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Meet the freshmen: House DFL (part 2)

Staff//November 23, 2012

Meet the freshmen: House DFL (part 2)

Staff//November 23, 2012

Ousted as a Republican in 2008 after siding with DFLers on a gas-tax hike, 82-year-old Rep.-elect Ron Erhardt returns next session as a Democrat representing District 49A. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

In with the new (and old)

Editor’s note: During November and December, Capitol Report is profiling all 65 of the newly elected members of the Minnesota Legislature.

Mike Sundin, House District 11A

Mike Sundin will be starting his first non-union job in 34 years in January when he joins the House.

Sundin, DFL-Esko, is a hard-nosed labor leader and veteran of many DFL state convention floor battles. Earlier this year he dominated the well-populated DFL endorsement battle that ensued after long-time Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, was drawn out of the Cloquet and Moose Lake area by the new redistricting map. Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren challenged Sundin (pronounced sun-DEEN) in the August primary, with Sundin getting Hilty’s endorsement and winning handily. He went on to beat Republican nominee and Scanlon Mayor Jim Putnam by more than 33 percentage points. Independence Party candidate Cory Pylkka took 5.9 percent of the vote.

The campaign season was interrupted by the floods in June that hit St. Louis and Carlton counties. The damage resulted in a federal disaster declaration and prompted a one-day legislative special session to fund disaster relief efforts. Sundin said the flood relief organizations have been very well coordinated in the aftermath of the disaster, adding that further flood-related issues will probably get addressed at the Legislature. He’s scheduling meetings with Moose Lake school officials to address the impact of the flood.

“We’re trying to get their needs addressed because there is significant damage to school district property, particularly in the Moose Lake area,” Sundin said. “It may require some special attention down at the Legislature.”

Sundin is a business market development consultant for the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82 union. Not surprisingly, he had solid labor union backing this year in both his primary and general election bids.

Sundin has been an officer at the county or state DFL Party since 1998. He’s served on the DFL State Central Committee and the 8th Congressional District DFL executive committee. He gets a chuckle when mentioning the first campaign he managed, which was for Bruce Lotti’s bid for an open Senate seat in 2002. When Rep. Tom Bakk, who is now the Senate majority leader-elect and a fellow union leader, got in the race, Sundin guessed correctly that the primary was going to be a bloodbath.

When Sundin was chair of the Carlton County DFL in 2004, he recalls with pride, the county had a 103 percent turnout of its registered voters. (That was because nearly all previously registered voters voted, and same-day registrants pushed the total over 100 percent.)

Sundin was first elected to the Cloquet School Board in 1995, beating Ahlgren to win that seat. Among the legislative committees he’s interested in serving on are the Property Tax Division, Education Policy, Transportation, and any committees relevant to labor issues.

He firmly supports Gov. Mark Dayton’s stated preference for an income tax increase on the state’s highest earners.

“As far as a truly progressive income tax, I’ve campaigned on the fact that a lot of the high-income earners rely on the resources of the state,” Sundin said. “We provide them with an educated workforce. We provide them with excellent infrastructure, not only roads but the infrastructure of education and the expansion of broadband.”

Sundin has two boys from his first marriage. One son is a non-commissioned officer serving in the Air National Guard in North Africa. His other son is attending Lake Superior College. His current wife of six years has a daughter and two grandchildren.

Sundin, whose home is on a brook trout stream called the Midway River, likes to hunt and fish. Fishing for lake trout in northern Minnesota and Ontario is his passion.

Charley Shaw

Jay McNamar, House District 12A

Jay McNamar is fiercely proud of his home city of Elbow Lake. McNamar currently sits as the city’s outgoing mayor, and can talk at length about the architecture and history of Elbow Lake’s oldest buildings. He has lived there for the last 41 years. Before running for mayor four years ago, McNamar was a teacher, a volunteer fireman and an emergency medical technician in the area.

“I’m just a small-town mayor, and I’m trying to do the best I can for my town,” McNamar said. “I loved being mayor of Elbow Lake, but I felt I could better serve the city in the Legislature.”

That’s why he plans to make balancing the budget and local government issues a priority as he heads to St. Paul. “We’ve got to find a way to generate revenue, and we have to become more efficient as a state with spending our money, but we have to do it without hurting any more people,” he said. “Property taxes have gone up, cities have lost local government aid (LGA), and where I’m coming from, that has put a huge strain on our budget.”

In addition to balancing the budget, McNamar wants to work on education issues and paying back the school shift used to balance previous budget deficits. Even staring down a $1 billion-plus projected deficit in January, McNamar says any more borrowing from school districts is inconceivable to him. “Education is not an expense, it’s an investment,” he said. “I cannot see, as a teacher, balancing the budget on the backs of our students.”

