It was a Democrat-Republican split among St. Peter’s two elected officials in the Legislature.
On the Tuesday, Nov. 3 election, Democratic Sen. Nick Frentz, of North Mankato, held his spot convincingly in the District 19 Senate race, defeating Republican challanger Elizabeth Bangert, of St. Peter, 59.77% (25,983 votes) to 40.07% (17,419 votes). District 19 includes all of Nicollet County, plus the city of Mankato.
In a tight District 19A House race, though, the seat was flipped, as Democratic incumbent Rep. Jeff Brand, of St. Peter, was ousted by Republican challenger Susan Akland, as she scored 50.16% (11,601 votes) to Brand’s 49.66% (11,486 votes). District 19A includes just Nicollet County.
Frentz was heavily supported by the Mankato portion of Senate District 20. He won all 18 precincts in the city, which also favored Democrats in 2016 but did so more strongly in 2020. Frentz increased his margin of victory from 2016 when he defeated Republican Willa Dailey 56.11% to 36.93%. He received 3,000 more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.
Brand’s District 19A does not include Mankato, and with the entire moving slightly more Republican in 2020, he lost the race. The city of St. Peter continued to vote for the Democrat in the race, but it was closer in 2020 than four years ago. Brand won St. Peter by 1,104 votes this year. In 2016, he won by 1,406 votes. It was a similar story in North Mankato, with Brand winning the city by a smaller margin this time around.
The western, more rural, part of the county voted in favor of the Republican candidate more adamantly than it did in 2020. The city of Nicollet, for instance, favored Republican Akland by 198 votes. In 2016, it favored the Republican candidate by 63 votes.
As a whole, District 19A swung from seemingly blue to definitely purple.
For Frentz, it was exciting to continue having the backing of local voters.
“It’s no secret I love serving in the Senate,” he said. “It’s just such an honor to serve the people in the area. We ran the campaign we wanted to run; we did the things that traditionally help, although no parades this year and no real door knocking, per se. But we worked hard on the campaign.”
Frentz already knows his first priority for the next legislative session.
“The budget,” he said. “We have a projected deficit that is going to be a real challenge. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”
For Akland, the win came somewhat as a surprise; she was on the edge of her seat all night, noting that some of her guests were about to leave when the final results rolled in close to midnight.
“I said ‘Let me refresh one more time,’ and there it was,” Akland said. “It’s what I had a purpose and a passion for, and I’m just excited to win and excited to represent us in St. Paul.”
Akland hopes to serve most notably in the areas she knows best.
“I have a heart for our farmers and for our small businesses and for the problems we’re having with health care,” she said. “I’m hoping I’ll be able to be on some of those committees, work on some of those issues and make a difference.”
Both Frentz and Akland were very grateful to all voters in their districts.
“I appreciate the opportunity to serve, I really do,” Frentz said. “It’s just really cool to represent this area, so thank you for sending me back.”
“I’m just excited,” Akland said. “It’s the first time I ever ran in an election. I feel like I was called to do this, and God would see me through, and he’s done a marvelous job.”
Megan Zimmerman knew her life was about to change when her then-boyfriend Jack Zimmerman proposed, but she couldn’t have known how much. The young couple was engaged just a few days before Jack was scheduled to return overseas to fight in Afghanistan. Proposing was the best decision he ever made, Jack often jokes, because it was his last chance to get down on one knee.
Two weeks after Jack and Megan, both Cleveland natives, arranged their plans for marriage, Jack found himself locked in combat in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province in 2011. While on foot patrol, Jack was caught in an ambush that left him with severe injuries that required a double, above the knee amputation. The attack permanently damaged both of his arms and robbed him the use of his right hand.
When Megan was finally able to see Jack, she wasn’t thinking about the challenges. She said ll she wanted was for him to wake up and recognize her. He did, but the road to recovery would be long and arduous.
Megan would be there every step of the way. And in October, she was recognized, among some famous names, on a national scale.
A new future
Jack’s wounds required a two-month stay in the hospital, 18 months of recovery and 20 surgeries. But Megan committed to support Jack in sickness and in health and the two were married after Jack’s stay in the hospital. The couple spent their newlywed years in recovery and rehabilitation. Megan trained to become a caregiver and nursed Jack’s wounds, drove him to appointments, gave him shots and encouraged him to walk with prosthetics.
