MANKATO — While the presidential election overshadows every other race, two Minnesota Senate candidates are working hard to get the attention of Le Sueur County residents in one of the most competitive state legislative races in the region.
First-term incumbent Sen. Rich Draheim of rural Madison Lake is facing an aggressive challenge from retired Navy veteran Jon Olson, DFL-Webster, in Senate District 20, which has flipped several times between Republicans and Democrats.
“I think my record speaks for itself,” Draheim said when asked what he hopes voters will be thinking about when they get past the presidential vote and start looking at races lower on the ballot.
For Olson, it’s about the way Minnesota has changed in recent decades — from a place where elected officials worked together to solve problems to a place where pure politics seems to dominate the state Capitol.
“I want them to think about what direction they want Minnesota to go,” Olson said.
Looming red ink
Draheim doesn’t offer a particularly cheerful view of Minnesota’s state budget. He anticipates lawmakers will face a deficit of $6 billion to $10 billion because of the impact of the pandemic and resulting economic recession. And even when that passes, Draheim paints a gloomy picture of future state budgets ravaged by rising health care costs and long-term care expenses as an aging population moves increasingly to assisted living centers and nursing homes.
“So we have our hands full,” said Draheim, adding that his history of owning and operating small businesses makes him the right person to make difficult fiscal and budgetary choices.
“I’m used to making tough decisions, and that’s what we’re going to have in the coming two years.”
An opponent of tax increases, Draheim said he’d also be reluctant to employ some of the shifts and accounting gimmicks used in the past, such as delaying state payments to K-12 schools. Instead, he promises to root out waste and abuse and scrutinize every state program — with a particular focus on the Department of Human Services.
“Whatever the program is, are we achieving our goals?” he said.
Olson makes a similar pledge to find savings in state spending, saying a basic tenet of Navy officers at sea is conserving resources. But if elected, Olson said he will be thinking strategically about Minnesota’s long-term interests even as the Legislature faces the immediate task of balancing the budget.
He said he wants Minnesota to again be a place focused on public policy discussions and problem-solving rather than partisan rancor. Olson’s approach was persuasive enough to get the endorsement of three prominent Minnesotans — Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale and former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and former Republican U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger.
The problems Olson wants to tackle first are the ones he said have come up most frequently in discussions with residents of the district.
“I’m interviewing right now, hoping to be hired by the people of District 20,” he said. “... Hands down, the No. 1 issue I’ve heard about is health care.”
People talk about the cost of insurance, co-pays and deductibles, and prescription drugs. And they noticed the inability of lawmakers for months and months to compromise on a bill to reduce insulin costs for diabetics.
“The comment I heard is, people’s lives are on the line right now and they’re worried about politics,” Olson said.
The No. 2 issue is agriculture and the hits farmers have taken from trade wars, federal ethanol policies, weather, and — for hog and poultry producers — COVID-19 disruptions at meat processing plants.
While conceding the federal farm bill drives much of agricultural policy, Olson has a long list of actions that the state can take to support farmers — particularly smaller family farmers.
The third issue is education, including a fairer funding formula and more career programs for the 30% of high school graduates who don’t go to college. Investments in a better education system don’t fully pay off until 25 years later, but those investments are critical if Minnesota is going to compete in a global economy, Olson said.
“Education is the most important strategic investment we can make in our state and country,” he said.
A fourth issue, he said, supports the other three — quality internet access to all corners of the state.
A busy freshman
Four years ago, Draheim toppled Democratic incumbent Sen. Kevin Dahle, a Northfield teacher, in a district that stretches from the Minnesota River to east of Interstate 35. A business administration graduate of Minnesota State University, Draheim promised to use his experience — formerly a farm implement dealer and Westwood Marina owner, currently the owner of a real estate agency and the New Ulm Event Center — to bring scrutiny and accountability to the state budget.
He’s been active in his first term, introducing more bills as chief author than all but one of the 67 state senators.
His legislation has included efforts to increase the transparency of medical costs facing Minnesotans when they visit a hospital or clinic. He’s also aimed to reduce costs of housing construction by easing some of the regulations placed on home-builders.
Numerous bills have included Democratic co-sponsors.
