Two incumbents and two newcomers have won the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party’s endorsement to represent Le Sueur County and surrounding areas in St. Paul.
The incumbents include:
• Rep. Jeff Brand (DFL-St. Peter), a city councilor-turned-legislator representing House District 19A (St. Peter, Kasota, eastern Kasota Township), elected in 2018.Rep.
• Rep. Todd Lippert (DFL-Northfield), an ordained minister elected in 2018, representing House District 20B (Northfield, Cordova, Kilkenny, Montgomery, Lonsdale).
• Fresh on the scene is Erina Prom, vice chair of the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board, running for the open seat in House District 20A (Le Sueur, Le Center, Lexington, Kasota Township, Cleveland, Belle Plaine).
• Another newcomer in Jon Olson, a national security educator and former naval intelligence officer, challenging incumbent Sen. Rich Draheim (R-Madison Lake) to represent Senate District 20, which encompasses both House districts mentioned above.
The candidates spoke with us on health care, education, agriculture, broadband and their legislative priorities in the interview below.
Tell us about yourself and why you’re running?
Rep. Brand: “I’m a former city council member from St. Peter serving two terms taking my local government experience to the legislature to advocate for better policies and better opportunities for greater Minnesota cities across the state. I’m a small business owner, so I recognize this could help with advancing policies to support businesses.”
Rep. Lippert: “I ran for office initially and I’m running for office again because I care about small areas. I grew up in a town of 700 people in northwest Iowa and I’ve been an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ for 17 years serving small churches and small towns in Wisconsin and most recently in Northfield. I want small communities to have what they need and rural areas to have what they need. I want us to be connected to the rest of the state and for the state to see itself connected to us in small towns. Because it doesn’t matter what we look like or where we’re from, we all need high quality affordable healthcare, we all need to stay home when we’re sick, we need good schools for our kids, we need high speed broadband. That’s at the heart of why I’m running.”
Olson: “I’m running because I spent pretty much my entire adult life in the service and I once again felt that call back to public service. At this point in my life, my experience and background, this is the best possible way I can give back to my community.”
Prom: “Throughout my time as a stay at home mom, I have been working the last 10 years in particular on nonprofit boards, and through that process, I have really come to have a deep appreciation for how local government works … It just really opened my eyes to the fact that the decisions that are made on a state and federal level really impact people at a local level … My experience on the School Board has impacted me greatly on the need for equity in education. When we were living up in Hugo in White Bear School District, I was able to see a district, while not perfect, had a lot of opportunities and funding that became very apparent were not available to our own district in Le Sueur-Henderson. As I became active in advocating for public education, I really saw a need to be an even stronger advocate at the capital. It really became something that broke my heart to see the lack of equity between rural and metro schools, and I felt there was something I could do about it. One thing I would really like to stress, too, is my work in advocating for the Ag2School credit. That was something I’ve been passionate about for a very long time both in the introduction, the initial passage and also the increase in the Ag2School credit. Le Sueur-Henderson has been striving to go out for a bond referendum and as we’ve been doing our research and watching other school districts fail their bonds across the state prior to the Ag2School credit, it really became clear to me that the farmers who have been struggling financially and who bear the brunt of so much of the cost of the bond referendum really need someone to come to their aid and to partner with them so we can provide for our children. After the initial passage of the Ag2School credit, poor weather conditions continued to drop crop prices and we saw that the Ag2School credit was not enough and we needed to go for more to get the aid that we needed. There was some opposition to increasing it, but once it was increased bonds across greater Minnesota started passing at a much higher rate than they had in a very long time.”
In your view, what’s the biggest issue facing your district and how would you address it in office?
Rep. Brand: “There are a lot of big issues. In our district, I think healthcare costs were by far the number one concern this last election. That dwarfed education and traditionally education was the number one topic. We’ve done some things in the legislature this year and last year. We passed the Alex Smith insulin for all bill, we just passed the drug transparency bill ... I support an expansion of Minnesota Care, just as my predecessor had done but unfortunately in the Senate they don’t support it so it was kind of a lopsided conversation last year. Unfortunately there is just no interest in them working on it. That will be the discussion as part of the 2020 election in Minnesota as well as how do we do things in Minnesota to make things more affordable.”
