Local legislative candidates make their cases
Candidates did their best to separate themselves from the pack in what's been an abbreviated and chaotic election season.
For many candidates — and, frankly, the electorate at large — Thursday’s state candidate forum, Oct. 1, at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa was probably the first time any of these people had a good look at each other during a strange election season where there’s been few — if any — fairs, parades, forums, public town halls or public gatherings in general.
But, with the Nov. 3 general election looming, local state legislative candidates gave their answers on how Minnesota’s government should work in what looks to a particularly volatile and difficult stretch — with huge challenges ranging from police reform and civil unrest to a colossal budget deficit in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The forum featured Republican incumbents versus their DFL challengers for Senate District 10 and Senate District 9, as well as House District 9A. House District 10A and House District 10B. For Senate District 10, there was state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, as well as DFL challenger Steve Samuelson of Brainerd. In Senate District 9, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, faced off against DFL challenger A. John Peters of Browersville. In House District 9A, incumbent state Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, faced DFL candidate Alex Hering for a second time. In House District 10A, Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, answered questions alongside DFL challenger Dale Menk, Brainerd, for the second election. And in House District 10B, incumbent state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, argued policy with DFL candidate Gaylene Spolarich, Palisade.
During the forum, candidates dealt with issues from a common perspective of decency that, in their words, is necessary for effective government and in contrast to the kind of mud-slinging partisanship rampant on Capitol Hill. Bipartisanship is the norm in roughly 90% of politics, Lueck stated — a sentiment largely expressed by his fellow candidates — even if controversial legislation often dominates the news cycle. Republicans and DFLers have and can continue to find common ground on issues like criminal justice reform, diversity, small business, housing, the value of trade schools and encouraging ways to reduce student debt loads, among many other facets of the political arena.
“We may not always be on the exact same page, but we have the same end goal,” said Ruud, speaking to a positive working relationship with former DFL state Sen. Don Samuelson, Steve’s father, who was seated in the crowd.
“I want to thank all who are serving right now. I think it’s a big honor to do that,” said Samuelson, her opponent. “I know that as a person, I feel good when I get to help somebody. To get on someone’s level and help them fix their problem, I know that that's the best part of the job, that’s the reason why people do it, so I really appreciate anybody who serves or puts their name out there.”
However, there were divides and some heated ones at that. Two areas where DFLers and Republicans showed the most disagreement was the state’s handling of COVID-19 and, to a lesser extent, how the state should address a looming $6.6 billion deficit this coming year in the wake of the pandemic and economic freefall across the country.
In terms of the state’s handling of COVID-19, Republican candidates gave tepid praise for Gov. Tim Walz in his early handling of the pandemic, but decried his stewardship as ineffective and autocratic in nature, with a management style, they said, that has mostly stripped the Legislature of its authority and infringed on people’s rights. In turn, DFL candidates argued Walz has done his best in an unprecedented situation hampered by obstructionist GOP lawmakers, who have been more than willing to shoot down positive legislation for partisan reasons and, thus, force the executive branch to do the heavy lifting during an emergency.
“He made a lot of mistakes,” Poston said of Walz and his months-long hold on sweeping emergency powers granted by the Legislature. “After those first couple of weeks, many mistakes would not have been made if the Legislature was engaged and brought back into the process. We've been disengaged now since March. We haven't had a voice and we are the voice of the people.”
“We saw the failure of our legislators — at least our local representatives — when they couldn't work cohesively along with the governor's cabinet,” Hering responded in an animated challenge that drew heated remarks from Republican candidates in other districts. “You did not do your job. Gov. Walz had a full plate.”
Austerity was a common talking point as candidates discussed how the state should address a $6.6 billion deficit this coming biennium after Minnesota enjoyed a more than $2 billion budgetary surplus only six months ago. Republicans — particularly Heintzeman and Gazelka, who said it was one of the largest challenges of our time — emphasized that sizable cuts to spending have to occur for the state to remain solvent. DFLers like Peters and Samuelson agreed difficult reductions in the state budget would be necessary, but warned against an absolutist approach where raising taxes isn't a viable option on the table.
“I will look at the 80% (of the already spent 2020 budget) where the funds are going to, currently, and look at how efficient they are. Are they working?” Spolarich said during the House forum. “And if they're not working, then we need to shift where those funds are going. I would also like to see the tax code looked at, because I don't think that lower-income earners in Minnesota paid a fair tax. It's out of balance.”
“The state of Minnesota has one of the highest tax burdens in the nation,” Gazelka said during the Senate forum, as he advocated for a 5% reduction in the budget for each state agency. “So it’s not about taxing your way out of this problem. Over the last eight years, we’ve seen an increase in spending of about 4% per year, so there’s room to cut expenses.”
