The races round Mankatoby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
For the past two decades Mankato's legislative seats have been filled by Democrats. But this year all three of the region's seats are open. All of the candidates come with political experience.
Mankato, Minn. — This year's election in Mankato is set against a changing community. For example, children in the city's public schools now speak 14 languages.
"Concerns about what this city looks like 10 to 20 years down the road are things that are in active discussion," says Chris Gilbert, a political science professor at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter. "Mankato is a regional center."
But while Mankato itself is changing, and highway 14 slowly expanding, surrounding communities like Nicollet have remained much the same. The area boasts some of the state's best farmland.
Gilbert says the rural portions of Sibley and Nicollet counties are considerably more conservative than Mankato and parts of St. Peter. That will make for an interesting Senate race in District 23 between Republican Mark Piepho and DFLer Kathy Sheran.
"It's difficult to think of two state Senate candidates for them, who are so clearly qualified to hold the office and yet who would bring very different interests and gifts to the office," Gilbert says.
That's because each candidate has a long political history, even if currently neither holds office.
At Piepho Moving and Storage in Mankato, Mark Piepho's office is windowless and worn down. But behind his desk is a row of smiling family photos and a painting of the battle of Gettysburg.
"That's Joshua Chamberlain who's from Maine and he was not a career soldier. He was a civilian and a professor," Piepho explains.
Piepho is a Republican Party leader in Mankato. He served in the state Legislature for eight years in the late 1970s and '80s. In 1990 he ran for the seat against current DFL State Sen. John Hottinger and lost by a few hundred votes.
Piepho describes himself as mainstream conservative, though he acknowledges some view him as strongly right wing. Piepho says he looks at what's best for the district, which he sees as an unregulated market.
"Well, it means you don't have excessive taxation," Piepho says. "You try to eliminate and streamline your regulations. It shouldn't take two or three times as long to get an ethanol plant in Minnesota as it does in Iowa or South Dakota."
Piepho is in favor of performance pay for teachers, toll roads in the metro area and increasing the gas tax to improve Minnesota's roads. Increasing bio-diesel and ethanol use mandates is on his agenda for the region. He's also anti-gay marriage.
Piepho says these are the values of his district.
DFLer Kathy Sheran sees things a little differently. Sheran presided over the Mankato City Council for 16 years. Her father Robert Sheran was a Minnesota state Supreme Court Justice.
On a recent night of door-knocking in Mankato, Sheran found plenty of supporters among town home seniors. She agreed with one man that Republicans have squeezed off support for handicapped students.
"The thing that gets me off the couch, gets me door knocking on a rainy night like tonight is just that issue," Sheran tells her supporter. "This shift in how revenue is collected is shrinking the middle class and hurting the rural part of the state."
She says the state's shift to property taxes is hurting rural Minnesota residents because incomes here aren't keeping up with the fees and local taxes levied to make up for state cuts.
Sheran is also a nurse, and a professor of nursing at MSU, Mankato. She says health care comes up at the doors of young families as well as senior citizens.
"It's 20 percent of the budget. If we really want to get a handle on growing government we really need to tackle this issue. Figure out how to do it more cost effectively, make sure everybody has access," Sheran says.
The views in House District 23A, which includes part of Sibley County, St. Peter and North Mankato, are equally divided. Republican candidate Andy Davis is a college student and a defense consultant. Davis still sports the brush cut from his time as an Army ranger in the Iraq War.
"The night of President Bush's ultimatum I was sitting on a runway with a parachute on, and about 24 hours later we parachuted into northwest Iraq," Davis remembers.
Davis served three tours in Iraq. He also founded a non-profit for veterans' affairs. He worked for U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman in Washington. Davis says he wants to consider making state departments operate on the user fees they charge. Davis is a proponent of health savings accounts. He also wants state funding designated for the classroom.
"If we're going to throw more money into education, which we're always going to have to do, then that money should go to the students first," Davis says. "And recently in the paper, in the Mankato Free Press, St. Peter was cited as trying to get investment in wind farms to try to get more revenue for their schools. We don't need to be concentrating on more revenue for schools. We need to be concentrating on teaching students."
It so happens that the president of the St. Peter school board is also Davis's DFL opponent, Terry Morrow. Morrow is a communication studies professor at Gustavus Adolphus College and a lawyer. Morrow says the school district is like a small company with high health care costs. He says he has brought costs down for his district.
"So in the St. Peter Schools for example we've moved to a VBA Plan, a voluntary employee benefit account which is much like an HSA, a health savings account. Health care costs for the St. Peter School District have come down," Morrow says.
Morrow says the governor's no-new-tax pledge has meant higher property taxes for residents who can't afford it. He says he wants to re-examine the state's tax system. He says he wants to focus on the region's bread and butter issues: transportation, health care, renewable fuels and education.
Morrow says he's running because he cares about his community. He likens it to when he moved from being a lawyer to a teacher.
"I started to have nightmares as I was an attorney, in which my tombstone said, 'He defended Allstate,' Morrow explains. "And I started to question, what am I doing with my life? And am I doing anything that really is helping society and is helping others? And I know that it sounds corny, and I know it may sound trite, but that was a tremendous motivating factor."
While both of these races are very local in nature, Gustavus Adolphus political scientist Chris Gilbert says they could have a statewide impact, especially in the state senate where the DFL has a slim majority. It could be a political party teeter-totter.
- Morning Edition, 10/06/2006, 7:48 a.m.