In Senate District 24, which includes the southern Minnesota regional centers of Owatonna and Faribault, one candidate is warning about the harmful effects of state spending cuts while the other is throwing cold water on Gov. Mark Dayton’s desired income tax increase on the wealthiest earners. The unique thing in this potential swing district is that it’s the Republican sounding cold to cuts and the DFLer who thinks the income tax hike is misguided.
But if the candidates are both running at tangents to party orthodoxy, there’s a steady stream of spending from outside groups on both sides of the aisle to make sure the race appears black and white.
“There’s actually quite a bit of outside money coming in from both sides,” said David Thul, a blogger and former Steele County GOP chairman.
The Senate seat has been occupied by Republicans for 40 years. The incumbent, Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, gave up his seat in what turned out to be an unsuccessful run for the GOP nomination to challenge DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz in the 1st Congressional District. Before Parry, Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, held the seat for 20 years.
Republican entrepreneur and political newcomer Vern Swedin and DFL businesswoman and local school board member Vicki Jensen, both of Owatonna, are set to square off in the general election. DFLers are making a concerted bid in SD 24 because it’s an open seat in an area where both House districts are currently held by DFLers.
Both candidates have business ties
Jensen and her husband, Trevor, own an independent insurance agency in Owatonna. Last year she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Owatonna School Board, a position that drew her interest because of her desire to see all-day kindergarten instituted.
A couple of years ago, Jensen found herself in the odd position of being the chairwoman of the Steele County DFL and serving on the board of directors of the local Chamber of Commerce.
“It was an interesting mix,” she said. “But I understand the more you get involved in the local level and the more people get involved, the better policy you end up with.”
And as for Dayton’s tax plan, Jensen cautions that increasing income taxes on the state’s wealthiest earners won’t necessarily help Minnesota weather the economic rough patches that have caused multibillion budget deficits in recent years.
“I understand the question of, ‘Do you agree that we have to tax the 2 percent highest earners to help?’ I think we need to look at all of it,” Jensen said. “The way we collect revenue in Minnesota works really, really well when we’re doing well. It works not so good when we’re in an economic downturn. We need to put into place something that sustains us through those economic downturns rather than just relying on an overall statement of, ‘Let’s tax this person over that person.’ I don’t agree with that as a policy statement. But that might have to happen.”
Observers point out that Jensen’s name is more widely recognized in the district than Swedin’s. But Swedin is making the case that his track record as a businessman who’s helped numerous companies improve their efficiency over the years reflects a trait much needed in St. Paul.
“Instead of from start-up, I’m good a taking existing companies and helping them grow,” Swedin said.
Swedin, 41, started out as a young man with a lawn care business in Northfield called Grass So Green. The focus of much of his work has been related to satellite television.
Swedin distances himself from the conservative fiscal ideology among Republicans in the Legislature in recent years by eschewing spending cuts. In particular, he said that local government aid to cities is an important program that helps cities in SD 24 maintain an equal playing field with communities that possess wealthier tax bases.
“I’m the person that will be the least likely to use the word ‘cut,’” Swedin said. “In business … there are so many ramifications to the word in organizational management. Rather, if we’re effective leaders we should be able to find efficiencies that create a short-term goal and attaches itself to long-term value. When you cut something many times that is so important to the people you represent, it’s a short-term goal that has a really long-term inequitable effect.”
Swedin also noted that he didn’t sign the Taxpayers League of Minnesota no-new-taxes pledge because he supports the so-called Amazon tax that would level the playing field for bricks-and-mortar businesses by requiring internet retailers to collect sales taxes.
The nuances reflected in the candidates’ respective views are nowhere to be found in the mailers and radio ads that have become part of daily life in the district.
Swedin has been the subject of a stinging radio spot by the liberal Alliance for a Better Minnesota. The ad went after Swedin’s business record and said he’s had tax liens against him and had filed for personal bankruptcy.
Swedin countered that he has no outstanding debts. He told the Mankato Free-Press that he had been swindled by a business partner who took their company’s money and equipment, prompting the bankruptcy. He also told Capitol Report that a company ABM said failed was actually sold in good standing for $1 million.
“It’s almost laughable because it’s so untrue,” Swedin said of the ad.
The attacks on Jensen by GOP groups have been more generic and have labeled her a crony of teachers’ unions. The conservative group Minnesota’s Future, which receives and spends corporate money owing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, sent out a mailer saying that she wants “job killing tax increases to pay for someone else’s health care.”
“I can’t really even speak to it, because I don’t know what they are talking about,” Jensen said.
Local observers told Capitol Report that the House races in District 24 were receiving comparatively less attention and outside money that the Senate race. But both House seats are in play as well.
In 24B, Rep. Patti Fritz, an ardently pro-life DFLer from Faribault, is seeking a fifth term. She faces a rematch with former Medford Mayor Dan Kaiser. Fritz squeaked past Kaiser in 2010 by 152 votes.
Redistricting helped Kaiser’s bid to oust Fritz by removing the city of Blooming Prairie from the district. In 2010 Fritz trounced Kaiser in Blooming Prairie by nearly 25 percentage points. The new HD 24B also picked up some Republican-leaning townships in Dodge County.
“There were some changes down here. I would say, if anything, they are favorable in my direction,” Kaiser said.
District 24A is an open seat. Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, made the decision not to seek a third term shortly before the local DFL endorsing convention in May. Kath’s decision was a disappointment for DFLers because he pulled off the rare feat of winning re-election in 2010 in a Republican-leaning district by a comfortable margin.
In Kath’s place, DFLers endorsed Waseca band teacher Craig Brenden. Kath’s relatively late decision to bow out meant Brenden had little time to establish the groundwork for a campaign. Another factor, note observers on both sides of the aisle in the district, is that he’s not well known outside Waseca. John Petersburg of Waseca is looking to win the 24A seat for the Republicans. His name recognition is enhanced by working at a large church in Owatonna. The church also gives him a base of volunteer support.
“It’s more Republican than it votes,” Thul said of the area. “But it’s a function of [the fact that] Kory Kath, who is retiring this year, was a very moderate candidate in the way he spoke and a very gifted politician. It’s not that there is a strong DFL cant to the district or liberal cant to the district. It’s very much a middle of the road district.”