MANKATO — A Waseca Republican will be on the ballot Nov. 6, seeking to win back from the Democrats a state House seat that had been a Republican held stronghold for two decades before Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, pulled off a big upset in 2008.
Kath, an Owatonna school teacher who easily won re-election in 2010, decided to retire from the Legislature at the end of this term, and Democrats opted for another teacher — Waseca music teacher, band director and National Guard member Craig Brenden — as they hope to continue Kath’s winning streak after a long slump in the House district dominated by Waseca and Owatonna.
Republican activists settled on John Petersburg as their endorsed candidate in District 24A, but the Lutheran church administrator is facing a challenge by a fellow Waseca Republican in the Aug. 14 primary election. Waseca City Councilman Larry Johnson didn’t seek the Republican endorsement, but he wants the party’s slot Nov. 6 to run against Brenden.
“It’s been kind of a distraction, the fact that I have to kind of run a two-part campaign,” said Petersburg, who lives in Waseca but works at a 4,200-member Lutheran church in Owatonna. “... It’s also been good for our campaign because it’s made us be more focused.”
Johnson said it might be helpful to not be the endorsed candidate considering many voters’ disdain for political parties these days. The manager of the Waseca American Legion said he concentrates almost exclusively on economic issues, not the social issues that many Republican activists care deeply about.
“I’ve been called a Ron Paul guy sometimes because of some of my leanings — ‘Keep government out of our business,’” Johnson said.
Petersburg, too, heavily emphasizes fiscal and economic issues — both in an interview with The Free Press and on his website. He strongly opposes any tax increases, calls for reducing government spending, is skeptical about regulations on business and wants to end disparities in funding for schools that tilt toward urban districts.
“If you want to look at the health of any community, you have to look at the health of its business community,” Petersburg said.
The next Legislature is once again facing a projected 10-digit deficit in 2013. With Gov. Mark Dayton midway through his four-year term, the state appears destined for another debate over the wisdom of fixing part of shortfall with tax increases on higher-income Minnesotans — a top priority for the Democratic governor.
After a stalemate in 2011 between Dayton and the Republican-dominated Legislature led to a three-week government shutdown, and after watching partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., the approval ratings of lawmakers are at record lows. Petersburg said he’s heard that on the campaign trail.
“Probably the No. 1 comment that people make is not about taxes, it’s about how the Legislature goes about doing its business,” Petersburg said. “The biggest comment is probably, ‘Why can’t the two parties just get along?’”
So should Republicans accept some of Dayton’s tax hikes in return for the governor agreeing to deeper cuts in spending? Petersburg isn’t willing to go that far, and he employs the main Republican message from the 2011 budget battle.
“With all of us, even in our own personal budgets, we have to live within our means,” he said. “And I believe government does as well.”
Petersburg said he would, in the spirit of compromise, be willing to look at options for increasing non-tax revenue in return for steep spending cuts. But tax hikes shouldn’t be on the table, he said.
“The taxes in the state are really overbearing,” he said.
One non-budget priority he mentions is Highway 14, pledging to push for expansion to four lanes in the remaining gaps in the expressway long sought between Rochester and New Ulm.
But Petersburg’s primary sales pitch is about personal qualifications and experiences. He’s been a farmer (and still owns farm land), a school board member (Claremont/Triton) and a church administrator (his current job at Trinity Lutheran).
“I think I have the best all-around experience,” he said. “Plus living in Waseca and working in Owatonna with a large congregation, I have ties to both communities.”
Not long after becoming the youngest elected City Council member in Waseca history at the age of 24, Johnson started thinking about running for the Legislature. The owner of a downtown bar at the time, he chose to seek a second term on the council instead.
Johnson won re-election, then lost when seeking a third term and now is serving as an appointed member, filling out the term of a councilman who left the community.
“Now seemed like the right time to run,” he said.
Not, however, for the party endorsement.
Johnson has some beliefs that would make it hard to get the backing of many socially conservative Republican activists. He doesn’t, for instance, support the Republican push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
“I don’t think government has the right to have involvement in any marriage, be it heterosexual or homosexual,” Johnson said.
He told the Owatonna newspaper that the war on drugs has been a failure and he favors legalizing medical marijuana.
“I’m really more concerned about the fiscal issues than I am the social issues,” Johnson said.
After doing some canvassing in Owatonna, he wonders if the endorsement is a help or a hindrance these days.
“When I told them I’m the unendorsed candidate, they seemed to find that refreshing ... that the political parties are part of the problem.”
Not having the backing of the party means less financial help for his campaign, no ready-made team of volunteers, no visits on his behalf by state party leaders. And he’s set a self-imposed contribution limit of $100.
That makes campaigning tougher, but it also means he doesn’t owe anything to big donors or party leaders. Too often, lawmakers are threatened with the loss of a future party endorsement unless they vote the party line, Johnson said.
“They’ve got nothing they can hold over my head,” he said.
It also frees him up to not take a no-new-taxes pledge. Although Johnson said he’s strongly disinclined to raise taxes, he could accept some of Dayton’s tax hikes if it was part of a package that made significant cuts in government spending.
“I would be able to support a tax increase from the governor’s office if we were able to get some equitable reduction in the size of government on the back end,” he said.
Other priorities for Johnson are term limits for lawmakers and school reform focused on improvements by individual students rather than schoolwide test scores.
After watching two straight elections where a Republican-leaning district voted for a Democrat, Johnson decided it was time to stop deferring to party officials.
“It was nothing but disaster for us the last couple of outings,” he said. “That’s why I decided I’m not going to follow the party-line baloney. I’m just going to do what’s best for the people of Waseca and Owatonna.”
House District 24A is made up of the city of Waseca, the Waseca County townships of Blooming Grove and Woodville, Owatonna, and five nearby Steele County townships.