He’d like to serve on the Health and Human Services Committee, as nursing homes and senior care are a major industry in his district. He describes them as small businesses that “people don’t think about as small businesses.” Specifically, he wants to try to eliminate a provision that taxes nursing homes for beds even if they are not being occupied.

Agriculture is also a major employer in the area. The “Welcome to Elbow Lake” sign is made of pieces of old grain elevators and other farming equipment, and the largest structure in the city is a grain elevator. McNamar, whose biological father died when he was a sophomore in high school, lived on his stepfather’s farm growing up. McNamar wants to work on agriculture issues at the Capitol.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of North Dakota in Ellendale. He and his wife, Robin, have two children. McNamar’s favorite thing to do is spend time with his family and play golf. “I could play golf all day every day if that was acceptable,” he said.

Briana Bierschbach

Zachary Dorholt. House District 14B

Zachary Dorholt says he first got interested in politics at the age of 7. His family lived near Elm Creek in Maple Grove, but the water was too polluted there for Dorholt to go swimming. That sparked a sense of civic engagement, specifically on environmental issues, as he grew up. But it wasn’t until Dorholt moved to St. Cloud that his love of politics solidified.

It was there that the community development major joined the campus DFL group at St. Cloud State University and eventually got involved in the campaign of former DFL Rep. Larry Haws. Dorholt ran Haws’ legislative campaigns and spent months out on the campaign trail knocking on doors on Haws’ behalf. Dorholt also volunteered on the congressional campaign of DFL candidate Patty Wetterling.

In 2010, Dorholt ran in a DFL primary against Carol Lewis to take on endorsed Republican candidate King Banaian in the general election. Dorholt lost the primary, but was encouraged to run again in 2012 against Banaian, who had won in 2010 by only 13 votes. “I was still being encouraged to run that whole time,” Dorholt said. “It was always in the back of my mind.” Dorholt ultimately earned the backing of local Democrats and trounced Banaian, an economics professor at St. Cloud State, by more than 10 points in the general election on Nov. 6.

Now that he’s headed to the Legislature, Dorholt has a slew of issues he’d like to tackle, both statewide and local. For the St. Cloud area, Dorholt would like to continue the work on erasing jurisdictional barriers that Haws started. The city of St. Cloud lies within three different counties, a fact that has always complicated work on the local level. “That has always been difficult and sometimes it can be a blessing,” Dorholt said. “But certainly there is work, cross-county jurisdictional policy that Haws was working on and I would like to keep moving forward.”

The St. Cloud-area school district has also struggled with funding its special education needs, Dorholt said. “We have a very high special-needs population, and we are sinking because the funding formula works against us instead of working for us,” he said. “I will keep pushing on that.”

Dorholt would also like to serve on the Health and Human Services Committee. He currently works as a mental health counselor at Central Minnesota Mental Health Center, and he’d like to use that experience to help mental-health nonprofits work more efficiently. He adds that work needs to be done in the area of mental-health care for veterans.

In his free time, Dorholt, 32, enjoys spending time with his wife, Jennifer, and their 10-month-old daughter, Eliza. He’s also the co-owner of the Old Capitol Tavern in Sauk Rapids and occasionally plays bass in the band Nelson Flavor.

Briana Bierschbach

Mary Sawatzky, House District 17B

Going back to last winter, House DFLers included Willmar in their calculations of swing districts to focus on in their effort to regain the majority. The newly drawn House District 17B offered improved prospects for Democrats by removing the Republican stronghold of Prinsburg.

On election night, DFLer Sawatzky, a special education teacher, defeated first term Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, by a little more than 4 percentage points. Zachary Liebl, an Independence Party candidate with Ron Paul-style libertarian leanings, received 7.5 percent of the vote.

A total of $275,500 from all reporting sources was spent on the race as of the pre-general election campaign finance reports, which don’t account for spending in the last two weeks of the campaign. When the final money numbers are reported early next year, the 17B race could land among the top five races in cumulative candidate, party and independent spending.

Sawatzky always knew she wanted to be a special education teacher. She’s been a teacher for 27 years and teaches Willmar middle school students with learning disabilities.

She recently resigned as Willmar’s local president of the Education Minnesota teachers union after a little more than a year in the post, in no small part because of her upcoming legislative demands. The attack mailers against Sawatzky focused on her union ties to the point that the label “union boss” started to feel more like common usage than an epithet. But in the end, Sawatzky said, the budget deal between Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Mary Dayton that shifted $2.4 billion in school aid payments into the future was rejected by voters.

