Two relatively unknown political candidates will compete for the DFL spot in the District 23 Senate race next week.

Voters must choose either Barbara Lake, of Mapleton, or John Lillis, of Good Thunder, in the Tuesday primary election to run against incumbent state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, in the general election this fall.

Both contenders haven't run for office before, but they both started their campaigns in similar ways — someone asked them to run as Rosen appeared to run unchallenged earlier this year.

"I never thought I'd be running," Lillis said.

Lillis was endorsed by District 23 Democrats in May. A retired union construction worker, Lillis worked across Minnesota for years building schools, wastewater treatment plants and wind turbines, among other things.

He wants the Minnesota Legislature to increase Local Government Aid to smaller communities throughout District 23, which encompasses Martin, Watonwan and Faribault counties, as well as parts of Jackson, Blue Earth and Waseca counties. He's also looking at other ways to increase funding for rural infrastructure needs — particularly through the legalization of marijuana and industrial hemp.

Lillis is convinced legalizing marijuana production and sales in the state would offer millions of dollars in funding for municipalities throughout the state, similar to the way Colorado is benefiting from a marijuana sales tax. Colorado legalized marijuana via constitutional amendment in 2012. Though it took a few years to get marijuana sales going, the state collected $135 million in marijuana sales taxes in 2015, and sales of marijuana are expected to top $1 billion this year.

Minnesotans who travel to Colorado to buy marijuana should spend that money here, Lillis argues.

"At some point it will be legal here," he said. "That's just the way the culture is going. Do we want to sit back here in Minnesota? We've always been a progressive state, and we certainly need progressive solutions."

He also believes farmers should grow industrial hemp to diversify their crops, which would decrease the local agricultural industry's reliance on corn and soybean prices.

Lillis realizes his position on marijuana is outside mainstream Minnesota politics, but thus far he thinks he's found a receptive audience in area residents who want new ideas from outsider politicians, based on his visits around the district.

"We need change, we need to do things, and we need somebody who's going to go up there who's not afraid to say we need to do things," he said.

Lake agrees District 23 needs a new senator to represent area residents. A former school administrator, Lake has worked as a principal in school districts in Wisconsin, Arizona and in Minnesota. She also served as a special education district administrator in Intermediate District 287 in Plymouth.

She and her husband, a doctor at Mankato Clinic, moved to the state in 2008 and have lived in Mapleton for the past three years. Lake has retired from working in schools and instead writes for the Maple River Messenger to keep busy.

"I started just attending all of the little local city council meetings and all of the school board meetings," she said. "Everything intrigued me so much, and I came to respect and love this area."

Lake wants to work on increasing funding for rural schools, as well as securing more infrastructure funding for the area. At the same time, she believes more must be done to help senior citizen health care, and she believes the state should attempt to fix the disparity in property tax rates to decrease agricultural land taxes.

As a former public schools administrator, she believes she would be effective as a senator based on her previous experiences studying complex issues and participating in community-based committees.

"I'm a person who studies things," Lake said. "I need to know a lot of information about a certain issue before I say I'm going to go and do something."

Either candidate will face a challenge in Rosen, who is seeking her fifth term. She was first elected in 2002 and won elections in 2006 and 2010 before she earned another win in 2012 after the state was redistricted. District 23 leans conservative — its two state representatives, Tony Cornish of Vernon Center and Bob Gunther of Fairmont, are Republicans.

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