One incumbent and four newcomers have won the Republican party’s endorsement to represent Le Sueur County and surrounding areas in St. Paul. The candidates include:
• Le Sueur bank president and National Guard Col. Brian Pfarr, a newcomer who will be challenging another newcomer, DFL-endorsed Erina Prom, also of Le Sueur, for the open seat in House District 20A (Le Sueur, Le Center, Lexington, Kasota Township, Cleveland, Belle Plaine).
• Incumbent Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, of Senate District 20, which encompasses both House districts mentioned above. Draheim is a freshman state senator and the owner of Weichert Realtors, Community Group of Mankato and the New Ulm Event Center.
• Susan Akland, of St. Peter, is a retired registered nurse of 30 years looking to defeat incumbent Rep. Jeff Brand (DFL-St. Peter) to represent House District 19A (St. Peter, Kasota, eastern Kasota Township).
Elizabeth Bangert, of St. Peter, the owner of Here We Grow Childhood Center LLC, is challenging incumbent Sen. Nick Frentz for the District 19 Senate seat. Bangert did not respond to requests for comment before the time of publication.
The candidates spoke with us on health care, business, the economy, education, agriculture, broadband and their legislative priorities in the interview below.
Tell us about yourself and why you’re running?
Pfarr: I have served in the military for over 33 years and as this career nears its end, I have been looking for a new opportunity to continue my public service. I have always had a passion for public service and I see this opportunity as an excellent way to continue to serve.
I am the president of First Farmers & Merchants Bank in Le Sueur where I work with local farms, businesses and individuals. Prior to banking, I taught Farm Business Management at South Central College. I have 20 years of experience in finance, and I am convinced that my financial experience and expertise will be very valuable in the House of Representatives as the state works through its projected budget shortfall. I am also a Colonel in the MN Army National Guard, where I currently command a brigade of over 1800 soldiers. I am certain that this leadership experience will also make me an excellent asset in the House of Representatives.
My wife Kristan and I were both raised in the area, and we have lived in Le Sueur for 27 years where we raised our two children. I have served on the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board, and am currently a member of the Le Sueur Lions Club, VFW, Legion, Le Sueur EDA and chair of the St Anne’s Church Finance Council, all of which keep me connected to the community and the citizens these organizations serve.
Draheim: The first time I ran for office was four years ago and I was lucky to serve the district and was very active in my four years. I tried to do the right thing and get a lot of things done. I’m married, I lived on the east side of Lake Washington for 24 years or so and I have a wife and two kids. My kids go to Cleveland Schools. I’m a small business owner; I have a small business in Mankato and another small business in New Ulm.
Akland: I was born and raised in Oklahoma City and I have a bachelor’s degree in Nursing from Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. In 1987, my husband Mark Akland, my son John and I moved to St. Peter and Mark established his medical practice here in St. Peter Clinic and I went to work at St. Peter Community Hospital.
For 30 years, this has been our home and I have grown to love Minnesota. I love St. Peter in particular — just the small town friendliness and the quality of life that we enjoy here ... When I retired I found that I wasn’t quite ready for retirement so I was looking for an opportunity to fit in some area I was really passionate about. That’s why I originally got into politics.
In your view, what’s the biggest issue facing your district and how would you address it in office?
Pfarr: Without question the biggest issue facing our district is the projected budget shortfall and the impacts it has on our businesses, farms, and families. I believe we need a smaller, more efficient government which supports business rather than regulate it. I will work to ensure the current budget shortfall is not solved by simply passing this burden on to the taxpayers of the district. Businesses, farms and families are continually forced to be more efficient to make ends meet and our government should be no exception. Our state government must live within its means just as its citizens do.
Draheim: The biggest challenge right now is to get our economy back open. We went from arguably the best economy in 50 years to one of the worst so we need to get things back open and people working safely and getting back to normal. That’s the number one priority. The underlying issue before COVID was of course healthcare.
Akland: Because I had not been in politics before, I wanted to get a better idea and understanding of the issues in our community. So the first three rallies that we held, instead of talking to them about what I thought, they talked to me about what they were curious about or concerned about or frustrated about. The things that came up consistently were the healthcare issues, particularly the cost of healthcare. Depending on the audience farming was always an issue. Issues that came up less consistently were taxes and at that time there was a lot of issues going around with the misuse of funds in the state. The other thing people consistently talked about were overreaching regulations.
Healthcare would probably be the one I’m mostly familiar with. Having been a registered nurse for over 40 years and having worked with my husband in family practice, we have witnessed many changes that have affected the industry over the years. Currently, for many people it seems to be the cost of health insurance that has become the most burdensome. So I would love to be on that committee that addresses healthcare issues. And healthcare truly is a multi-layer problem. There are solutions that will make healthcare costs more agreeable to all Minnesotans, but it will take a lot of work. My goal would be to make healthcare more affordable for the ordinary American, prescription drug costs need to be lowered, the whole issue of preexisting conditions drives up the costs of healthcare and I think there are ways we can do that better so everyone has more affordable health insurance.