“She was with me the entire time in the hospital, she never left,” said Jack. “She managed all my care and started prepping the outside world for me.”
“For the first several years, I would give him shots and do daily wound care, and still today daily assisted transfers and wound care are a big part of our lives,” said Megan.
Those first months were the most difficult. Jack’s wounds were so severe that they took hours to treat. Basic tasks, like getting into bed or showering, were an ordeal to navigate.
“I would have to get on a chair and she would have to wheel me into the bathroom and hook me up to this deal so I could get across, turn on the shower just so I could shower and then slide me out,” said Jack. “For me to get on the bed, she would have to lift me onto the bed. I wasn’t even strong enough to get on the bed at the time.”
The challenges have gotten easier, but they haven’t gone away. Jack’s right hand is unusable while his left has limited mobility due to his injuries. So Megan is regularly helping Jack with tasks, like shaving, opening packages, preparing meals and getting up and out the door in the morning. While Jack may look fully independent to the outside world, he said people often don’t see how much Megan helps.
“I become a part of her routine, and I can never repay her for that,” said Jack. “I’ll never be able to give her the credit she deserves for helping me have the life that I have. But I feel like she’s turned herself into such a great caregiver that she never, ever makes it feel like it’s a chore.”
But for all the challenges that come with caregiving, the Zimmermans have persevered. Today, they don’t even need to communicate in the mornings; Megan knows exactly how and when to help Jack get out the door. They’ve stayed married and are raising two sons in their Elysian home — William and Benjamin, ages 7 and 6, who are also reaching a maturity level where they can help their dad.
“William can help with this, grab that, push his wheelchair, plug in the wheelchair — he is becoming a caregiver; he sees things that need to be done before they get done,” said Megan. “If there’s shoes in the way of Jack’s wheelchair, one thing the kids have learned is they need to move them so dad can get through. Through living with someone with a disability, you learn and you’re aware of those things.”
Advocating for caregivers
And while the Zimmermans don’t have the lives they expected before the injury, they’ve used their story to help others. Jack tells his story as a motivational speaker, while Megan has used her experience as a caregiver to become a fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The organization works to raise awareness of the needs of caregivers and lobbies for policy change to assist caregivers.
Becoming a fellow is extremely competitive and only one representative is chosen from each state every two years. As a fellow, Megan shares her story to build awareness and has established local support groups for caregivers, as well as caregivers who are also mothers. For Megan, support from family, friends and the community and other people who know the challenges of caregiving has allowed her to overcome burnout.
“You have to have a friend so that you feel support,” said Megan. “I have a really good friend; her husband was a triple amputee and I was able to relate to her so much that I feel that we made it through this together. Without that support, I just don’t know. You have to find support whatever form that is in.”
Outside the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Megan is also a member of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes and with the organization she helped launch the Veterans Caregiver Alliance, a training program by veteran caregivers for veteran caregivers. She also keeps busy with the Madison Lake Auxiliary Unit and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Megan’s caregiving efforts were soon recognized by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation at this year’s third annual Heroes and History Makers Gala. An online event this year, the foundation honored a select group of fellows including Megan.
Famed Academy Award-winning actor and Hidden Heroes Campaign Chair Tom Hanks and TODAY Show co-anchor and Hidden Heroes Ambassador Savannah Guthrie were featured at the event, alongside a number of celebrities who narrated the stories of the honorees. Nico Santos, known for his roles in the sitcom “Superstore” and film “Crazy Rich Asians,” shared Megan’s story as an example that caregivers can still have joy in their lives.
Megan, too, sees her story as a tool that can empower other caregivers.
“I’ve learned I can use this as a platform to really help others and allow others to relate to me,” said Megan. “When a lot of caregivers share their story, a lot of the reactions are ‘Oh, I feel really bad for them,’ but for me it’s also important to me that people see it as all these obstacles that were overcome.”
Overcoming it all
The Zimmermans have overcome obstacles that many veterans and veteran caregivers have not. Divorce rates are much higher for spousal caregivers. Physically wounded veterans are also more likely to suffer mental trauma as well in the forms of illnesses like depression or PTSD. Despite his wounds, Jack has a positive attitude and sense of humor that can be rare for people in the same circumstances.
