— If Democrat Kevin Labenz manages to get 40 percent of the vote on Election Day against longtime Republican Rep. Bob Gunther of Fairmont, it would be unusual. No Democrat has ever reached that threshold running against Gunther.
But Labenz is predicting a slightly more astonishing accomplishment when people look at the final tallies after Election Day. A Hamline University graduate who returned home to work in the pork industry, Labenz said his message, his grassroots campaign and his large team of volunteers is unlike any Democratic legislative campaign the district has seen.
“And I think we’ll have a lot of people who are surprised down here on Nov. 7,” he said of the day after the election.
If Gunther is facing his toughest challenge in his 10th election, it didn’t show in a recent interview. He sounded like the Bob Gunther voters have gotten to know well over the past 17 years: Low-key, quick with a joke, focused on job creation.
But he apparently wasn’t feeling overly complacent about another cake-walk in 2012, explaining to a reporter that he was putting down lawn signs and would have to call back.
Priorities and critiques
There are plenty of issues on the mind of Labenz: the need to stem rising property taxes, the value of having a pork industry worker representing an ag-dependent district, the danger of rural Minnesota falling into a vicious cycle of declining tax base and declining quality of life.
But before all of that, Labenz talks about education.
He credits his rural public schools for the opportunities he’s had, and he wants to make sure the next generation of Minnesota kids can say the same.
“I want to ensure that rural schools remain a great place to get an education,” Labenz said. “... It’s not only a moral issue to have good schools, it’s an economic issue.”
Part of the definition of a good school in outstate Minnesota is strong vocational and technical classes and vibrant agricultural programs such as FFA, he said.
Other Labenz priorities are adequate funding for early childhood education programs and all-day kindergarten at all schools — even at outstate school districts that don’t have the massive tax base suburban schools do. It’s a matter of fairness, he said, because a kindergartner from rural Minnesota shouldn’t be a step behind the same student in Edina.
District 23A reaches down to the Iowa line — including parts of Watonwan County and most of Faribault County — and Labenz notes that the state to the south has managed to provide all-day K in all its schools.
“If Iowa can do it, Minnesota can do it,” he said.
Minnesotans are losing the long-standing faith that their state outperforms the rest, according to Labenz. He points to the state government shut-down of 2011 after the Republican Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton couldn’t reach a budget compromise.
“Minnesota’s supposed to be the state that works,” he said.
In the past, state leaders could vigorously disagree but still be willing to negotiate when the legislative session neared its end, according to Labenz. The Republican-controlled Legislature didn’t follow that model, and the party’s no-new-taxes pledge was a fallacy,
“They didn’t raise our sales tax. They didn’t raise our income tax. But we’re seeing these huge increases in property taxes,” he said
Those property tax hikes were caused largely by decisions made at the Capitol, and they were particularly painful for senior citizens, small business owners and farmers, according to Labenz.
“This is just the wrong way to balance the budget,” he said.
Labenz said he would consider raising income taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans after looking first for savings and efficiencies in the budget.
The jobs chairman
After 17 years in the House, Gunther gives no indication that he’s hesitant about putting in two more.
“I am chair of the Jobs Committee, and certainly we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Gunther talked first, though, of the good news. Minnesota is doing significantly better than the rest of the nation in withstanding the Great Recession, and southern Minnesota is outperforming other parts of the state.
Gunther points to the 5.1 percent unemployment rate in Martin County and the 4 percent jobless rate in Jackson County, comparing it to the 5.7 percent statewide rate and the nearly 8 percent national jobless rate.
Gunther has long opposed Democratic proposals to raise taxes, talking about the importance of lower taxes to the state’s business climate. But his years of work on the jobs committee leaves him thinking about employment challenges beyond taxes.
Many Minnesota businesses have job openings but no qualified applicants for the jobs, according to Gunther. He mentions examples around the state involving job openings but no workers with the required skills to fill them, including a company in his district that wants to hire 20 diesel mechanics but can’t find trained workers.
It’s vital, Gunther said, that the state continue to work with vocational and technical schools to match student training with available jobs.
Another key in many outstate Minnesota towns is making sure housing is available for workers when a local manufacturer is thriving and looking to hire, he said. But the issue is complex, and state leaders need to keep exploring ideas for quickly encouraging housing construction when it’s needed to bring new workers to a community.
“There’s a lot of things that should be done and have to be done,” he said. “And every year, you find a couple more.”
More would have been accomplished in job creation already if Republican ideas hadn’t been vetoed by Dayton in the past two years, according to Gunther.
“It would have made us more economically competitive and a more attractive place to do business,” he said.
Gunther wants to take another crack at some of those job-creating tax incentives. But he said there was real progress, too, in the past two years despite the different philosophies in the executive and legislative branches.
A massive budget shortfall was turned into a surplus, and the education bill sent hundreds of additional dollars per student to rural Minnesota schools struggling with declining enrollments, he said.
Jobs, though, will always be Gunther’s focus. Boosting employment opportunities is even more crucial in outstate counties that have been losing population in the past half-century and have been watching young adults moving away to bigger cities.
“Economic development and jobs are the gasoline that drives our economy here in Minnesota,” he said.