“I’m amazed at the amount of people I heard at the doors who are not connected to education, these are just regular folks, who said it was not right to take that money from the schools,” Sawatzky said.

Given her background, Sawatzky is interested on serving on education committees.

Sawatzky has been following the ongoing process for creating a new teacher evaluation system, which was called for in the same budget deal that included the school shift. She will attend a workshop by Education Minnesota on November 30 and December 1 that’s devoted to how the teacher evaluations could affect local teachers unions. Going forward, Sawatzky said she’ll be watching to see whether the evaluation becomes a costly unfunded mandate.

“I think we do need to make some reforms in education. But all of that has to come with a price tag,” Sawatzky said.

She also wants to see all-day kindergarten fully funded by the state, unlike the present situation where kindergarten is only funded by the state for half a day and the local districts need to find the money for the other half.

In addition to education, Sawatzky is also interested in agriculture and health and human services committees. One important local issue is improving a seven-mile stretch of Highway 23 in her district to four lanes between New London and Paynesville.  Also, Sawatzky is among DFL legislators who are pro-life on abortion issues.

Sawatzky grew up in Granite Falls in a DFL household. In college she was active on Dayton’s unsuccessful 1982 U.S. Senate campaign. More recently, she’s served on Education Minnesota’s governance board and has organized lobby days for teachers at the Capitol.

Her husband, Doug, is a retired teacher. They have two boys. The older boy has just started teaching third grade in Paynesville. Their younger son is studying business administration at Minnesota State University-Moorhead.

She enjoys volunteer work in her spare time. In particular, Sawatzky coordinates a VFW baseball program. She’s has also helped raise about $70,000 over the years as a captain for the middle school’s team for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

Charley Shaw

David Bly, House District 20B

David Bly has run for a seat in the Minnesota House in each of the last six election cycles. The results have been mixed:  He’s won three and lost three.

Bly could have more staying power this time around. Running in a district that’s significantly more DFL-friendly than the one he represented prior to redistricting, he won by 14 percentage points – easily his most comfortable victory.

The new district includes most of the DFL stronghold of Northfield, with its two liberal arts colleges (St. Olaf and Carleton). It also includes less reliably blue turf across Rice and Le Sueur counties. But the key is what’s missing: any precincts in the conservative stronghold of Scott County.

Bly was born in Dubuque, Iowa, but grew up in Northfield and has lived there ever since. In fact he’s the third generation of his family to live in the home where he currently resides. After graduating from college, Bly was employed as a mental health worker and acted in summer stock theater. He taught for more than two decades at Northfield Alternative Learning Center, a high school that focuses on kids who have failed academically in traditional schools. He retired from that job last year.

Bly cites legislation changing the state’s eminent domain policies as a top achievement during his first tenure at the Capitol. His bill required that utility companies follow the same stringent process that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is required to adhere to when seeking to seize privately held land. The legislation garnered broad bipartisan support and was signed into law in 2010. “That was something I really had to work hard at building consensus for,” Bly said. “It protects property owners and gives them a fair process.”

Bly cites three committees – Environment  Natural Resources, and Agriculture Finance; Health Care Policy; and Taxes — that he would like to sit on. He expects to continue pushing for adoption of a single-payer health care plan — although he acknowledges that establishing a health care exchange is the chief priority for the coming legislative session.

Bly is also pursuing a proposal to enshrine support for the middle class in the constitution. (Specifically, the amendment would commit legislators to backing policies that support living-wage jobs, a healthy environment, adequate transportation and education systems and affordable health care.) Although his ultimate goal is a federal amendment, he believes there is work to be done on the issue at the state level. Bly has been pushing the issue for years, but thinks the country’s recent economic woes have shone new light on the need to protect the middle class. “Everybody is now talking about the middle class and what’s happened to the middle class,” Bly said. “It’s very apropos.”

Another legislative goal is specific to his district. Bly wants to lift restrictions in current statute on considering the Dan Patch commuter rail line that could connect Northfield to the Twin Cities. Bly introduced such a measure in previous legislative sessions, but it went nowhere. “Every year I was there, I tried to remove this gag order that is in place,” Bly said.

When he has downtime, Bly enjoys writing and working in community theater. But lately politics has left little free time to pursue those interests. The last play he directed: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Paul Demko

Jason Isaacson, House District 42B

At a political event earlier this year, Jason Isaacson heard a Republican legislative candidate speaking in a negative way about government in general. The line of thinking made Isaacson shake his head.