“I’m very bipartisan,” Draheim said. “I’m willing to work across the aisle to get things done.”
On many issues, including anti-pandemic efforts, Draheim is undeniably conservative. He stated earlier this summer that Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is intentionally trying to make Minnesotans afraid of COVID-19 because he wants to maintain the unilateral authority that came with the health emergency.
“One way to do that is to keep the fear going,” Draheim told KTOE in July.
He also shared a tweet by a Senate Republican colleague, who is a medical doctor, stating that mask-wearing mandates were sacrificing science “at the altar of panic.”
Draheim’s campaign Facebook page also has numerous references to rioting and looting in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the country.
“Most people’s attentions are on two things right now,” Draheim said. “One thing is rioting and the second is COVID.”
Olson credits Draheim for several of his legislative efforts but said voters need to judge him on how many bills he gets passed, not how many he introduces.
The criticisms of Walz’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including opposition to the statewide mask mandate, don’t make sense to Olson. Walz was listening to the experts on infectious disease each step of the way.
“That’s how we make good public policy decisions, when you’re informed by the facts,” Olson said, adding that mask-wearing isn’t solely about personal protection. “Demonstrating that you have empathy and care about others, that’s why you wear a mask.”
Olson also pointed to the Dakotas and Iowa, where Republican governors have declined to restrict social gatherings or mandate masks, and Wisconsin, where a Republican Legislature has encouraged a rapid reopening of the economy.
North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin now lead the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita. Iowa, where the per capita COVID death rate is the highest in the region, is eighth among the 50 states in new cases per capita. Minnesota is 16th.
The health of Minnesotans and the long-term health of the state’s economy has been well-served by attempts to stem the spread of the virus, according to Olson.
“If we really get hammered by COVID, that’s going to hurt the economy even more than it is now,” he said.
Draheim said he took hundreds of calls from business owners struggling with the stay-at-home shutdown ordered by Walz last spring and then the heavily restricted reopenings that followed. The restrictions were often inconsistent between various businesses and organizations, Draheim said, which added to the frustration.
He’s convinced the governor didn’t truly understand the devastation his actions were inflicting on small business owners. And he said it doesn’t make sense to apply the same rules statewide in a state as varied as Minnesota.
“Things in downtown Le Center should not be treated the same as things in downtown Minneapolis,” Draheim said.
Ultimately, Draheim would have let individual businesses decide when and how to operate during the pandemic and individual families decide whether to patronize those businesses.
“We have to have some faith in people and let them decide what’s best for their families,” he said.
A point of agreement
Even as the pandemic and the financial repercussions inevitably dominate people’s attention, Draheim and Olson strike similar notes on what lies ahead as the nation’s population grows older. The solutions won’t be simple, but the first step is to examine why health care and long-term care costs so much.
It costs $7,000 to $10,000 a month to keep a family member in a nursing home, Draheim said.
“That’s destroying people’s families,” he said, noting that he sees it in his real estate office as people struggle to come up with the money for long-term care.
“We have clients all the time selling off property or land.”
Olson sees it, too. After 20 years of active duty at Navy assignments around the world, Olson came back to Minnesota to help care for his father, who had Alzheimer’s disease. By the end, his mother was paying $8,500 a month for adequate 24-hour care for his father.
It’s happening to countless families and will only grow as an issue with the aging of the baby boom generation, Olson said.
While Draheim’s campaign website doesn’t appear to have been updated since the 2016 election, his campaign Facebook page — www.facebook.com/draheimforsenate/ — is current and includes several short videos where he lays out his thoughts on issues. Olson’s campaign website, jonolsonformnsenate.com, has an extensive “issues” section and the campaign’s Facebook page has a link to a 29-minute video of the policy discussion between Olson, Mondale, Carlson and Durenberger.
Senate District 20 consists of northern Rice County (including Northfield and Lonsdale), southern Scott County (including Belle Plaine and New Prague) and almost all of Le Sueur County other than a small piece in the southwestern corner (Kasota is not in the district.) The western half of District 20 is decidedly conservative, favoring President Trump over Hillary Clinton by a two-to-one margin in 2016. The eastern half, heavily influenced by Northfield, is more liberal, slightly favoring Clinton over Trump.