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Simmonds challenges Kresha for House 9B

Dustin Simmonds, a 24-year-old from Little Falls, is challenging incumbent Republican Ron Kresha for Minnesota House District 9B.

In an interview Tuesday, Simmonds said he was spurred to enter public service by the town's battle with widespread substance abuse and hard economic times, as well as the disillusionment that accompanied both issues.

"The cynicism I grew up around was always so disheartening," he said. "Everyone always thought, 'This town's never getting better. There's nothing going on in this area... as soon as I get the chance, I'm out and I'm gone.' That broke my heart, to hear people talk about the place that I love that way."

As he delved further and further into how to fix the city's issues, he realized its struggles were actually on the state level.

"We're being forgotten in St. Paul," he said.

Simmonds had harsh criticism for Kresha, who he said was preoccupied with toeing the Republican party line and "passing easy legislation." He also brought up a trip Kresha took with Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt last November to Turkey, which raised eyebrows back in the United States.

"He says he only went along to see the sights," Simmonds said of Kresha. "That begs the question, as a representative, why are you accepting special interest funds to go abroad to go sightseeing? Especially when that wasn't the purpose of the trip, it was to visit an Islamic leader."

The trip was organized and partially paid for by the Niagara Foundation, created by followers of progressive former imam Fethullah Gulen. Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, so the lawmakers wouldn't have had to actually go to Turkey to visit him. Gulen has frequently run afoul of the government of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, which in May officially designated Gulen and his followers as terrorists.

Spokespeople for Kresha, Daudt and Rep. Paul Rosenthal, DFL-Edina, told the Star Tribune that no taxpayer money was used for the trip.

Simmonds said completion of the Veterans State Trail near Little Falls would help draw an economic boost to the area, and a job training program for residents of rural areas of the state would also help empower local residents to improve their economic status.

Rail infrastructure improvement and safety was also important as trains frequently go through the city, he said.

As for social issues, Simmonds is pro-life and said Republicans weren't "as dedicated to the issue as they claim to be." They turned down policies such as paid maternity leave that would make families more comfortable with the prospect of carrying a pregnancy to term, he said.

Simmonds also opposed the calls for gun control measures in the wake of the nightclub shooting in Orlando.

"Going after guns isn't the right approach," he said. "I'm someone who stands wholeheartedly behind the Second Amendment."

The "no-fly, no-buy" proposal that would keep people on the no-fly list from obtaining guns was "common sense," Simmonds said. However, the idea of "any sort of gun ban" was "out of the question," he said.

He works the front desk at the AmericInn in Little Falls, and has one Spanish requirement to satisfy before he gets a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Minnesota, he said. He earned an associate of arts degree from Central Lakes College, where he studied political science under Steve Wenzel. Simmonds' campaign manager is Myles Hotzler, a native of Brainerd that Simmonds met in Wenzel's class, he said.

Simmonds has four sisters and one brother.

Simmonds served on the Little Falls Mayor's Youth Task Force while in high school, he said.

DFL delegates from House District 9B endorsed him during the Minnesota Senate District 9 endorsing convention in May. He was also the second vice-chair of the College Democrats at the University of Minnesota and treasurer of the rural caucus in the Young Democrats of America, he said.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.