Mental health has become an even greater concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, where isolation and unemployment may be contributing to mental health crises.
“A really big concern is they haven’t been allowing people to go into appointments and things,” said Megan. “So you have caregivers, whose roles are specifically to monitor triggers and cause symptoms of PTSD, and these caregivers not being allowed to go in for appointments, even by telehealth. The veteran population needs to be in rooms, actually physically seen, and I just know there has to be veterans out there that are slipping through the cracks.”
The issue hits close to home for Jack Zimmerman, who said that he’s lost friends in the military to suicide.
The stories of Elizabeth Dole fellows are also used to advocate for the support of policy intended to empower caregivers. One of the foundation’s recent efforts was passing the 2018 VA MISSION Act, which expands the Veterans Affairs comprehensive assistance for caregivers to those caring for veterans that were wounded before 9/11. Before, the training, respite care, education and telephone support line offered by the VA was only available to caregivers of post-9/11 servicemembers.
“One of the biggest things overlooked on the legislative side is no one is going to care better for veterans better than their spouses,” said Jack, “And the cost-effectiveness of being able to have a spouse in the home to provide that care.”
There won’t be any fresh faces on the Nicollet County Board of Commissioners this term after all three incumbents won their respective races.
Marie Dranttel in District 1 ran unopposed and secured 98.5% of the vote. Denny Kemp in District 3 similarly ran unopposed and garnered 98.4% of the vote.
In District 5, the city of Nicollet and surrounding area, the race was contested between incumbent John Luepke and challenger Bruce Beatty. Luepke earned 56% of the vote with 2,176 votes, while Beatty got 43.6% with 1,693 votes.
In a questionnaire with the St. Peter Herald, Luepke pointed to the COVID-19 situation as the primary issue the county will need to deal with going forward.
“The Health and Human Services employees are performing admirably and working with various agencies and also with other counties,” he said. “The other issue is the state being low on money and almost half of the county budget is from state and federal funds. We have good reserves, and I hope we don’t get penalized for prudent money management. We may use some of these reserves.”
Both Dranttel and Kemp also pointed to COVID-19 as the most pressing concern.
Dranttel said, “COVID-19 and its effect on our revenue streams from other governmental sources — for example, decreases in our LGA from the State of Minnesota — the downsizing of the worldwide economy has trickle down affects to all levels of government funding – and the changes to our LGA funds can affect services we provide to our residents – the 2021 budget already addresses a decrease in funding and a decrease in related spending – we are deferring projects and maintenance items and continuing to develop efficiencies in delivering services that are expected of county government and/or mandated by the Federal Government or State of Minnesota. The next 5 – 10 years will be difficult – we (and the rest of the world) will struggle to regain the revenue losses from this pandemic – and it is not over yet. We as commissioners will be diligent in monitoring our spending and budgeting.”
Kemp said, “Nicollet County is vibrant and in a better position than most to manage our growth, plan for the future and respond effectively to uncertainties — including a global pandemic. Our biggest issue will be balancing our population growth with providing the public service requirements that are not only mandated by law, but also those that our residents truly need. I will continue to listen and learn and work with my fellow Commissioners to reach a consensus to find the financial and operational processes that are in the best interests of the citizens of Nicollet County.”
Regarding the future of the county, Luepke pointed to continued growth in housing and jobs.
“Long-term goal is to attract more businesses which contributes to more jobs and more homes,” he said. “This will increase the tax revenue, which will help control the levy and also help the county to avoid the high tax list.”
Dranttel hopes the county can hone in on broadband expansion.
“I’d love to see affordable broadband available to every household in Nicollet County — finding resources to fund this dream is going to be hard work, but I think it can be done — and frankly we cannot wait any longer,” she said. “Our residents need to be competitive, our children (all of us – learners) need reliable internet for today’s learning — we must find a way.”
Kemp noted the need to serve both those in the city and those in rural settings.
“My biggest long-term goal is to assure safe and managed growth of Nicollet County,” he said. “We need to continue efforts to maintain a balance between urban and rural needs. In addition, I believe diligent fiscal oversight, being aware of changes in community needs and being prepared to pivot quickly to accommodate those needs are critical elements on a path to long-term success.”