Senate District 9
In the Senate District 9 race, Gazelka leaned on a proven track record as a powerful voice in state government for causes like the anti-abortion movement, Second Amendment rights, and small government. Having served in the Minnesota Senate since 2011 and been its majority leader since 2017, Gazelka said 2020 was a year of crossroads where law and order, individual rights, and the American way of life were all on the table come Nov. 3.
“(In the Senate), we frankly have a reputation that we are the adults of the room,” Gazelka said “We're trying to find solutions.”
In turn, his challenger Peters said he sports a diverse background in a litany of fields from education to successful entrepreneurial pursuits. He spoke of a dispassionate, data-driven and scientific approach to politics — one that doesn’t care if solutions have an “R” or “DFL” next to them.
“I'm basically a scientist. I base all of my decisions on facts. If the Republicans have a good idea I’ll listen to it. If the Democrats have a bad idea, I will look at it. … I will also change my mind. If my first assumptions are wrong, I will then change my mind to go with what is right based on the facts.”
Senate District 10
Much like Gazelka, Ruud presented herself as a bonafide stalwart — both as a member of the Brainerd lakes community, in which she has deep professional, familial and personal ties, but also in terms of political representation in her bid for a fourth term in the state Senate.
“I am very vested into my community with my husband and I have been very involved for many years,” Ruud said. “I really enjoy representing my community and I, like many people, have endorsements, but the best endorsement you can have is going to be the citizens of my district.”
Samuelson spoke of a life spent around politics with his father, the former state Sen. Don Samuelson, who spent decades representing the lakes area in St. Paul. He spoke warmly of an era when DFLers and Republicans worked together for a common good and showed more willingness to find solutions, compromise, and respect the sacred duties of their office — a role, he noted, he’d like to bring to St. Paul in his bid for a seat in the Senate.
“I really don't care to get labeled either a Republican or a Democrat,” Samuelson said. “I've seen (state politics) evolve over the last 50 years. It used to be a lot of fun. I would like to see younger people get involved. It's really hard for people who want to work together when they just spent six months calling each other names.”
House District 10A
Hering came out firing in his challenge against Poston. He decried what he deemed ineffectual, partisan-driven leadership by Republican lawmakers in the area during a time when people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line. Members of the GOP caucus have been more concerned with voting no and defanging efforts to help Minnestosans than substantial solutions, he alleged.
“All of us were wondering what was going on, and observing how the Legislature was addressing things, and whether they were taking it seriously,” Hering said. “I'd like to see some change.”
In turn, Poston said Hering was ignorant of the process and how politics were in St. Paul. He presented himself as a candidate who tries to avoid partisan bickering, an even-keeled Republican candidate with a close understanding of central Minnesota and how issues need to be addressed in St. Paul.
“What's really important to me is being available and accessible to everybody in the district,” Poston said.
House District 10B
Heintzeman said the main, singular issue that has the greatest and most widespread importance is the looming budget deficit.
“We have, by all accounts, what could be as much as a $6 billion deficit that we're going to have to wrestle with, which will be the largest deficit in the state's history,” Heintzeman said. “That's going to affect education, that's going to potentially affect health care, it's going to affect roads and bridges, it's going to affect the environment and national natural resources — it's going to affect virtually everything. So I hope that you're thinking about what that might mean for all of us in the state of Minnesota.”
Menk presented his case as a matter of quality of life and the wherewithal to access competent health care, solid education, well-paying jobs — in a sense, the fundamental bread and butter of a thriving community. As a man who’s lived in the Brainerd lakes area and built a life for his family here, he said he is willing to listen to all sides and find the best solution going forward.
“There's a lot of things that affect all of us — health care, making sure kids have a good education, making sure that workers can earn a decent wage so that they can provide a good life for their families,” Menk said. “My question is: Do we deal with the crisis by using data and facts or conspiracy theories and wishes? Do we adapt and overcome, or do we drag our feet whining and crying the whole way?”
House District 9A
In arguing her candidacy, Spolarich noted she’s a indigineous woman with experience in local government and a desire to represent all her constituents, not only a diehard voter base or partisan backers.
“I've worked in local and tribal government for the last 25 years, so I spent most of my career working with children and families,” Spolarich said. “That’s what is most important to me is people — the people and working together for all of us.”
Much like Gazelka and Poston, Lueck said he has a proven track record in local government in Aitkin County or the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, as a beef cattle rancher and armed services veteran.
“I really enjoy the job. I think I can continue, with my experience, to work for people,” Lueck said. “There's two parts to this — there’s all the stuff that goes on in St. Paul, but the really important thing that keeps me going every day is the phone calls and emails that I get from individual constituents.”
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .