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Jim Gelbmann, deputy secretary of state, and other state election officials are pictured at a meeting during the 2008 U.S. Senate recount, in which Gelbmann played a big role. He said he has no role in this year's governor's race recount because he is friends - and a former staffer to - Mark Dayton. File photo by Don Davis.

A Dayton friend, Gelbmann watches recount from afar

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The man called the "the referee in the sandbox" during the intense 2008 U.S. Senate recount is not even on the playground of the ongoing governor's race recount.

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That is as it should be, said Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann, who recused himself from this statewide recount because of his long affiliation with Democratic governor candidate Mark Dayton.

Gelbmann, a Woodbury resident and District 833 School Board member, said not getting involved in this year's recount was necessary to avoid even accusations of a possible conflict of interest.

There is "just too long of a history between Dayton and I, and they'll claim I rigged the recount," Gelbmann said, predicting reaction of Republican Tom Emmer's supporters had Gelbmann worked the recount. "They would have made the accusation."

Gelbmann said he told his boss, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, on election night that he would need to recuse himself from any recount activity in the governor's race.

Instead of working on the recount, Gelbmann said since Election Day he has been in the business services division of the secretary of state's office. He is working on a project to automate business filings and make more business documents available online.

Gelbmann admits that he misses the recount activity, but stressed that he does not talk to staff involved with the election and even moved his office to a separate building. He learns of recount developments in the newspaper.

"Literally, we've created that solid of a wall between myself and anyone who's dealing with the recount," he said. "And everyone in the office knows they're not to share any information about the recount with me, and I don't ask."

Gelbmann said he first worked for Dayton in 1981 as a research assistant on the Democrat's first U.S. Senate campaign. He then worked as an assistant commissioner when Dayton was commissioner of a state agency under then-Gov. Rudy Perpich. When Dayton was elected state auditor in 1990, Gelbmann followed him and served as deputy state auditor. In 2000, Dayton asked Gelbmann to manage his U.S. Senate campaign. Dayton won, beating Republican Rod Grams, and Gelbmann served as Dayton's state director until 2006.

Gelbmann started working in the secretary of state's office in early 2008. Late that year he played a big role in the recount fight between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman. He worked with and served as moderator to the politically charged attorneys on each side of that battle, and helped local election officials work through the state's first major recount in decades.

Gelbmann said he liked the recount experience.

"I enjoyed it," he said. "I work best under pressure and had it not been for my friendship with Mark and longstanding relationship with Mark, I would have been in the same position" in this year's recount.

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