By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
— Southern Minnesotans who keep an eye on politics probably figure they’ve got a fairly good understanding of Allen Quist. After all, the retired St. Peter farmer and former Bethany Lutheran College professor has twice run for governor and twice for Congress in the past 20 years.
But many eligible voters have never heard the conservative Republican make his pitch for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature. Some eligible voters in Tuesday’s special election to fill the House District 19A seat — the vast majority of Gustavus Adolphus College students, for instance — hadn’t been born the last time Quist ran for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. And no voter under the age of 44 has cast a ballot for him when he last won a seat in the Legislature.
It’s a surprise to Quist himself to be running for the state House, the body he was first elected to in 1982. He was re-elected in 1984 and 1986, lost to Gustavus professor Don Ostrom in 1988, lost a rematch in 1990 and then set his sights on higher offices.
“I never would have predicted it,” Quist said of his current legislative run, a campaign that began fewer than two months after he lost a congressional contest to Rep. Tim Walz. “I thought I was retired after the November election. I told a number of people it would take something totally unforeseen for me to be a candidate again. And it has.”
The surprise resignation of Democratic Rep. Terry Morrow of St. Peter was the unforeseen incident that got Quist thinking about the state House.
Last year his focus was almost totally on Washington, D.C., and the federal debt, something he said concerned him so much he’d decided to postpone a comfortable retirement. Leading up to the Nov. 6 election, he was hopeful the already Republican-controlled U.S. House would be reinforced with enough similarly conservative new members to drive dramatic reductions in spending and the elimination of the federal deficit in six years or fewer.
The congressional campaign came up short by 15 percentage points against Walz. Six weeks later, Morrow announced he was resigning his seat at the Minnesota Legislature to take a job in Chicago.
Now Quist, rather than looking to join a Republican majority in the U.S. House, is seeking a seat in a state government dominated by Democrats.
Quist said that wouldn’t keep him from being an effective advocate for the district and for improvements in the way the state works. He repeatedly compliments the late Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich, saying he and Perpich shared goals on some issues and could work together to advance legislation.
Quist’s reputation is one of a strong conservative (he described himself as “a far right conservative” in last year’s congressional campaign) whose tenure in the Legislature was mostly focused on social issues. But he said his priority is boosting the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs.
“I’m a conservative. I’m a Republican. But the bottom line is I’m a good-government guy,” he said. “I want government to work as it’s supposed to.”
Quist said the first thing he learned when he took office in 1983 was how much he had to learn.
“I was amazed at how little I, as a freshman, knew about how state government actually operates.”
But by his second legislative session, he was pushing a bill to change the state’s Department of Economic Security into the Department of Jobs and Training. The idea came Allen Sigafus, then the assistant director of human services for Blue Earth County.
“He had made the case to me that our welfare system was far too much oriented in handing out money and wasn’t oriented enough in helping people become employed,” Quist said.
It became law, largely because Quist and the Perpich administration could work together, he said. “We immediately formed a coalition because the Perpich administration wanted to do the same thing.”
The legislation didn’t bring the dramatic transformation in welfare programs he sought because federal law also needed to change, something that didn’t happen for another decade, Quist said.
Still, he said his success with that 1984 bill demonstrates his legislative skills and can be duplicated in changing how Medicaid is administered in Minnesota. He also predicts that implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act is going to be problematic and that he will be able to offer potential solutions — even in a DFL House.
Talking taxes, energy
Quist opposes any tax increases aimed at eliminating the state’s projected $1.1 billion budget shortfall, instead supporting spending reductions. On other fiscal issues, he said he isn’t rigid in his positions.
Quist said he could probably support a higher income tax on top earners if the revenue was used to boost the size of the exemption on the Minnesota estate tax — a tax he said is hitting average farms hard because it hasn’t kept pace with inflation in land prices.
He said he would push to make sure District 19A gets its share of state bonding projects and would push for improvements to Highway 14, particularly a safety upgrade of the intersection of Highways 14 and 111 in Nicollet.
Quist opposes the state’s renewable energy mandate, which requires even rural electric co-ops to produce 25 percent of their electricity from sources such as wind turbines.
“I’d really like to see if we can’t roll that back because that’s really driving up the cost of electricity for farms and homeowners and businesses,” said Quist, who doesn’t believe global warming is caused by power plants and other human activity.
He would argue against state budget increases for all-day kindergarten and pre-kindegarten education programs, seeing little lasting academic benefit from those programs. Instead, more resources should be directed to gifted and talented students, said Quist, who believes those students have been shortchanged by the federal education policy.
While Quist said he supports property tax relief and the concept of state aid for outstate cities to ease property tax burdens, he isn’t sure the state can afford it unless savings can be found in the budget.
“The question is, were are you going to get the money?” he said. “Would I support increasing the sales tax to do that? Probably not.”
The Free Press published profiles on candidates Tim Gieseke in Thursday's edition and Clark Johnson in Friday's edition. Both stories are also on this website.