By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — It’s been a long stretch since a Republican won Mankato’s seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
The last time it happened, Ronald Reagan was walloping Walter Mondale in the presidential election, sickly Konstantin Chernenko was serving his short-lived stint as leader of the Soviet Union, the Apple Macintosh and crack cocaine made their debut, and the Minnesota Twins’ new centerfielder was a skinny rookie named Kirby Puckett.
Thad Shunkwiler is the latest Republican to attempt to break the nearly three-decade losing streak for his party that began in 1986 with Democrat John Dorn’s defeat of Rep. Mark Piepho, R-Skyline. An Army National Guard soldier and doctoral student at Minnesota State University, Shunkwiler isn’t making predictions of victory in his race against three-term Democratic Rep. Kathy Brynaert.
But Shunkwiler thinks his views match those of most Mankatoans.
A win is possible, he said, “if people can see beyond the fact that I have an ‘R’ behind my name and see that I’m an independent thinker with a fiscally conservative philosophy.”
While Brynaert has a “DFL” behind her name, she thinks her decades-long history of community involvement is a more important factor than party affiliation in her three comfortable wins since Dorn’s retirement. And she thinks her connection to business leaders, the school system, college officials, health care providers, local nonprofits and others is what makes her the better choice Nov. 6.
“What’s really important in a community like ours is that community vision has priority over partisan ideology,” Brynaert said.
‘A better place’
The first thing Shunkwiler promises to bring to the Legislature if elected is a new attitude.
As the father of a 5-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, Shunkwiler said he’s worried about their future if partisanship in Minnesota becomes the norm: “I looked at my kids and I thought, ‘I want to put us in a better place than we are now.’ Because if we continue down this road of divisiveness, it doesn’t lead anywhere good.”
He offers one piece of evidence of his independence: his vocal opposition to the marriage amendment put on the ballot by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
In a letter to the editor published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Shunkwiler laid out his conservative credentials but then encouraged other conservatives to vote against the amendment.
He concedes in the letter that his position on the issue will cost him votes: “While I can live without those votes, I cannot live with the idea that I might have to look my friends and neighbors in the eye and deny them the rights that I enjoy based on who they love.”
One local Republican activist told him he was committing “political suicide.”
“My thought is, if standing up for what you believe in is political suicide, show me a cliff,” he said.
An opponent of any tax increases and an advocate of reducing taxes and regulation on small businesses, Shunkwiler said he would be a strong conservative on budget issues. But he portrays himself as “a moderate Republican” overall who would “shake the tree” of both parties’ legislative leadership.
Asked what he would have said to Republican leaders — if he was in the Legislature in the weeks leading up to the 2011 budget stalemate and state government shutdown — Shunkwiler offers only a general criticism of their approach.
“I would have urged both parties to put aside the partisanship and look at the average Minnesota family. That’s who we need to serve,” he said.
On a vast range of legislative issues, Mankato-area residents have opinions, experiences and expertise to offer lawmakers, according to Brynaert. And she said she’s well-positioned to convey their input to fellow legislators when laws are being made and budgets negotiated.
“The community history and the networking is what I bring,” she said. “... Some (candidates) have an issue that they’re going to go after. But from the beginning, my commitment to this work is based on my being integrally connected to this community and my life in this community.”
As she and husband Tony Filipovitch raised a family in Mankato, Brynaert found herself volunteering as a playground monitor at their daughters’ school; then offering her time to other organizations focused on the healthy development of children; then getting elected to the School Board; and finally making the jump to the state Legislature.
Brynaert said she gained some expertise along the way, such as her deep knowledge of methods for assessing the performance of students, teachers and schools and holding educators accountable — a topic she’s been involved in for 25 years.
Getting that right — so that children are being provided the best possible education — has been a priority in Mankato, she said: “There’s a common vision for the well-being of children and families in this community.”
It’s been a focus of her six years in St. Paul because she believes it’s vital the state get it right, too. Along with other motivations, improving school performance and holding educators accountable using valid, research-based measures is vital to Minnesota’s economic future, she said.
“It’s those kids going to kindergarten who are the workforce being developed.”
Shunkwiler said three priorities are at the foundation of his legislative run: boosting the local economy, improving education and ensuring that veterans get the benefits they deserve.
The basis of his economic plan is to work toward elimination of the state property tax on small businesses and streamlining of regulations on business owners.
On education, he believes colleges need to spend less on amenities like athletic facilities and focus those resources on the classroom. Shunkwiler also wants to boost the number of counselors in Minnesota schools, saying the ratio of students to counselors in the state is one of the highest in the nation.
Finally, he wants to make sure Minnesota veterans get the help they need with medical care, employment and mental health services.
While each of those priorities would add to the existing imbalance between projected spending and revenue in Minnesota’s budget, Shunkwiler said he is simply asking the state to make choices about which parts of the budget matter most.
“As someone who is trained as a leader in the Army, I want to make those tough choices,” he said.
Aiming for balance
Securing funding for Mankato’s civic center upgrade and expansion is a top goal for Brynaert. It’s not about bringing a perk home to her district, she said. It’s about making an investment in the state’s overall economic health by supporting a project that will help a vibrant regional center remain prosperous.
Brynaert points to the strong support of the civic center project by business leaders, the civic center’s track record in revitalizing a previously stagnant downtown, and the unique partnership between MSU and the city in sharing the arena.
On other issues — whether it’s addressing a state budget shortfall or streamlining regulations or reforming the tax code — Brynaert talks about seeking balance.
When there’s red ink to be eliminated, the best approach is a mix of spending cuts, revenue increases and use of reserves, she said. When regulations are being re-examined, it’s important to balance the needs of those being regulated with those whose interests are being protected by a law.
And when it comes to taxes, the issue goes beyond whether they’re too high or too low, Brynaert said. There’s also a question of fairness and whether holding the line on one tax is pushing others — like property taxes — higher.
“In a number of areas where the state has pulled back on investing, it’s come down to property taxes (picking up the burden),” she said.
House District 19B includes the bulk of Mankato, although some neighborhoods on the city’s western and northern sides are in Rep. Terry Morrow’s House District 19A. District 19B also includes Skyline, Eagle Lake and part of Mankato Township.