By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — With Republicans not fielding opponents for Democratic state Sen. Kathy Sheran and Rep. Terry Morrow, the race between Democratic Rep. Kathy Brynaert and Republican challenger Thad Shunkwiler is the only show in town in terms of legislative races this election year.
That doesn’t appear to have concentrated political interest on the District 19B race, with just 27 people showing up to see Brynaert and Shunkwiler debate at Minnesota State University Tuesday night.
Those who did attend saw an exceedingly civil discussion between the three-term lawmaker and the MSU doctoral student looking to unseat her. While there were none of the attacks and name-calling commonly seen in federal races and some legislative contests around Minnesota, attendees saw a few distinctions between Brynaert and Shunkwiler.
“I set out tonight to really kind of introduce myself to the community and also let people know we have a choice,” Shunkwiler said in his closing statement. “And we have an important choice coming up.”
That’s not the case in House District 19A, which includes several thousand Mankatoans along with all of Nicollet County, Kasota, Lime Township and parts of Kasota and Mankato townships. Voters there will see only the name of Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Brynaert’s District 19B includes the bulk of Mankato, Skyline, Eagle Lake and much of Mankato Township. Sheran, a Mankato Democrat whose Senate district encompasses the two House districts, is also guaranteed a victory because of the absence of a Republican opponent.
Based on answers to a variety of questions Tuesday night, the choice between Brynaert and Shunkwiler will center on voters’ attitudes about the backgrounds of the candidates and their stances on budget issues.
A member of the Mankato School Board for nearly a decade before her 2006 election to the House, Brynaert emphasized her 34-year history as a Mankato volunteer and activist. It started when she saw needs at her daughter’s elementary school and offered, among other things, to be a volunteer playground supervisor.
“I raised my hand and said, ‘I want to help,” she said in her closing statement. “... And I’m still raising my hand and saying, ‘I want to help.’”
A 12-year veteran of the Army National Guard, Shunkwiler said he believes he’s had the best leadership training available anywhere in the world via the U.S. military and wants to offer those skills in the Legislature. A native of southwestern Minnesota’s Edgerton, he grew up on a farm and has worked as a counselor and at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center. He’s currently finishing his doctorate in counselor education at MSU.
While Shunkwiler stressed common Republican ideals about holding the line on taxes, getting out of the way of the business community and more tightly focusing state spending, he said he would actively avoid partisanship if elected to the House.
“One of the things that has been hard on me in this process is meeting with people and being pigeon-holed into this two-party system,” he said, recalling a door-knocking encounter with a district resident who cut him off as soon as she learned he was a Republican. “... She told me she hated everything that I stood for. I hadn’t said one word out of my mouth.”
Shunkwiler said that he opposes the marriage amendment (“... which has been an unpopular stand within my party”), supports more funding for higher education to reduce college class sizes and would fight to get state funding for Mankato’s civic center expansion project. On the latter issue, he said he disagrees with state bonding for individual projects but — as long as the bonding process is doling out dollars for communities around Minnesota — would work to help Mankato get funding for legitimate projects.
Brynaert echoed many of the themes she — and other area Democrats — have presented to voters in recent elections: Minnesota needs to honestly address its recurring budget shortfalls, including raising more tax revenue, rather than using school-funding shifts, borrowing against future revenue and other accounting gimmicks to push the problem into the next two-year budget cycle.
According to Brynaert, it will take more revenue to genuinely balance the budget while also making sure colleges are properly funded so students can graduate without mountainous debt levels, ensuring that property taxes aren’t disproportionately used to finance government services, and guaranteeing that important budget areas like veterans benefits are adequately supported.
“And that involves the ‘T-word’ that people don’t want to talk about,” Brynaert said. “Taxes.”
Shunkwiler said he won’t support tax increases.
“I can’t go to the neighbors in my community and say, ‘Well, I think we’re going to increase your taxes, we’re going to take more out of your paycheck, we’re going to add more property taxes to your house,” he said. “... That’s not what I stand for. It’s not what I’ll fight for.”
But when Shunkwiler used the “tax and spend” label in saying that approach has repeatedly failed, Brynaert responded to what she said is a stereotype.
With multiple years of multi-billion-dollar shortfalls in the state budget, Minnesota needs to take a three-pronged approach of targeted spending cuts, use of reserve funds and increased revenue, Brynaert said.
“If you take any one of those off the table, then you cheat yourself of the opportunity to appropriately do a pay-as-you-go budget,” she said. “And then you do kick the can down the road.”
The debate, moderated by Joe Meidl with questions submitted online and by audience members, was sponsored by Greater Mankato Growth and the League of Women Voters.