By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
WASECA — Waseca area residents are getting a taste of the intense political battle for control of the Minnesota Senate.
With state Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, making an unsuccessful run for Congress instead of seeking re-election to the Legislature, his Senate District 24 seat is seen as winnable by both Democrats and Republicans, who are trying to retain control of the majority after four decades of DFL dominance.
Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, is co-owner of an independent insurance agency, serves on the Owatonna School Board and is an active member of the local chamber of commerce. She’s also destined to be a big-spending stooge of labor unions if elected to the Senate, according to mailers being sent by the Republican Party to district voters.
Vern Swedin, R-Owatonna, is an entrepreneur who has started several small businesses, including his first at age 20, and has taken multiple mission trips with his church to help feed poverty-stricken residents of Haiti. He’s also a failed business owner who left creditors in the lurch when his construction company went bankrupt, according to advertising run by a liberal organization promoting the election of Democrats to the Legislature.
The district dominated by the cities of Waseca and Owatonna hasn’t been particularly competitive over the years, but it has shown a strong independent streak and has been trending more Democratic.
Its two most recent senators also have been among the Senate’s more colorful characters. During Sen. Dick Day’s 20 years, he was known for speaking his mind — including when he was frustrated with fellow Republicans.
Day resigned late in 2009 and was replaced by Parry in a special election. While Day was well-liked by many Democratic colleagues, Parry was a lightning rod at the Capitol and had a particularly difficult relationship with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
In any case, there hasn’t been a DFL senator elected in Waseca-Owatonna in more than 40 years.
Policy and partnering
Jensen thinks she has the resume and the skills to end the DFL losing streak.
Too often in recent years, state policy has disproportionately harmed outstate Minnesota — with outstate Minnesota Republicans going along with the changes, Jensen said.
“The market value homestead credit was an example of that,” she said.
The Republican-controlled Legislature proposed the elimination of the credit as part of their effort to eliminate a $5 billion budget shortfall without raising state-level taxes. While some Republicans, noting that the League of Minnesota Cities supported the idea, said they didn’t realize the impact it would have on property taxes, Jensen said they were warned.
She recalled a meeting she attended where both Parry and Democratic Rep. Kory Kath of Owatonna were present.
“Kory Kath said, ‘Your property taxes are going to go up if you go ahead and do this,’” said Jensen, who pointed to rapid jumps in real estate taxes that resulted. “... Minnesota businesses and farms both took a hit.”
Her interest in running for the Senate also was sparked by an announcement by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that their proposed legislative agenda included eliminating Local Government Aid, an important source of revenue for many outstate cities.
Jensen was serving as chairwoman of the Owatonna Area Chamber’s public policy committee and questioned the state chamber’s representative at a regional meeting.
“I asked what that would look like here,” she said of the chamber proposal to drop LGA and let cities institute local sales taxes. “They said they hadn’t modeled it in greater Minnesota. When I heard they were proposing a policy and hadn’t modeled it in greater Minnesota, I became very angry.”
The chamber plan, abandoned when other outstate members reacted the same as Jensen, would have had an inevitable result in smaller cities with smaller retail economies, she said: “Our property taxes would have gone up.”
Maintaining the state’s tradition of providing property tax relief for outstate cities is a top priority for Jensen, enough so that she would support Dayton’s plan to raise income taxes on the state’s highest earners if part of the revenue was dedicated to Local Government Aid and other measures to reduce real estate taxes.
“It really has been a partnership between the cities and the state in the past,” she said. “I see an erosion of that partnership, and we have to be strong.”
But that doesn’t mean she thinks tax hikes alone will fix the state’s recurring budget problem or that the state can go wild with additional spending, Jensen said — regardless of the claims on the Republican mailers.
“There has to be a lot of cutting and improving efficiencies of our services,” she said. “... We can’t keep doing this the way we’ve been doing it. We don’t have the money.”
And that means being willing to listen to ideas from both Republicans and Democrats when crafting legislation, Jensen said. Too often, watching legislative committees in the past two years, she said she saw Democratic amendments rejected by the Republican majority even though they would have improved the bills under consideration.
“For me, public policy is: Why are we doing it? Who’s going to be affected? And what can we add to make it better policy?” she said.
Down to business
Swedin said his business background and the lessons he’s learned were the motivating factors in his first run for elected office.
“I have been a serial entrepreneur,” he said.
Starting with a lawn care business at age 20, he later went into construction and then satellite television programming sales. Working as a small businessman taught Swedin the value of the private sector in job creation and also the barriers government can put in the way. He thinks the Senate could find value in his experience.
“I just wanted to bring that common sense — here’s what the real world is — as a small-business person,” he said.
Part of the real world of entrepreneurs is that failure can occur, something focused on by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota ad reporting on Swedin’s bankruptcy filing 15 years ago. Swedin said they didn’t tell the whole story.
“A partner took all of the money and equipment in the middle of the night, and it forced my wife and I into a bankruptcy in 1997,” said Swedin, who said the partner was never prosecuted for the alleged theft.
The early struggles taught him important lessons: “You have to be able to trust who you’re working with, and you have to do the math — each project has to work.”
“It’s painful to talk about because you have those failures,” he said. “But entrepreneurs have to fail forward.”
Swedin said he got back up, ultimately rising to the position of president of Pace Electronics in Rochester. He now operates his own consulting business.
If elected, he plans to work to reduce the state’s tax burden on small businesses and streamline regulations and permitting requirements. Minnesota doesn’t need to be a low-tax, low-service state, but it shouldn’t be anywhere near the bottom when it comes to tax climate, Swedin said.
“Somewhere in the middle would bring a new level of confidence in investing in good-paying local jobs,” he said.
He would push in the near term for targeted tax credits for businesses that create jobs while working toward broader improvements in the overall Minnesota tax climate.
Swedin strongly opposes any tax increases, including Dayton’s plan for higher rates for top incomes.
The state’s problem is excessive spending, and higher taxes would only encourage more, he said: “That spend-more policy can really get us in trouble, like the federal government.”
Swedin doesn’t offer specific spending cuts that he would support, saying only that he would target duplication in government programs and take education off the table for any budget reductions.
Taxing high earners also can cause reductions in charitable support that wealthier Minnesotans would otherwise provide, he said. If higher taxes provide a boost to programs for the poor, but the taxes force down contributions to institutions such as local food shelves, the poor are no better off, Swedin said.
“What happens if all we’re doing is taxing high-income earners from giving,” he said. “What did we solve?”
While he might share some policy positions with the Republican senator he hopes to succeed, Swedin said he would bring a different style to the Capitol. And he’s confident that senators from all political perspectives can share one goal.
“I don’t like to be adversarial,” he said. “... We have to make sure our 67 senators are focused on the same priority — good-paying local jobs.”