The ways that we could accomplish this? Part of it goes back to reimbursement rates. We live in a rural area, reimbursement is not as good for rural areas. We need to economize during this COVID crisis, we need to implement some of this telemedicine. One thing that I’ve thought about as far as attracting providers to the rural areas. There’s been many health facilities that have closed in rural areas, so we want to make sure healthcare is available to all people. I’ve dealt with in the past some innovative tuition plans for medical students and Allied Health graduates and working through these plans we could get some of these graduates into rural areas. It helps them get experience and it also helps the rural communities. Another answer is more private insurance competition. Just look with insurance companies and try to figure out ways to reduce the costs of them.
With a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, where do you see room for compromise?
Pfarr: The issues facing the state are complex and there are no easy solutions. They will require an effort to work together to find the best solutions for the citizens of the district, rather than the usual partisan politics. I will listen to, and consider all points of view when making decisions, and will always put the needs of the district first as I work to solve these issues.
Draheim: Pre-COVID, about 80% of my bills were bipartisan. At the end there it was hard to get coauthors and other stuff done. To me, it’s about finding solutions and getting things done and finding solutions. If it’s a solution, it should be bipartisan. I think I have a good reputation of working across the aisle and finding a common goal with someone who wants to solve the same problems.
Akland: One reason I’m running is because I am so frustrated with the divisiveness not only at the federal level, but at the state level. When I look at the voting records and how votes come out, so often it’s just strictly party line and to me that says there are winners and losers in every bill. Recently there was an FMLA bill that passed the House that any person, any employee would be able to have a certain amount of FMLA which would be partially paid for by the employee and also partially paid for by the state and that passed the House but even as it passed everyone knew it wouldn’t pass the Senate because it was totally partisan. The vote came up exactly partisan. There has to be an answer to that ... I see actually on most financial areas there should always be some compromise.
What would be your priorities for the next legislative session after your election?
Pfarr: My priorities for the next legislative session will be a smaller more efficient government, which lives within its means. I will use my financial background to find solutions to accomplish this priority. We must work to balance the budget without placing this burden solely on the residents of the district.
Draheim: I’m one of the guys who likes to work on bills, non-flashy solutions and stuff that people bring to me, that constituents bring to me. With a problem I had a woman call me with an autistic son who had an issue with his drivers license. He was driving for their construction business, but wasn’t sure how he would react if he was pulled over by police because he doesn’t like confined spaces. So we talked about it and what if we had something on his drivers license? We had a bill to do that where you could voluntarily put something on your driver’s license or dependent’s drivers license that there’s a mental health issue or some form of autism that the officers being trained in this, because they’re trained in both subjects, would know how to treat the solution a little different and avoid tragedies like we’ve seen around the country.
I think to label one thing as a solution would be hard because these are the kinds of things that I’ve worked on. Rural broadband, cheap healthcare, higher education, just job programs. I’ve done quite a few bills that the governor has signed on P for Performance so as the economy tightens up we really need to look at how we help all the non-profits that help out and how they get reimbursed for the work that they’re doing and P for Performance is one of the best ways to do that. When they accomplish a task, they should be reimbursed from the state instead of just giving out a lump sum and not knowing where the money goes.
I don’t like to limit it to one subject. If there’s a problem, let’s work on it and find common ground and get something accomplished even if it’s not a home run bill that solves 100% of the problem. In government, we never get there, but we can help and reduce the problem and that’s what my bills try to do.
Akland: Right now with COVID, I think the financial issues are going to be the largest issues we’re going to have to deal with. My understanding is they’re going to go into a special session now with the bonding bill, but also next year we’ll be dealing with more financial issues. So finances are the main thing because we went from a surplus of $1.5 million to a deficit of $2.5 million or roughly something like that. SO I think we will need to address the defecit, because that will do two things. My stand on this is Minnesotans are already some of the most highly taxed citizens in the United States and we’re not going to be able to tax our way out of this looming deficit. So we’re really going to have to look at and prioritize our spending. I think we can look at reducing our government expenses. We can look at that several different ways, but I think one way to look at it is a percentage per capita. We don’t want to cut too heavily on the essential services, but we may need to cut on the non-essentials.
The other big issue in the forefront when I started my journey was the misuse of funds. That too will be an issue, holding all the agencies accountable.
Anything you would like to add?
Pfarr: I believe my experience, leadership and public service make me the best choice for MN House District 20A and if elected, I will work tirelessly for you and I will never forget who sent me to St Paul.
Akland: I am just a common citizen and I care very much about our state. I just want to see our core values that this country was founded on upheld and strengthened. My father was a World War II veteran and he saw a lot of combat. One day I asked “How did you make it through?” and he said to me “There was a job to be done and I was one of the men to do it.” That’s how I feel about this job. There’s a job to be done and I’m one of the men to do it. This my time to serve our country. I have no horse in this race other than to serve the people of Nicollet County.