Rep. Lippert: “With COVID-19 it’s shown us the disparities that were already there before COVID-19, but they’re even more clear. The geographic disparities are very clear right now and we need to make sure that rural communities are not left out or left behind.The broadband issue is really key. We need to make sure that kids have high speed broadband so they can do homework and people can do their jobs. The farm economy is a major concern. We just passed bill on the house floor yesterday that I was the lead author on that paused farm foreclosures until December 1. Making sure that farmers are able to bridge this gap and withstand the farm is really important. Paid family leave is something that is really important too. We need to make sure that when people are sick they have economic security to stay home and they don’t feel that they have to go to work to get a paycheck and risk others getting sick too.”
Olson: “What I’ve heard from people, as I’ve gone around Senate District 20 is that they are concerned with the many different aspects of healthcare. There are many different people in the state of Minnesota who have good health insurance, but it’s costly … There are people out there who say, ‘ I can’t afford it, so I’m not going to even try to pay because it’s just too expensive,’ so they run the risk of some catastrophic injury and illness and having to declare bankruptcy. So my number one thing that I want to help people in my district deal with is the high cost of healthcare. I’m not set on any specific outcome, I just know that our system needs to change so that it’s focused on patients and outcomes for patients so they have access to high quality affordable healthcare when they need it.”
Prom: “Right now, healthcare has been at the top of everybody’s mind. Whether it’s access to mental health services or specialty clinics, the cost of prescription drugs. … One of the things that has struck me is the fact that while it’s definitely important and I applaud the bipartisan effort to move forward our transparency bills for healthcare, that’s just the start. Because if it’s not affordable and the services and prescription drugs are not accessible, it doesn’t matter. So if I have the opportunity to be in office, I would build upon those bills to ensure that Minnesotans, especially in greater Minnesota, have better access to healthcare services and to bring down the cost of prescription drugs. One area we have experienced personally, that I’ve been drawing attention to this last week is Food Allergy Awareness Week. I applaud the bipartisanship that brought forth the insulin bill, but there are so many other drugs that are either too expensive or not accessible, one of which is epinephrine. One of our daughters has a severe food allergy and we along with several other families across the state of Minnesota know what it’s like to see the price of epinephrine — or epipens as they are commonly referred to — skyrocket in cost. In fact we’ve actually experienced getting to the pharmacy counter only to realize they are facing a shortage and even the generic form is not available. So I can see from a personal level there is so much work to do to address the shortage and skyrocketing prices of prescription drugs.”
With a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, where do you see room for compromise?
Rep. Brand: “Well what you saw this year with the Alex Smith insulin bill, what you saw this year with the drug transparency bill, those were the compromises that passed in the Republican controlled Senate and the Minnesota House. Nothing gets done this year without those bipartisan relationships, so we’ve been able to do that and we’re grateful we’ve been able to do that. There’s much, much more that we can do, but unfortunately there isn’t much support right now.”
Rep. Lippert: “I think the conversation on paid family and sick leave has really changed. That’s become a national conversation, so I think that’s shifting. There’s broader recognition that if people are sick they need to have the security to stay home. That is a basic benefit that we should be providing workers and that will be important for workers going forward. I think that is a place where there are openings for getting something done going forward. Broadband is another one. We need to keep providing funding there as quickly as we possibly can. Those are key issues for me personally, but I think those are places we can find agreement across party lines too.”
Olson: “Here’s what I think we lose in translation: we are all Americans and we are all Minnesotans. We used to be pretty good at it and coming together as Republicans and Democrats to stall the challenges as we face these things. It’s not one party faces an issue and another party faces an issue, these are all issues that we share together. So the question is how do we solve those issues in a bipartisan way? Politics is the art of compromise, it truly is. You try to get the things you want, but you recognize that you have to be willing to give a little to get a little and both sides need to be in that mindset where we’re going to work toward our goals, but in the end we understand we have to have issues together. That moves things forward for the people of the state of Minnesota. The number one focus of the state legislature needs to be delivering public policy that supports the needs of the average American citizen that lives here in Minnesota.”
Prom: “There’s always room for compromise, it just takes willingness to do it. There’s so many issues that should not be partisan issues. When it all comes down to it, we’re all Minnesotans. Just recently over the last year or so as the city of Henderson experienced flooding … we as a district recognize the fact that the flooding was impacting us at a district level and so I reached out to Rep. Gruenhagen initially to see what aid we could get … Just realizing that Henderson’s representative was Republican didn’t deter me from wanting to work with them to find a solution. When I realized that there was some political posturing going on I knew that the best hope for the flood mitigation to pass was if it were to find bipartisan support and thankfully Rep. Brand from St. Peter also had constituents who traveled along Hwy. 93 and saw the importance of it and signed onto the bill Rep. Gruenhagen had wrote. I’ve been working with both of them ever since and also helping spread the word this is not a partisan issue and real lives are being impacted right now.”
