With barely two weeks to go to Election Day, six local candidates for state legislature shared their views on Monday in a forum sponsored by the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, Owatonna Noon Rotary Club and Owatonna People’s Press.
All 201 members of the Minnesota legislature will be up for election in two weeks. Currently, Minnesota is one of the few states with a divided legislature, as Republicans hold a 35-32 majority in the Senate while the DFL enjoys a 75-59 majority in the House. Each Minnesota Senate district is divided into two Minnesota House districts, and in Senate District 24, which includes Owatonna, Waseca and Faribault, all three seats are held by Republicans who are seeking re-election.
For the Senate seat, Sen. John Jasinski is being challenged in his bid for a second term by DFLer Roger Steinkamp, a political newcomer who has served as an agricultural educator and small businessman.
In District 24A, Rep. John Petersburg has represented Waseca, Owatonna and nearby townships since 2012. He is being challenged by Tom Shea, who held the seat nearly four decades ago and has since served as a Steele County Commissioner and administrator. In District 24B, Rep. Brian Daniels has represented Faribault and parts of Dodge and Steele counties since 2014. He’s being challenged by Ashley Martinez-Perez, a local activist and first-time candidate.
All six local candidates attended the event, though Petersburg and Shea did so over Zoom. With COVID cases on the rise across Minnesota, the event was held with extra precautions, including plexiglass barriers between the four candidates who attended in-person.
Moderating the forum was John Havelka, an active member of the Rotary Club and Chamber. At the end of the forum, Havelka lamented that numerous important issues left unaddressed due to time constraints.
“There’s some great questions here on racial issues, bipartisanship, job training but we will not be able to get to those today,” he said.
As it has been for the last seven months, the COVID-19 pandemic was the elephant in the room. That discussion highlighted the increasing gap between DFLers and Republicans on the topic.
Shea gave Gov. Tim Walz an “A” for his handling of the pandemic overall, highlighting that Minnesota has managed to keep its total case count lower than neighboring states, which have taken a more relaxed approach to the pandemic.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Shea said. “States around us have had a more political perspective rather than science and you see what is happening.”
Shea said that while the governor has made mistakes, particularly with his approach to small business restrictions. On the whole though, Shea argued that the governor has “done the right thing,” and maintained an admirable commitment to safety.
That put him at odds with Petersburg, who refrained from criticizing some of the governor’s actions but said a course correction is needed. Along with his Republican colleagues, Petersburg noted that initial projections of the pandemic released by Gov. Walz claimed it could be much deadlier than it turned out to be.
“We need to look at and see how things are working,” he said. “We can’t rely on a science of projection rather than reality.”
Like Petersburg, Daniels said that the governor’s initial response was understandable given the uncertainty around the virus. However, he went even further in saying that many restrictions, including the state mask mandate, should be ended.
“I think (Walz has) way overreached,” Daniels said.
While supportive of the governor’s approach overall, Martinez-Perez lamented the damage the pandemic and subsequent restrictions have inflicted on small businesses. She also pushed back hard on Daniels’s remarks regarding the mask mandate.
“We have to think about the health issues that other people have,” she said. “We should be wearing our masks to keep other people safe.”
Jasinski echoed many of the comments of his Republican colleagues and noted that the pandemic has hit the Twin Cities area particularly hard. He said that the governor’s approach, which he views as tough and “one size fits all,” has been less justifiable outside the metro.
Jasinski has backed passed legislation to end the governor’s Peacetime State of Emergency Declaration, but those efforts have been blocked by the DFL-run House. He argued that the ending the Peacetime Emergency would help legislators like him ensure the needs of their districts are considered in decisions.
Steinkamp commended the governor for being willing to take responsibility for his mistakes and correct course at times. He warned that while Walz’s approach hasn’t been error-free, rolling it back to the extent discussed by Jasinski could be calamitous.
“We’re not out of this COVID thing,” he said. “All you have to do is look at what’s happening around the world. Everyone who’s opened up, done a lot of things that we’re proposing, has ended up in a world of hurt.”
Defund the police?
The candidates then turned their attention to police reform, another predictably divisive topic. Jasinski expressed particular frustration with the approach of leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul, saying that last year, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo called for 400 new officers by 2025, but just 12 were hired.
At the local level, Rep. Daniels said that his conversations with Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen have convinced him that more police funding is needed, not less. He praised the work done by local police while arguing that they remain understaffed.
“I can’t imagine defunding or not expanding them,” he said. “They’re always short (on staff).”
Steinkamp said local police are by and large doing a fine job, but pushed back somewhat on the statements made by Jasinski and Daniels with regards to metro area departments and said there is room for reform.
Steinkamp lamented said that in some circumstances, officers are asked to deal with situations that could be handled better by a different professional. That point was echoed by Martinez-Perez, who further highlighted the importance of strengthening the state’s mental health system.
The candidates were also asked to give their perspective on the recently passed bonding bill, which Petersburg and Jasinski both backed, but Daniels opposed.
Jasinski helped to craft the bill, and noted that roughly $150 million in projects he had backed made it in. That included funds for the Steele County Fairgrounds, Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault and the Minnesota State Academies in Faribault.
Petersburg noted that in addition to local projects like those, the bill included crucial funding for roads, bridges and water infrastructure across the state. With the state having failed to pass a bill last year, he said that pressing infrastructure needs had to be tended to.
Still, Jasinski expressed concern that passing the bill will force legislators to cut more next year due to the cost of debt. That was cited by Daniels as the main reason he opposed it, especially given the state’s large expected deficit.
“We’re looking at a general fund deficit of close to $6 billion,” Daniels said. “I didn’t think it was the right time or right amount.”