Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism found a way to hold its fourth Pizza and Politics luncheon, giving local candidates an opportunity to speak before voters decide their fates.
Early voting is underway, and voters have a ballot full of local candidates, with six running for Faribault City Council and 10 for School Board, though only three seats are available on each. Contested races will also be on the ballot for two seats on the Rice County Board as well as the state legislature.
On the Council side, incumbents Jonathan Wood and Royal Ross spoke along with challengers Faysel Ali and Sara Caron. Four Faribault School Board candidates were in attendance: Travis McColley, Casie Steeves, Damian Baum and Terry Pounds.
Not at the forum was the board’s only incumbent seeking re-election, Jerry Robicheau, along with Richard Olson, Bradley Olson, Andrea Calderon, Ahmed Hassan and Sonny Wasilowski. Wasilowski had reserved a seat, but missed the event due to a family emergency. On the council side, John Rowan and Adam Gibbons were not present.
Also in attendance were all four candidates for the state legislature. DFL Senate candidate Roger Steinkamp kicked off the event, followed by his opponent, Sen. John Jasinski. Steinkamp took the opportunity to introduce himself to those largely unfamiliar with his experience as a businessman and agricultural educator.
“I understand what it’s like to start a small business and I understand why three out of five go out of business in the first five years,” he said. “It’s tough.”
Bound by strict time limits, Steinkamp didn’t go into particular detail on his policies. Instead, he promised to address disillusionment with the political system by listening closely and working hard to represent all constituents.
Jasinski, a former Faribault mayor, was quick to highlight his experience local government. At the capitol, he touted his success in achieving funding for local projects, as well as tax cuts passed by the legislature in 2017. Still, Jasinski acknowledged that 2020 has not gone ideally, with the pandemic turning a surplus into a $2 billion deficit and legislators struggling to find common ground. Jasinski was critical of Gov. Tim Walz’s approach to the pandemic, arguing that it has disproportionately harmed greater Minnesota. Jasinski said that at this point, COVID has caused just a fraction of the deaths Walz warned it could, mostly in the Twin Cities metro.
Jasinski was cited this weekend for driving while impaired, and he touched on it in his remarks, pledging that he would continue to serve the district and expressed gratitude for the support he’s received.
“I’m proud to serve, I’ll continue to serve, and what happened on Friday night has no impact on how I’ll continue to serve you,” Jasinski said.
Next to speak was Jasinski’s Faribault counterpart at the legislature, Rep. Brian Daniels. Daniels has compiled a staunchly conservative record and if re-elected said he’d look to lower taxes. Daniels also touted the work he’s done on a bipartisan basis to secure funding for the academies and help children with autism, down syndrome, dyslexia and other conditions.
His opponent brings a very different perspective. A young working mom with five children, Ashley Martinez-Perez would be the area’s first Latina legislator and said that her life experiences have guided her views and activism.
Martinez-Perez said she would work to make life affordable and create opportunities for Faribault’s working class. She said that Faribault’s sizable immigrant and working class community has been hit hard by COVID and not enough has been done to help them.
“We have a lot of people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their health care,” she said. “We need to try to make sure we help them.”
Only one candidate for country board attended the meeting, Kim Halvorson. She’s running for the board in the Fifth District, which includes western Rice County. A turkey farmer, Halvorson is running against three-term incumbent Jeff Docken, who she says hasn’t done enough to represent the southern part of the district.
Docken easily beat her in 2016, and in the 2020 primary, but Halvorson was upbeat about her candidacy. She pledged to bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the board, citing her experience on the county Planning Commission and District One Hospital Board as proof that she can get things done.
The first of the council candidates to speak, Sara Caron is a Faribault native, but would be a newcomer to city government. Currently, she works as production manager at the Paradise Center for the Arts and bartends at The Depot.
She pledged to bring additional affordable housing to town and preserve downtown Faribault. On the other hand, Caron says she would speak for those in the community she doesn’t think are heard at City Hall. Caron specifically called for additional assistance for Faribault residents with mental health and addiction issues. She recently lost a friend to addiction, a story she said is all too common.
“Addiction and mental illness have touched many in town, and yes there is a lack of resources,” she said. “I pledge to support the creation of programs and institutions, especially non-traditional solutions, to address these issues,” she said.
Following Caron was Royal Ross, the council’s only elected incumbent. As he did four years ago, Ross insisted that he comes to the council with no “pet projects,” just a willingness to listen and serve and a commitment to finding solutions.
“I’m the person who’s always asking how we can make things happen,” he said.
One issue that the councilor has focused on over his tenure is reducing regulations. Ross is proud to have taken a fiscally cautious approach on council, pushing staff to reduce unnecessary expenditures and shifting toward an increased focus on franchise fees rather than property taxes.
Following Ross was Jonathan Wood, who was appointed to the council after Steve Underdahl was elected to the county board. Wood, a local builder who owns his own construction company, is seeking a full term on the council. Wood started his own construction firm in 2009, at the nadir of a painful recession, and has since built about 300 houses. He said that making the business work required a full and energetic commitment, and that he’s brought the same energy to Council.
“Hard work is what it all comes down to,” he said. “City Council is a full time job if you want to be successful at it.”
Wood said that his deep engagement in the community has also made him a better council member and better representative for Faribault. He and his wife are active members at First English Lutheran Church and he is currently a leader of Faribault’s Masonic Lodge.
A member of Faribault’s growing Somali community, Faysel Ali is a first-time candidate who currently serves on the city Planning Commission. Like Caron, Ali said he decided to run because he feels a lot of Faribault residents are left out too often of the halls of government. As a first-generation American, Ali said he is eager to give back to the community. As a father of four children, he said he doesn’t take anything for granted and is wants to help make Faribault the best, most inclusive community it can be.
“What I’d like to see here in Faribault is greater civic engagement from our elected officials and community leaders,” he said.
Damian Baum, who currently serves as IT Coordinator at Cannon River STEM School, is making his first run for the board, though he unsuccessfully sought a seat on the Faribault City Council. At the forum, he highlighted improving communication between the community and the district.
“(My) three kids are the primary reason for my wanting to run for Faribault School Board,” he said. “My primary goal going into running for school board is to provide communication and connection to the community.”
A staff member with the Chamber, Casie Steeves is a working mother of two with another on the way. A staunch supporter of the district’s 2019 referendum campaign, Steeves decided to run because she wants to see the district provide the best education it can for all students. Steeves promised to be fiscally cautious, focusing investment in those areas that most make a difference for students. She promised to work to strengthen the district’s relationship with South Central College and local businesses to provide a variety of career paths for students.
Like Steeves, Terry Pounds is a first-time School Board candidate. The father of three children said he’s participated in local campaigns since he moved to town in 2006, but decided this was finally the time to get involved.
“When something is important to you, you should do your best to contribute to it,” he said. “That’s why I’m here today.”
Pounds said he would work hard to make the district’s recently passed strategy and mission statement a reality, with a focus on closing the racial achievement gap, boosting graduation rates and creating new pathways to success for students.
Travis McColley was the final candidate to speak. A longtime activist with the Rice County Republican Party, McColley is also the father of two kids who have spent their entire careers in the Faribault Public School system, and he wants to make it better.
McColley said that he would bring a can do attitude to the board. He’s pledged to comb through the district’s budget line by line, eliminating unnecessary spending so the district can weather the COVID-inflicted fiscal storm and focus on providing a world-class education for its students.