“Government isn’t evil,” Isaacson said, recalling his thoughts then. “Government is a reflection of us.”

As a newly minted member of the House of Representatives, he hopes that the constituents of his Shoreview-area district agree with him, and that they like what they see in the mirror.

Isaacson’s involvement in Democratic politics dates back to 2000, when he worked as an organizer with Ken Martin, now the DFL Party chairman. But his work as a communications educator sent him on a circuitous path, including stints teaching at Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University. Not all of Isaacson’s teaching experience comes at the upper echelons of academia: He has also elected to teach courses to the inmates at maximum security prisons.

These days, he plies his trade at Century College, while working toward a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. While Isaacson recognizes the value in top-line research schools like that, he said community colleges like Century might actually have greater needs at the moment.

“A lot of times, community college is like the last line of defense when there’s a recession,” Isaacson said.

For his own sake, Isaacson is now taking something of a crash course in Minnesota economics. Admitting there’s a “steep learning curve” as he tries to get a handle on the details behind the state’s budget and the possibilities for reshaping it during the 2013 session of the Legislature. Isaacson has reached out to his new bosses, House Speaker-elect Paul Thissen and House Majority Leader-elect Erin Murphy, saying both have been “fantastic” in guiding his research.

Beyond that, Isaacson has also started making contacts at Minnesota Management and Budget, which he said had dutifully fielded his information requests.

“They’re the first place you’ve got to go,” he said, “because they’ve got the numbers.”

As the DFL majority works to craft its budget and tax plans, Isaacson said he plans to keep in contact with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the small business owners in his district. He wants to make sure business interests have access to the government, and that the Legislature ensures that the private sector is “freed up” to create new businesses and hire employees.

Protecting small businesses hits close to home for the rookie lawmaker, whose father owned a metalworking shop in the Fargo-Moorhead area when Isaacson was growing up. He recalls times when the family struggled on what was left after his father had paid employee salaries, and the memory drove home the importance of small businesses to individuals, and to the economy at large.

Isaacson’s business interests are paired with a desire to get involved in environmental issues. Seven different lakes lie wholly or partly within his district, and Isaacson said the preservation of the state’s lakes and wetlands would be a top priority for him.

Mike Mullen

Peter Fischer, House District 43A

Peter Fischer’s last two work experiences gave him an up-close look at the extremes of wealth and poverty in the Twin Cities. As a general manager at the upscale Minneapolis Club, Fischer dealt with the area’s moneyed elites on a daily basis. And for the past five years, he has served as director of finance at a homeless youth shelter that operates out of north Minneapolis.

Fischer hopes that his next job allows him to marry his areas of expertise, and, whenever possible, encourage private-sector solutions to public problems. In working with disadvantaged young people, Fischer has seen firsthand that they are eager to find work, but unable to pay for the training or education needed to transition out of poverty.

“They don’t have the resources available to them that my children have,” he said.

For that reason, Fischer said he would be eager to wind up working on the Health and Human Services Committee, adding that he would look to public-private partnerships  as a way to help disadvantaged and out-of-work Minnesotans find training.

Fischer’s Maplewood-area district, an open seat created by redistricting, had been rated as safely DFL-leaning by partisan indices. But the first-time candidate had to fend off a challenge from GOP up-and-comer Stacey Stout, and a barrage of business PAC spending — nearly $40,000, compared to $19,000 spent on Fischer’s behalf by pro-DFL groups —  through October 22. Fischer weathered the cash flurry on his way to victory with 53 percent of the vote.

The win gives Fischer the chance to bring his business acumen to the state’s financial debate. When he first signed on with Avenues for Homeless Youth, the nonprofit was facing fiscal straits. Fischer, who had put in three decades working his way up in the service industry, was brought in to help turn around the organization’s “severe crisis,” and was forced to make difficult decisions.

“I had to make some very hard calls to let this place be more efficient,” Fischer said. “In some cases, we had to let some services go in order to survive.”

As a legislator, Fischer hopes to put the skills that helped him save the nonprofit to use on a public entity, as the state anticipates a $1 billion-plus deficit. On the taxes and revenue front, Fischer said he would need to take a closer look at the state’s books before he could more fully outline his position. But, to his way of thinking, eliminating tax loopholes, and possibly tax increases, should be considered, while certain spending programs could also be due for a trim.

Fischer is an advocate for broad-scale changes to Minnesota property taxes. The current system manages to hurt both middle-class individuals and businesses, he said, and should be considered for immediate reform.

Mike Mullen

Ron Erhardt, House District 49A

Though he had already spent nearly two decades in the House of Representatives, Rep.-elect Ron Erhardt decided to turn up for the mid-November orientation at the Capitol.