What would be your priorities for the next legislative session after your election?
Rep. Brand: “I had legislation creating a tax and dividend bill that would be for businesses and would give people a tax break for being good people. Unfortunately that didn’t get passed this year. I am hoping we can work on it next year. I am hoping that we can address education and continue to fund education in cities and counties appropriately. We are going to have to make some tough decisions in how we look at our budget next year unfortunately, but those would be opportunities to reconsider what we value and what we should invest in.”
Rep. Lippert: “A MinnesotaCare buy-in is something very important to me that would be a priority of mine. We’re entering into a time where unemployment or job security for many people is more uncertain and we need to make sure that if you have a job or have lost a job or are in-between jobs, you can still access affordable health insurance. I think the MinnesotaCare buy-in is a good path forward to ensure that people can buy into this program and have access to affordable insurance that is real insurance. Paid family leave, I mentioned as well. In general, we’ll need to focus on the needs of Minnesotans going forward. We’re entering a very uncertain time with COVID-19.”
Olson: “The number one priority would be addressing the cost of healthcare. Number two is that our farming community has been taking a hit the last few years. There are a lot of people in senate district 20 who are either farmers or businesses are directly linked to the farm economy. So we have to do something to balance the scales here in the state of Minnesota to support our farmers. Third, what I’ve heard from people and this is probably universal, if you have kids, you want your kids to have a great education even better than you got. I think right now we’re seeing a unique opportunity that there are technologies out there that are very helpful for things like distance learning. It’s certainly an impact to the business community and other things, but in greater Minnesota we have a dearth of really good high speed internet access. So hand in hand with a strong investment in education is an investment in what I would call a critical utility and that’s the internet and those things go hand in hand. It has long been my belief that the most important investment a community can make is investing in its youth.”
Prom: I would definitely want to make headway in properly funding education. The system as it is right now is broken. Whether or not that’s from an operational levy standpoint or the bond referendum, how we fund public education is not working. It’s not equitable, it’s not working for everybody and it leaves a lot of students behind. Something that I really believe in is the governor’s vision for making sure Minnesota becomes the education state.”
Anything you would like to add?
Rep. Brand: “As we look toward the 2020 election we are dealing with COVID-19 and things are going to have to change. Some things are changing all around us and we have no control over that. But what we do have an opportunity to do is to look at it as an opportunity to change how we do business in Minnesota. Many people have already been marginalized both in small businesses and as employees. When you can make more on unemployment than working 40 hours a week, that’s a sign that they’re not getting paid enough. I see countless examples of people in my district getting paid less in Minnesota, especially in Nicollet County. Our river is polluted. We work very hard to clean up the river, but there’s still so much to do. Before this pandemic reached our shores we were already facing a climate that’s changing and was threatening our economy and our existence on this planet. We have an opportunity to do a lot of things different. I think these are the opportunities that we need that we need to grasp at. This is a crossing for us in America, especially in Minnesota. This is a crossing where we say ‘Do we go left or do we go right? Do we go forward or do we go backward?’ So I hope we move forward on those issues.”
Olson: “I have pledged to everyone that I’ve talked to that I’m going to run a very positive campaign focused on the issues. You will never see me run an attack ad against Rich Draheim because I don’t believe in them. If there are outside forces that come in to try and back my campaign and they try to run an attack ad against Rich Draheim, I will denounce those ads. The reason is because that’s not how we do politics in Minnesota. Minnesotans deserve the opportunity to hear the candidates talk about the issues and their ideas to address those issues. Everything else is noise.”
Prom: “There’s a quote by an educator that I’ve been coming back to over and over. Just the idea of ‘Everybody talks about returning to normal.’ Normal wasn’t working and we shouldn’t actually go back to what it used to be. Together, we actually have an opportunity make a new normal that works for everybody. The quote is from Dwayne Reed and he says ‘I hope that our new normal today exposes what was wrong with our old normal yesterday and sets us up for for a better normal tomorrow.’ COVID-19 has laid bare so many inequities amongst Minnesotans and we have the opportunity to really go in and do more than a band-aid fix. We can address inequities in healthcare access and prescription drug coverage, we can address the inequities of internet across the state of Minnesota with border-to-border broadband, we have the opportunity to invest in clean energy across the state of Minnesota while also ensuring that it’s an affordable option.”