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Rochester Senate race focuses on economic development

State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, has an eager, young opponent in her bid for re-election.

DFLer Elliot Culp, 24, filed last week to run against Nelson in Senate District 26. The executive director of the Lake City Economic Development Authority believes he knows how to promote the southeastern Minnesota city to businesses and add to the employment pool.

Culp and Nelson have a lot to say about the $6 billion Destination Medical Center project, which backers say would transform Rochester and the surrounding area.

Carla Nelson

Carla Nelson

Culp took Nelson to task last week in a Rochester Post-Bulletin report, saying that she did not vote in favor of $327 million in state taxpayer support for the initiative during the last session. Nelson co-authored the bill to provide that money, but refused to vote for the $2 billion Omnibus Tax Bill into which the DMC bill was ultimately folded.

Culp said he wants to ensure that Rochester and the surrounding municipalities are prepared for the changes that the DMC could bring. The initiative promises to create more than 30,000 jobs over 20 years. The workers who fill those jobs will likely bring families with them, adding to the population, school enrollment and strain on infrastructure, Culp said.

“It’s not going to be just in downtown Rochester,” he added. “The communities surrounding Rochester are going to see a massive change.”

Culp’s interest in politics began early, when his mother brought him and his sisters along to U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s campaign headquarters before Walz’s first election. Culp’s mother, Linda Hanson of Rochester, also campaigned for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, he said. His father, Nick Culp of Minneapolis, piqued the younger Culp’s interest in environmental issues.

Members on both sides of Culp’s family served in the military, and a paternal uncle is a judge in Washington state, where Culp was born before moving with his family to Rochester as an infant.

“I always kind of understood, if you have this kind of political system, then you should participate,” he said.

Culp graduated from Mayo High School and received a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He worked as a DFL field organizer in Senate districts 25, 26, 27 and 28 in 2014. He belongs to several economic development organizations in the Rochester area and believes the state should do more to attract businesses from outside Minnesota.

Nelson previously served as a state representative, but lost her seat in a DFL sweep of the House in 2004. She won her seat in the Senate in 2010, and serves on the following committees: Capital Investment; Health, Human Services and Housing; Higher Education and Workforce Development; Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development; and Taxes; and the Higher Education and Workforce Development Budget Division of the Finance Committee. Nelson considered a run against Walz in 2013, but changed her mind.

Elliot Culp

Elliot Culp

A former Rochester public school teacher, Nelson holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Drake University in Iowa and a master’s in teacher leadership from the University of Minnesota. She is also a reading specialist.

Nelson and Culp are both concerned about how Rochester-area businesses will be able to attract qualified workers to fill the jobs that the DMC promises to create, since they are struggling to find employees now. A Rochester coffee shop owner recently told Nelson that he was having trouble replacing an employee who left for a better-paying job at a new Hy-Vee grocery store.

“It’s a wide swath of workers that are needed. Our unemployment rate is under 2 percent,” Nelson said of the city of Rochester. “It’s essential that we continue to train those workers.”

To meet the surging demand for skilled labor, Culp said that high schools should work on reducing the stigma associated with attending technical schools, and that the state should increase its support for two-year colleges.

Nelson serves on the Governor’s Workforce Development Board, which works to strengthen the skills of Minnesota’s workforce. For her, the problem comes down to high school education.

“We can no longer have 30 to 60 percent of our high school graduates who go to college needing remedial work,” she said.

Nelson is also concerned about the future of Minnesota providing college courses free of charge to high school students. A June decision by the Colorado-based Higher Learning Commission, which grants colleges and universities accreditation in 19 states, would require all college instructors to have a master’s degree in the subject they teach, or a master’s in another field and 18 credits in that field by 2017. That includes Minnesota high school teachers who instruct students in college-level courses, trained and supervised by colleges.

More than 24,000 Minnesota high school students took college-level classes at their schools in the 2014-15 academic year. Nelson and others fear that Minnesota high schools will drop dual degree programs such as College in the Schools, which save families thousands of dollars in college tuition every year.

“Last year, Minnesota high school students took $40 million worth of college credits and this new HLC ruling is not based on a problem,” Nelson said. “It’s highly successful.”

Minnesota’s four-year college degree holders owed an average of $31,579 in 2014, according to the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. That’s the fifth-highest college debt load in the country. With 70 percent of its graduates holding college debt, Minnesota ranked third.

As a college debt-holder, Culp believes he understands the pressures on recent graduates. He has also just begun to raise money for his campaign. Nelson said she had raised $46,000 for her re-election bid by Oct. 26, and hopes to garner at least another $9,000 by year’s end.

“He’s a bit of an unknown, but I certainly look forward to a spirited campaign,” Nelson said. “I think it’s a very exciting time to represent this area, particularly in the Minnesota Senate.”

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