LAKE CRYSTAL — Melissa Wagner is well aware of her position as a Democrat in a political race where people expect a Republican to win.
The Butternut Valley Township native is embarking on her first campaign to serve as representative in House District 23B, even as political experts call for the seat to likely go for Republicans. Yet Wagner believes her upbringing in the area, as well as her ability to respond to local issues, makes her a perfect fit for the district.
"We need to be listening to the people that we’re representing," Wagner said. "If my values are more left-leaning but the people I represent lean more to the right, then I need to honor that."
Wagner grew up and still lives on the family farm in Butternut Valley Township. She graduated from Minnesota State University with a degree in social work, and she uses that degree as a special education coordinator for rural school districts throughout south-central Minnesota.
She said she had considered running for office for a while — Wagner's mother served on the Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial School Board for two decades, and her father served on the local co-op and township boards for many years. Yet Wagner was inspired to run in the upcoming Feb. 12 special election in part through her faith, which she believes as a Christian means she needs to use her skills to help her community.
"I can’t just sit in my pew at church on Sunday," she said.
Though education is Wagner's specialty, she credits her farming background with giving her the agricultural experience necessary to represent the district — parts of Blue Earth, Waseca, Watonwan and Le Sueur counties.
To that end, she believes the state needs to take a closer look at rural regulations and funding. Wagner has heard from farmers who are still upset over recent regulations to put vegetative buffer strips of land near public and private waterways. She doesn't necessarily disagree with buffer strips, but she believes the state should review the practice more thoroughly and do a better job of explaining the research behind the policy.
"It may make common sense, but is it really effective?" Wagner said. "We need to make sure that we’re allowing farmers to farm all of their land as much as possible, but also making sure that we’re doing what is best for our water."
On health care, Wagner supports the recent DFL proposal to create a public MinnesotaCare option on the state's individual insurance market. She believes privatizing part of the state's health care plan will help bring insurance costs down for individual insurance buyers while still providing essential benefits.
Wagner hopes to address state funding disparities between Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities. Aside from simple disparities such as per-pupil payments, she'd like to see the state move away from things like local property tax referendums to pay for operational costs or new school facilities. Smaller communities can't share the increased taxes as easily as larger suburban cities near Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"It’s a boon for the metro area and a burden for the rural area," she said.
Aside from securing equity in rural funding, Wagner also would like the state to help boost rural economic development through increased broadband project grants, among other things.
Wagner's Republican opponent, Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal, recently defeated St. James farmer Scott Sanders in a special primary to become the GOP candidate facing her in less than two weeks. She'll also contend with write-in candidate Nicholas Schmitz.
While her opponents worked on the primary, Wagner said she used her time to find common ground with people throughout the district who have voted Republican in the past.
"That’s what I think is really more important," she said. "Even though you do have a large district, politics are more personal here. People are looking at someone who is more committed to the area more so than a D or an R next to their name."