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GOP freshman Vogel contends with local teacher, union head Sawatzky

Willmar again a House battleground

Rep. Bruce Vogel saw four GOP-friendly townships on the southern part of his district sliced away in the new redistricting maps that were released by a panel of judges last February. (Submitted photo)

GOP freshman Vogel contends with local teacher, union head Sawatzky

One of the noteworthy DFL casualties of the 2010 GOP wave was Rep. Al Juhnke, a relatively conservative Democrat who had represented Willmar for 14 years.

Bruce Vogel, a Republican real estate agent from Willmar and first-time legislative candidate, beat Juhnke by a little more than 5 percentage points. Juhnke has now gone to work in western Minnesota for Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, leaving a new DFLer to try to reclaim the seat.

The DFL nomination drew multiple contestants for two particular reasons. The end of Juhnke’s long tenure, which began in 1996, meant that DFLers who’d been contemplating a run suddenly had an opening. And the new redistricting maps made the new House District 17B more DFL friendly.

Mary Sawatzky, a school teacher and local Education Minnesota teachers union president, won the DFL endorsement in April and later prevailed in the August primary over DFL activist Jessica Rohloff. The primary was a microcosm of the tensions that arise for DFLers in the socially conservative area: Sawatzky had strong backing from labor groups, which is helpful in the area that has a sizeable unionized workforce ranging from Teamsters to teachers to AFSCME employees.

Just as important, Sawatzky’s socially conservative leanings, particularly her anti-abortion stance, made her the more electable candidate in the socially conservative area. In total independent spending as of mid-September, Education Minnesota’s PAC had spent $2,800 on Sawatzky’s behalf.

GOP spending against Sawatzky

But Republicans are spending heavily attacking Sawatzky, suggesting that they deem the the race important to their efforts to maintain control of the state House. Kandiyohi County GOP Chair Roland Nissen said the conservative leanings of both Sawatzky and District 17 Senate candidate Lyle Koenen, another conservative DFL candidate in the area, mask the role that they would play in enacting DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s agenda.

“I know that when they’re asked to vote for what Gov. Dayton wants, generally speaking, they will follow what the boss wants,” Nissen said.

The race, which also features an intriguing third party candidate in the Independence Party’s Zach Liebl, has focused on issues of taxes and spending. And there’s been a lot of direct mail flooding mailboxes, as well as radio spots.

Sawatzky is taking Vogel to task over a couple of facets of the budget that Republican legislative leaders reached with Dayton in 2011 to end the 20-day government shutdown.

In particular, Sawatzky objects to the Republican Legislature’s role in expanding the state’s school aid shift to $2.4 billion during the last budget cycle. She also said area voters are upset about rising property taxes and fault Republicans for eliminating the market value homestead credit as part of the budget fix.

“The borrowing of the money to balance the budget, [frustration] with the government shutdown and property taxes,” Sawatzky said. “Those are the top three things people are in complete agreement over, and those are exactly the things our representative voted straight party line on.”

Vogel responds to the criticism about the school shift by noting that the GOP-controlled Legislature passed budget bills that were vetoed by Dayton. During the budget negotiations at the end of the shutdown, Vogel said the shift that was passed was smaller than the one Dayton originally proposed to legislative leaders.

“We had our balanced budget bills all passed and were waiting for the governor to negotiate with us, and he chose not to,” Vogel said. “Ultimately we didn’t shut government down. The governor shut government down.”

As for the market value homestead credit, Vogel said the program hadn’t ever been fully funded, which is why local government associations didn’t object to its elimination. He said local school levy increases are a major reason why property taxes have increased.

“The market value credit program was a failing program anyway,” Vogel said. “We replaced that program with an exclusion program so that ultimately, if the tax rates were to stay where they were … property owners wouldn’t have seen that tax increase. Because the county levied millions of dollars more than they were ever promised, they’ve charged the taxpayers more than they would have paid even if [the homestead credit] was fully funded.”

New map removes a GOP stronghold

Vogel saw four townships on the southern part of his district sliced away in the new redistricting maps that were released by a panel of judges last February. That included the Republican-leaning Prinsburg, where he soundly beat Juhnke in 2010. Vogel acknowledged the new maps didn’t help his cause.

“Frankly the numbers are much different,” he said. “The four townships they took away from me were a stronger conservative part of the district. That makes it a little more of a challenge.”

Liebl’s third party challenge might pose a problem for Vogel too. Liebl is a 2010 graduate of St. John’s University and a member of the Army National Guard. He has libertarian leanings on issues ranging from gun rights to opposing the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He said that has allowed him to tap into circles of area Republicans who support libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

“There are a lot of Ron Paul supporters down in that area,” Liebl said. “I have several of them on my side because on a lot of issues I am more libertarian.”

(Sawatzky also said she opposes the gay marriage amendment on the grounds that she doesn’t want to alter the state’s Constitution.)

One factor in the 17B election will be the turnout and partisan composition of the district’s sizeable minority community. The 2010 U.S. Census reported that 21 percent of Willmar’s population is Latino. That’s up from 16 percent in 2000. There’s also a growing Somali community. Many newcomers work at the Jennie-O Turkey processing plant in Willmar or in other facets of local agriculture.

“In Willmar, if Latino and Somali populations come out and vote in the ways they did for Obama four years ago, that will push a lot of Democrat races over the top,” according to one local DFLer.
Given that religion plays a large role in both the Latino and Somali communities, they are being heavily courted to support the constitutional gay marriage ban. The campaign against the amendment has also worked on outreach in those communities. Vogel said there’s a possibility that the marriage amendment might benefit Republicans among Latino and Somali voters.

“I do think that may be [a factor],” Vogel said.

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