Outstate Republican mayors split over support for Emmerby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — In most years, rural Minnesota is fertile ground for Republican candidates. But this year could be different.
Several Republican mayors say they aren't sure they're going to back Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer because of his plans to cut local government aid.
By this point in the campaign cycle, statewide candidates typically have locked down their base of supporters and are working to convince middle of the road and undecided voters to vote for them. This year, some former state lawmakers and Republican business leaders have said publicly they will back Independence Party candidate Tom Horner over Emmer.
Republican mayors say they're in a tough spot.
"At this point, I don't know who I'm going to support and I consider myself a Republican," Glencoe Mayor Randy Wilson said. "I don't think Emmer is going to give us what we need. I just think he doesn't want to look for solutions."
Wilson is one of several mayors who have raised concerns over Emmer's plan to reduce state aid to local governments. Wilson said Glencoe relies on aid from the state for a third of its general fund budget. He worries that Emmer's proposed cuts could make matters worse for his city budget.
"Some people say we don't need government but the fact is we do. We do need to maintain our roads. We do need to take care of our lakes and our streams and our schools," Wilson said. "There's a probably an argument that we do need to reduce in many areas, and that's a true statement. But let's not just say it, let's figure out a solution to say how do we in fact do it."
Wilson isn't the only Republican who's unwilling to embrace Emmer. St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, a former Republican state senator for 11 years, said he's not sure who he's backing. He said he'll do what's best for his city.
"I don't believe my position as mayor is a partisan position, so I stay out of partisan politics," Kleis said.
But Kleis was a visible supporter of Republican Marty Seifert at the GOP convention in April. Emmer won the endorsement over Seifert.
North Mankato Mayor Gary Zellmer, another Republican, shares the same concerns over Emmer's plan for local government aid. Zellmer said he isn't sure who he's going to back in the race for governor - something he says is unusual at this point in the race.
"As a mayor, it gets a little difficult because you have your personal stances and beliefs and you have to go and temper them with what's best for your city and sometimes they really don't align," he said. I'm waiting."
Redwood Falls Mayor Gary Revier, a Republican candidate for Congress in the 1990s, said he's voting for Independence Party candidate Tom Horner because he believes Emmer is too extreme and his budget plan is unrealistic. The concern among city officials of all political stripes is that Emmer's budget plan would cut aid to cities. The Minnesota House Research Department says 727 out of the state's 854 communities receive local government aid.
The amount of aid the state provides to cities has been dropping steadily since 2003. City officials have argued that the cuts have forced them to raise property taxes and say additional cuts would mean higher property taxes and dramatic cutbacks in city services.
Emmer's budget plan calls for cutting state aid to local governments by $681 million. He has also advocated a plan that would redirect state aid payments to counties and have them distribute it to cities.
It's difficult to determine how many Republican mayors are either withholding their support for Emmer or aren't sure if they're going to back him yet, since many mayors in the state are officially non-partisan.
For his part, Emmer said his message is resonating with city officials across Minnesota.
"I understand the challenges that these mayors and these city councils face because I lived it," he said.
Emmer served on the Delano City Council in 2003 and 2004. He also served on the Independence City Council from 1995 to 2002.
"I don't believe the answer is to continue doing what we've been doing." Emmer said. "I believe LGA needs to be reformed so it goes back to its original purpose, which is to provide communities that don't have the economic base, the ability and resources to provide basic police and fire service and sewer and water infrastructure.
"Those essential services that government must provide."
Emmer does have his defenders, among them Red Wing Mayor John Howe who is running for a Minnesota senate seat. Howe said cities should prepare for local government aid cuts regardless of who becomes governor.
"We are in a deficit situation, a significant deficit situation, so I think you do need to plan ahead," Howe said. "I don't think Tom Emmer is talking about doing away with LGA dollars. I think he's talking about judicious use of those dollars and where they need to be allocated."
While some Republican mayors have stayed on the sidelines in the gubernatorial contest, many Democratic mayors are publicly backing Democratic nominee Mark Dayton's campaign. They say he's the only candidate who will protect state aid for cities.
- All Things Considered, 10/18/2010, 5:19 p.m.