By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
WASECA — Ask a 2012 candidate for the Minnesota Legislature why they’re running and why they think they’re the wisest option for voters, and they almost invariably will zero in on the state budget, taxes and how their approach to finances is a better deal for most Minnesotans.
The race in House District 24A is different.
Take Republican John Petersburg.
“What I’m really talking to the community about is skills,” Petersburg said, “my ability to bring people together, the ability to be inclusive. And I tend to think outside the box and come up with alternatives that are able to be supported by many individuals.”
Here’s Democrat Craig Brenden.
“I’m frustrated with the gridlock that has become the underlying current of what happens in our state Legislature,” Brenden said. “ ... I’m going to be one of the voices that says, ‘We can do this. But we’ve got to be able to sit down and talk and not fight.’”
Both candidates also promise to use their ears more and their mouths less compared to other politicians.
“My general philosophy is listen first, debate second and then decide,” Petersburg said. “I don’t come into any discussion thinking I know the answer up front.”
“You have to be able to sit down and listen,” he said. “If you listen, you can ask questions: How does this affect you? How does this affect your community? How does this affect your quality of life?”
But even with both men promising to be peaceful mediators rather than political gladiators, there are differences voters can weigh when making their selection about who is going to succeed retiring Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna.
Sure, both are Wasecans, both were farmers before changing careers, both say they would be very reluctant to raise taxes, and both say a top priority is upgrading Highway 14 to four lanes all the way from Rochester to New Ulm. But their backgrounds are different and there are distinctions in their priorities.
Petersburg said his skills in conflict resolution and consensus building have been honed as a church administrator for a 4,200-member Lutheran church in Owatonna. With a residence in Waseca and a job in Owatonna, he has connections to the two biggest cities in the district.
Petersburg also stresses his deep roots in the district, which is dominated by Owatonna and Waseca but stretches as far east as Claremont.
He grew up in rural Claremont area and farmed for several years before he had to give up farming, choosing to get a college education and going into church administration. The financial struggles on the farm and the loss of his first wife to cancer taught him how supportive his community was, and he said his decision to run for office is related in part to that experience.
“This is my opportunity to give back to the community,” Petersburg said.
Petersburg’s positions on budget issues mostly match other Republican legislative candidates. He opposes tax increases, believing a higher tax burden on businesses will put a damper on economic growth and decrease the vitality of communities in his district.
Petersburg would support applying the state sales tax on Internet purchases, however, saying that state law already calls for that even though it isn’t enforced. Enforcing the tax on sales by out-of-state businesses to Minnesotans simply puts those businesses on a level playing field with brick-and-mortar retail stores in the state, he said.
On education, Petersburg said Minnesota is mandating that schools to do more than it has been willing to finance, and something must change.
“We’ve got to find a way to fully fund all the things we’re asking of people,” he said. “And if we can’t, we have to ask them to do less.”
The state’s problems can be solved if voters put the right people at the table, Petersburg said.
“You want to send people up there who — even when they have to disagree — can do it respectfully and do it with an air of diplomacy.”
As a teacher, Brenden said he’s learned that a willingness to listen and a reputation for being trustworthy and honest are the keys to communication and problem-solving with students and with their parents.
Too often in recent years, lawmakers have been more interested in listening to party leaders than constituents, Brenden said: “We’ve looked at things that would benefit a party rather than things that would be beneficial to all. ... We need to take the attitude that everybody’s in this ball game together.”
A prime example is the three-week state government shutdown that followed a budget impasse between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, he said.
And when a compromise was ultimately found, it borrowed money from schools and shifted costs to property taxes, which Brenden said showed little concern for the long-term interests of the state.
“The $2.4 billion that was borrowed from our schools, it’s a Band-Aid approach,” Brenden said, referring to the cumulative borrowing that was also done under a Democratic Legislature and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “We balance our budget by robbing Peter to pay Paul. That’s inexcusable.”
Brenden said he’d be reluctant to accept Dayton’s alternative of raising taxes on high-income Minnesotans, would strongly oppose short-term budget-balancing gimmicks, and wants to prioritize property tax relief. He doesn’t offer many details in how that can be accomplished when the upcoming state budget is expected to show more red ink, saying he would seek efficiencies in government programs.
Ultimately, he said, good solutions can be found if voters elect people with the right attitude about government service, people like Kath, who was the first Democrat to represent Waseca in the House in 20 years.
“(Minnesotans) believe in taking care of each other, looking out for your neighbors,” Brenden said. “That’s what Kory had. And that’s what I believe in, too.”