as politics dominated Minnesota’s news scene in 2012.

Deadly crimes, high-profile trials, natural disasters and a scandal at one of the state’s largest companies also grabbed headlines across Minnesota in 2012.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann were early casualties in the GOP presidential nomination race. Pawlenty dropped out in 2011 after failing to generate much excitement, while Bachmann’s campaign barely made it into 2012. The tea party favorite dropped out after her dead-last finish in Iowa’s precinct caucuses in January.

But Pawlenty remained a vice presidential possibility until August, when Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan instead, echoing 2008 when John McCain picked Sarah Palin over Pawlenty. Bachmann went back to defending her congressional seat, eking out a narrow victory despite vastly outspending Democratic hotelier Jim Graves.

The defeat of the gay marriage amendment set the stage for a fight in the Legislature over whether the state should grant same-sex couples the right to marry. But Democratic legislative leaders have been unenthusiastic so far about expending the political capital of their new majorities on the contentious issue during the 2013 session.

In a year marked by several mass shootings nationally, Minnesota did not escape. In September, officials at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis fired Andrew Engeldinger, who responded by killing the company’s founder and fatally wounding five other people before committing suicide.

Investigators are still trying to solve the November slaying of Cold Spring Police Officer Tom Decker, a father of four gunned down behind a bar as he checked on a man who lived above it, Ryan Michael Larson, who was reported to be suicidal. Police arrested Larson but released him five days later because of a lack of evidence. Larson has denied any role in the shooting. In a sign that investigators were struggling, authorities offered a $100,000 reward.

The Thanksgiving shooting deaths of two cousins in the home of a rural Little Falls man raised questions about the rights of citizens to use deadly force to defend their property. Byron David Smith is fighting second-degree murder charges in the deaths of Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18. The prosecution says audio and video recordings Smith made and other evidence show the killings were an ambush, not self-defense. Smith has said he’d been burglarized before. He’s free on bail pending trial.

Minnesota’s highest-profile trial of 2012 was rife with overtones of celebrity, privilege and cover-up. It resulted in a 41-month prison sentence in July for Amy Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser. A jury convicted her of criminal vehicular homicide in the hit-and-run death of a Thai restaurant chef on a Minneapolis freeway exit ramp in 2011, unswayed by her tearful testimony that she didn’t realize she had struck anyone.

Another trial opened a window on a terror pipeline from Minnesota to Somalia. It ended in October with the conviction of Mahamud Said Omar on five terrorism-related counts, and exposed new details on the government’s long-running investigation into how alleged conspiracy leaders recruited more than 20 men to leave Minnesota and wage jihad in Somalia. Omar was the first defendant to go on trial. His sentencing date has not been set.

Minnesota’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, averted a courtroom battle when it adopted a policy meant to prevent bullying of students who are gay or perceived that way. Over vocal opposition, the district in February replaced a policy requiring teachers to be strictly neutral in discussions about sexual orientation with a new one requiring a respectful learning environment for all students. That led to a settlement of two lawsuits that said the old policy was a gag order, and ended a federal civil rights investigation.

June brought 10 inches of rain in two days to northeastern Minnesota, drenching Duluth and several small towns. The flash flooding washed out roads, overwhelmed sewer systems, inundated some 1,700 homes and drowned 11 zoo animals. The Legislature held a one-day special session in August to pass a $167.5 million relief package.

Minnesota farmers escaped the worst of the drought that struck elsewhere. Record corn and sugarbeet harvests were predicted as Minnesota producers reported decent yields even in dry areas. The high crop prices resulting from the drought were good for corn and soybean farmers, but squeezed livestock, dairy and poultry producers.

At Richfield-based Best Buy Co. Inc., Brian Dunn abruptly resigned as CEO in April ahead of revelations that he had an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate. Company founder Richard Schulze agreed to step down as chairman after it emerged that he knew about Dunn’s relationship but failed to alert the board of directors. Schulze quit the board in June. In August, he launched an effort to buy back the company he started in 1966 as a stereo store called Sound of Music and take it private.

News and sports sometimes overlapped in 2012. The Legislature in May approved a new stadium for the Vikings. John Gagliardi left a lasting impact at St. John’s University, retiring in November after 60 years and more victories than any coach in NCAA history at 489. But another Minnesota football coach is fighting to keep his job. A judge in November decided Todd Hoffner did nothing illegal by shooting videos of his naked children acting silly after a bath, but officials at Minnesota State University, Mankato, said late Friday that he would be reassigned to the position of assistant athletic director for facilities development.

Minnesota was not entirely gloomy in 2012. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis had a huge hit in August with its first “Internet Cat Video Film Festival” to showcase what’s become a cultural phenomenon – clips of kitties behaving badly that draw tens of millions of page views on YouTube. The Golden Kitty award went to “Henri 2, Paw de Deux,” a bored French cat’s meditation on his empty life, which has recorded over 6.5 million views.