“I thought, well, there might be some changes,” Erhardt said, “and I wanted to know what they were.”

Indeed, the veteran Edina-area legislator will find that there are some changes, at least from the Capitol as he remembers it. As the senior member of the “freshman” class, Erhardt is joining a number of fresh faces, and will be forced to learn a few unfamiliar names. And this time, when Erhardt takes his seat in the House chamber, he’ll do so as a Democrat.

Erhardt’s less-than-amicable divorce from the Republican Party dates back to the mid-2000s, when he battled Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and fellow GOP legislators over his proposed gas tax bill. Eventually, in 2008, Erhardt and five other Republican legislators broke from the party line and voted with the DFL majority to override Pawlenty’s veto of the tax. That year, Erhardt ran for re-election as a member of the “Moderate Independent Party,” winning 31 percent of the vote but losing to Republican Keith Downey.

Within two years, Erhardt’s evolution — or the Republican Party’s, depending on who is asked — was complete, and he had joined the DFL Party. This year, with candidates reporting a near-constant refrain from voters who disapproved of legislative gridlock and wasteful partisanship, Erhardt’s late-life switch might have actually served as an asset. As he points out, he did not relocate to the left wing of the DFL Party.

“I was a centrist, and I still am,” Erhardt said. “I can work with centrists on both sides of the aisle. That’s about the only way you get things done, anyway.”

Erhardt will be uniquely positioned among the freshman class to get things done: Despite his prior tenure as a Republican, DFL leaders rewarded Erhardt’s seniority by handing him the gavel as chair of the Transportation Policy Committee, where he had previously served. In that role, Erhardt said he plans to address the state’s constant problem in generating revenue for transportation issues. Unless the Legislature finds a way to bring in more tax money earmarked for road work, Erhardt said, transportation spending will be limited to a bare minimum.

“If we don’t up [revenue], we’re only going to be maintaining roads,” he said.

The sliding revenue is due partly to higher fuel efficiency in new vehicles, which results in less tax collected at the gas pump. One possible solution would be changing to a mileage tax, rather than a gas tax, according to Erhardt, who said he was looking forward to hearing from a task force created by Gov. Mark Dayton to address the issue.

On another aspect of taxes, Erhardt might be less inclined to follow the governor’s lead. While Dayton has long supported increasing the income tax rates on the highest level of Minnesota earners, Erhardt said he thinks the “pain” of any necessary tax increases should be spread out across all Minnesotans who can afford it.

“If we would have to raise some money, it’d be better to be across the board,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

Mike Mullen

Laurie Halverson, House District 51B

Politics has always been part of Laurie Halverson’s life. She grew up in the Chisago Lakes area, where her grandfather, Howard Nelson, was a state senator. “I made my first appearance on campaign literature when I was about six weeks old,” Halverson said. “It’s been a big part of my family.”

Halverson opted to study public policy in college, attending the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. Afterward, she studied at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, focusing her work on the nonprofit world. After a brief stint working with the League of Women voters, Halverson went straight into the nonprofit health care field with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in Eagan, where she worked for eight years. Halverson left that job in 2008 when she and her husband, Jason, adopted a son.

“The plan was to do that for six months, and now it’s been four years,” Halverson said of her time off, which gave her more opportunity to get involved with community activism. Halverson chaired the Parks and Recreation Commission in Eagan and serves on the board of the Eagan Foundation, which helps raise money for student scholarships in the city. As the 2012 election approached, a small group of close friends approached Halverson about running for office.

“Having worked as closely as I did with the community, I saw myself always as kind of being behind the scenes,” she said. “Being a legislator was never on my agenda, but it wasn’t that big of a leap when I started to think about it. Eventually I realized that it was a great fit and that I really, really wanted this job.”  Halverson beat freshman Republican Rep. Doug Wardlow by more than 3 percent of the vote for the House District 51B seat. All three seats in Eagan flipped from GOP to DFL control this cycle.

With her background in the health care field, Halverson would like to sit on the Health and Human Services Committee as the state starts to implement the federal health care law. “I understand the uniqueness of Minnesota’s health care system,” she said. “That’s going to be important as we look to implementing that here.”  She is also interested in working on education, as that’s one of the top issues for voters in suburbs like Eagan. “We’ve seen the borrowing taking place have a big impact on Eagan schools,” she said. “I want to make sure I’m able to bring the leadership and the voice needed there.”

Halverson, 43, lives in Eagan with her husband and their son, Kia. She’s an old movie buff and is part of the Eagan running club.

Briana Bierschbach

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