GOP lawmakers urge Walz to rescind racing commission appointments

Sen. Michael Kreun says the governor's pair of appointments are "divisive, retaliatory, and represent a clear abuse" of his power.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a May 2024 press conference. (Office of Gov. Tim Walz/Public domain)

Republican lawmakers who represent a district that includes one of the state’s two horse racing tracks are calling on Gov. Tim Walz to rescind a pair of appointments he made this month to the state’s Racing Commission.

Sen. Michael Kreun and Rep. Nolan West, both of Blaine, sent a joint letter to Walz on Wednesday urging the governor to reconsider his appointments of Melanie Benjamin and Johnny Johnson to the Minnesota Racing Commission, which oversees the distribution of revenue generated at the state’s two horse racing tracks: Canterbury Park in Shakopee and Running Aces in Columbus.

“Minnesota only has two horse racing tracks,” Kreun and West wrote to Walz. “One of your appointees currently is a party defendant in a lawsuit from one of those tracks that he will be charged with regulating fairly. This is a clear conflict of interest, and it is inappropriate for an individual involved to be making regulatory decisions against an entity that has engaged in, or is currently involved in, legal action against them.”

That was a reference to Johnson, former president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, who is a party defendant in a lawsuit Running Aces filed earlier this year that alleges that Mille Lacs and Prairie Island tribal casinos “have been conducting class III casino card games that were not authorized by law,” which they say is a violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (“RICO”) Act.

Benjamin is a longtime executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Both tribes that Benjamin and Johnson represent own and operate casinos that Kreun and West say are widely considered to be direct competitors to Canterbury Park and Running Aces.

“The entities these individuals represent have successfully lobbied the Legislature to pass bills directly against the best interests of horse racing tracks,” Kreun and West wrote. “Those entities consider the horse tracks to be a direct competitor and they should not be granted the authority to interfere with the horseracing industry. As commission members, [Johnson and Benjamin] now will have the ability to overturn the decisions of previous Racing Commission members, and also are privy to confidential, proprietary business information about their competitors’ operations.”

Leadership at both Canterbury Park and Running Aces have also publicly criticized the appointments.

“Canterbury Park has been clear that we believe Minnesotans benefit most when tracks, tribal casinos and charitable gambling can all successfully compete,” Randy Sampson, Canterbury Park CEO, said Monday in a statement. “We do not believe it is appropriate for competitors of the racetracks to serve in the role of our regulators, and it would be difficult to find a precedent for the recent appointments of long-time leaders of tribal nations that own two of the state’s largest casino operations as members of the Minnesota Racing Commission.”

Walz defended his appointments on Monday, telling media that Benjamin and Johnson are “two Minnesota citizens that have extensive experience in regulation, especially around gambling and they’re citizens and have every right to be on there.”

The other members of the Minnesota Racing Commission are: Camille McArdle, Barbara Colombo, Julie Idelkope, former Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Goodman, Alan Gingold, former DFL legislator and activist Raymond Dehn and David Koob.

“Governor Walz appointed high ranking members of the very tribal communities who are trying to put the horse racing tracks out of business for competitive gain,” Kreun commented. “This is an egregious conflict of interest and clearly an act of retaliation against the horse tracks for not bending to the whims of the Tribes during the sports betting discussions.”


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.