The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 29, 2008

Challenge in District 24A

Democrat goes head to head with 7-time incumbent

By Mark Fischenich

Dale Hansen, running for a state House seat that includes St. James and Fairmont, is a first-time candidate for public office of any kind.

Hansen is a Democrat in a district that’s tended to vote Republican for everything from president to legislative seats.

And Hansen is running against Rep. Bob Gunther, a seven-term incumbent whose closest election was a 61 percent to 36 percent nailbiter in 2004.

Hansen holds out hope for a victory based on what he’s hearing when knocking on doors in the district, which also includes Blue Earth, Winnebago, Truman and Lewisville. People tell him they’ll give him a fair look.

“They don’t vote party, they vote for the

person,” said Hansen, an attorney. “I think if my message resonates with the voters, they will vote for me even though I am a Democrat.”

Popular incumbent
Gunther’s personality and his message have been popular with voters since 1995. In a special election that year, he grabbed just under 70 percent of the vote. No Democrat bothered to run against him for three elections after that, and his share of the vote in contested elections since then has ranged from 61 percent to 70.

“I’m a good listener,” Gunther said. “I have experience, get along with both sides of the aisle.”

That willingness to work with Democrats in St. Paul may be necessary again in 2009 and 2010 if he wins an eighth term because the DFL has a large majority in the House, and Gunther guesses they’ll hold that majority.

The DFL takeover didn’t stop him from getting things done, which demonstrates his knack for not letting partisan politics get in the way of legislative success, he said.

“I have ties with people on the other side of the aisle,” Gunther said. “I passed 29 bills in the last biennium where I was the author.”

A new challenge
Hansen believes he has skills that would help him represent District 24A well at the Capitol. As an attorney, he said, he understands statutes and legislation. And his training in making a persuasive case and fighting for his client would serve him and the district well in what he calls the “sausage making” process of passing legislation.

“I understand the legal process,” he said. “I have experience in negotiating and argument.”

Most importantly, Hansen said he differs from Gunther on two issues important to rural Minnesota — education and transportation.

“My feeling is that the state should be funding schools 100 percent because education is a statewide issues, not a local one,” Hansen said, adding that property taxes cover about 21 percent of the cost. “We need to know our children — no matter where they’re educated in the state — that they’re going to be growing up to be productive citizens and productive members of the workforce.”

Hansen also disagrees with Gunther’s opposition to the transportation funding bill passed last year by Democrats and a handful of Republicans over the veto of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“I would have fully supported that and if elected will fight to make sure it is not revoked or minimized or devalued in any way,” Hansen said. “Our transportation infrastructure is just too important to us, especially in rural Minnesota.”

In addition, Hansen favors increasing the exemption for estates before the state’s estate tax kicks in, saying the current $1 million figure is hitting too many small businesses and farms.

An economic focus
Gunther focuses on his areas of expertise in St. Paul.

“I’ve got experience in what southern Minnesota needs the most and that’s economic development and job production,” the former grocery store owner said.

Gunther also said he will continue to work to ensure rural Minnesota gets a fair share of state funding, including for transportation and schools.

“We have to make sure we’re getting our part of the pie,” he said.

Other top issues include working on affordable housing, something he said is particularly important in a time of increasing foreclosures. And he promises to oppose tax increases if Democrats attempt to hike revenues to deal with projected budget shortfalls.

“It’s not the time to raise taxes when people are hurting,” Gunther said.