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Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, served seven years as a Park Rapids City Council member and has held a variety of leadership roles. Barrel manufacturer Black Swan Cooperage is located in Park Rapids, hence the oak barrel in his office. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, served seven years as a Park Rapids City Council member and has held a variety of leadership roles. Barrel manufacturer Black Swan Cooperage is located in Park Rapids, hence the oak barrel in his office. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Breaking the Ice: Candidate recruiter gets recruited, wins Senate seat

Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, has gone from candidate recruiter to candidate and now first-term senator.

Politics has interested Utke since he became eligible to vote. His increasing local involvement led to seven years as a Park Rapids City Council member and a variety of leadership roles.

“I was the district chair who was out trying to help recruit candidates when the caucus was coming up,” Utke said. “We were brainstorming names. The conversation always came back around to if I would do it. I kept saying, ‘No, I’ve got too much work to do.’ You get to the point where you figure you can make those things work and let’s give this a try. That’s how we ended up here.”

Utke, an insurance agent, had not been to the Capitol before he was elected. Serving in the Senate is “a huge step up from the council,” he said.

“The scope or the scale of it is so much larger. The learning curve is fast but the amount of stuff you get exposed to is incredible.”

Q. What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A. That’s wide open because everybody comes in with a different topic, a different concern. I have been in basically the people business my whole career from retail hardware to heavy-duty truck sales and service and insurance. To have fun and live in those environments you’ve got to like conversation. The same thing here.

Q. Who was the first presidential candidate you voted for and why?

A. It would have been in ’76 so that would be Ford. I was a conservative and he spoke my language.

Q. What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A. My wife and I enjoy getting the motorcycle out. She’s kind of gotten into that the last number of years due to some of the casual riding we can do. I’m a typical outdoors guy. I do enjoy the hunting and the fishing when I get a chance. At home I enjoy the yard and the garden and actually have a small vineyard that I just started a couple of years ago. I planted some varieties of grapes that are for the northern climate and this is the third growing season coming up so I’m hoping to have a decent little harvest and produce some wine.

Q. If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A. We live in area that all the tourists come to. So depending upon the time of year and what they like to do, anything from a boat ride to just going out to a nice place to eat. And we have a lot of events. I’ve traveled Minnesota, North and South Dakota to take in some good bull riding events. We have a great one in Park Rapids. We’ll adapt to whatever people want to do.

Q. What would be one way to end partisan polarization?

A. If we all sat around the table and discussed things, you’d usually end up with something better out of all the ideas that are thrown out. That doesn’t always get a chance to happen [here]. Part of it is the design of the process and it’s kind of the rules you’re dealt, unfortunately. But at the same time there are things we need to do differently so that you incorporate all ideas. You don’t have to be the first one to the door to declare winners and losers. The whole game is hopefully that Minnesota wins rather than certain groups. When we figure out how to play as a team we’re going to be better.

Q. If you’re not at your desk, where are you likely to be?

A. So far there’s been very little down time. We have gone late with our committee meetings or you’ve got all these event requests that groups are in town and they want to meet with you.

Q. What is something very few people know about you?

A. My 35th wedding anniversary is coming up in a couple of months.

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