The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 5, 2013

District 19A candidates go before the voters

By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press

ST PETER — One week before voters will decide the newest member of the Minnesota Legislature, nearly 100 residents of House District 19A packed a St. Peter meeting room to hear from the three candidates looking to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of state Rep. Terry Morrow.

The district -- which includes part of Mankato and the Kasota area of Le Sueur County, but it is dominated by Nicollet County -- is facing a choice between Republican Allen Quist of rural St. Peter, Democrat Clark Johnson of North Mankato and Independence Party candidate Tim Gieseke of rural Nicollet.

Nicollet County's seat in the House has flip-flopped between the parties going back to the 1980s when Quist represented it for three terms before losing two straight elections. And the political philosophies offered at Tuesday night's event did the same.

"You're going to hear very different points of view at this forum, and I think that's healthy," Quist told the audience at the Treaty Site History Center.

And they did, on everything from early childhood education spending and gun control to global warming and taxes.

Johnson, a Minnesota State University professor, asked voters to continue the trend of the last general election when they elected DFL majorities in both the House and Senate to work with Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton .

Johnson said opportunity and responsibility come with that complete control of the Capitol, and he suggested that his top priority was to put an end to the recurring budget shortfalls that have plagued state government for a decade.

"This is our time. This is our chance," said Johnson, who showed the crowd a copy of the 1970s-era Time Magazine cover with then-Gov. Wendell Anderson holding a walleye at a Minnesota lake.

The headline: "The Good Life in Minnesota."

Budget stability, even if it comes through higher taxes on wealthier Minnesotans, can allow the state's leaders a chance to create a new "Minnesota Miracle," according to Johnson.

"When the Legislature is constantly wrestling with a deficit, it's hard to plan for the future," he said.

Quist, a retired farmer and former Bethany Lutheran College professor, focused on his experience in the House from 1983 to 1989, his personal research in education and health care policy and his free-market conservatism.

Quist said he proved his willingness and ability to work toward bipartisan solutions during his previous stint in St. Paul and said those qualities will be needed in sorting out the existing and future problems Minnesota faces in health care administration and spending.

"I'm convinced I can get the bipartisan support to do the restructuring," he said of reforming the state's Medicaid system and the implementation of the national health care reform.

As for the state's recurring budget shortfalls, including the $1.1 billion in red ink facing the current Legislature, Quist called for no new taxes and cuts in projected spending -- the theme of Republicans both when they took control of the Legislature in 2010 and when they lost the majority on Nov. 6.

"I disagree with Mr. Johnson directly on this. We have to live within our means," he said.

And he resurrected his mantra from an October debate in Mankato -- then running for Congress against Democratic Rep. Tim Walz -- when he said the key to economic health was reduced taxes and fewer regulations on business.

"It means unleashing the lion of free enterprise," Quist said.

Gieseke offered a third approach, generally landing somewhere between the Democrat and the Republican. But the farmer and consultant didn't suggest his campaign was simply a middle-ground option for voters. Gieseke wants to bring his strategy of "shared governance" -- which is at the heart of his consulting company -- to state government.

"With Terry Morrow's resignation, I just felt it was time I could bring this model forward," Gieseke said.

The forum -- sponsored by chambers of commerce from St. Peter and the Mankato area and the St. Peter League of Women Voters -- relied on written questions submitted by the audience and emailed queries from the community.

Early childhood education? Johnson and Gieseke strongly supported more funding for programs aimed at pre-kindergarten kids, saying research shows a lasting benefit. Quist disagreed, saying the money would be better spent on programs for gifted and talented students.

Gun control? Gieseke said he'd support stronger background checks on gun purchases but doubted the efficacy of most other measures. Quist said research doesn't show any correlation between more gun laws and reduced crime, calling instead for a closer look at violent video games and for schools to teach students the golden rule and "the right to life."

Man-made global warming? Johnson and Gieseke agreed that it's occurring, Quist believes any warming is cyclical in nature and unrelated to human activity.

Johnson called for a civil discussion by Minnesotans on both sides of the gun issue aimed at finding common ground, although he conceded that hope for a consensus on the contentious issue required him to rely on deep reserves of optimism.

"I'm a natural optimist," Johnson said. "I'm a lifelong Twins fan."

Polling times and places for Tuesday's election are the same as for last year's general election.