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Hering makes his pitch for District 9A representative

Alex Hering, DFL vice-chairman for Cass County, expounds on his vision as a hopeful for District 9A representative -- a discussion that, one way or another, often revolved around issues of care and community. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

For Alex Hering, the vice-chair of the Cass County DFL, a keyword is "care"—health care, elderly care, home care and daycare, or caring for the environment and caring for one's neighbor.

Care, in the sense of being valued and supported by one's community, is starting to diminish in Minnesota communities, Hering said. That's a central reason why he's running to be representative of District 9A (an area covering almost all of Wadena and Todd counties, as well as the southern portion of Cass County) in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

"Who's taking care of who? Are we being represented by a government that wants to help people or help corporations or lenders or outside big interests?" Hering said. "It comes down to who your neighbors are and are they OK? Looking after each other doesn't seem like a priority lately."

Hering, 50, a general contractor and the owner of Cygnet Mina Inc. Building Services, came to the area in 1996, though he's originally from the Twin Cities. He studied at Minnetonka High School, then went on to the Minnesota Technical and Community College, where he graduated in 1989. He married his wife, Jill, in 1990 and shares two daughters with her, Nicole and Amber, both in their early twenties. He has one granddaughter.

For virtually all of Hering's professional life he's been a contractor, specializing in care facilities and hospital designs—though he's dabbled as an insurance salesman as well. This combination of life paths—a political actor in Cass County, a contractor with care facilities and a former insurance salesman who dealt with packages for long-term elder care—gave him a multifaceted view of the issue of care and health care in particular.

Often, Minnesotans rely on federal programs like Medicare, or large, umbrella social services for their needs. While these programs are vital, Hering said, they don't have the wherewithal to cover everyone and everyone's individual needs—a gap, he noted, which he hopes to address by influencing the process at the state level.

The opioid epidemic

Curbing the opioid epidemic is an issue more complex than simply changing treatment practices or judging where to allocate resources, Hering said. Much of it comes down to the root of the problem: why and how people got hooked on the drug.

Hering emphasized two points of vulnerability for addiction—when the medical process fails and people aren't properly treated with prescription opioids, or when they're seeking an "escape" from social entrapments like high cost of living and lack of employment opportunities.

Much of this boils down to a matter of mental health and who determines how care is given—a role that often falls to law enforcement, which is an unfair position to place them in, Hering added. When people are incarcerated for opioid abuse, they're essentially being penalized for a mental health issue.

"We need to expand our services that we used to have. The treatment facilities, the mental health facilities have been closed down or minimized, especially in our area," Hering said. "I'd like to see that as a priority—not just addressing opioids, but addiction and mental health."

Economics of District 9A

Hering pointed to the minimum wage as a crucial aspect of how wealth is circulated and distributed through an area. It benefits workers, businesses and the state to have a population with more disposable income, he said.

Counterintuitive to this, wages have not seen significant increases for years. While housing costs, fuel, utility bills, insurance premiums and other expenditures rise, it falls on the worker to meet the gap with an income that doesn't match the inflation. Without government assistance, Hering said, this is often an infeasible arrangement.

"It's a broken system," Hering said. "There's no switch you can flip to fix it. It has to be talked about."

The changing workforce of Minnesota

Currently, Minnesota is riding a 17-year low for unemployment in the state. However, there are some shifts on the horizon, which include industry automation, as well as changes in the workforce from a manufacturing/retail-heavy model to one in which health care and service-based jobs pose as the healthiest areas of growth, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Reflecting national trends, many new jobs are going to require some form of post-secondary certification or degree, which may leave many District 9A residents in the lurch going forward into the 2020s.

Hering identified renewable energy as an area of growth. While, optimistically, Hering said he sees a green future when it comes to energy production, the future of renewables is hardly a foregone conclusion.

"I would prefer to see renewable energy as a focus, not just of new jobs, but for potential manufacturing," he said. "Does it make sense to use wind power here, versus shipping from outside? I'd like to see technology take a look at that."

In terms of automation, Hering said he sees potential in the transition from human to robotic labor, both as a way to create new jobs supporting automation, as well as a way to cut down costs on products because of cheaper production methods.

Whatever direction the market takes, it's better if jobs and wealth remain in the area, Hering added.

Post-secondary education in greater Minnesota

Hering emphasized his position college shouldn't be "free" or fully subsidized, but structured in a way that's affordable. This, he said, incentivises learning, while still presenting education as an opportunity and means for advancement for the largest number of students possible, regardless of their social background.

As a graduate of Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Hering noted engagement is a key factor in the learning process. While he could never see himself sitting for hours at a time in a lecture setting, working in a shop with his hands kept his attention.

Having also studied at Central Lakes College, Hering said he has first-hand experience of the value of the state college program. During points of transition, between jobs and having experienced a workplace injury, Hering noted the value of affordable, easily accessible courses for people already in the workforce.

"That's what I see is a great part of the state college program is that they're offering affordability," Hering said.

Hering added support beyond basic tuition, such as affordable housing and day care, pose as important parts of the equation that don't always factor into people's notions of how education works. In terms of laying the groundwork for reaching graduation, these means of support are vital, he said.

Transportation in central Minnesota

On transportation in general, Hering noted he has concerns regarding Highway 210, which he described as "accident prone"—whether it's on the asphalt in Crow Wing County or Cass County.

"The local infrastructure and roadways, we could use some work on because there's some more links," he concluded. "It's not helping us save on fuel, it's helping us save lives."

The issue of housing

"As far as housing goes, the costs are driven by what people want," Hering said, drawing on his experience as a contractor.

Observing market trends, Hering said people are becoming more conscious of long-term housing, along with sustainable and energy-efficient constructions. People have to consider what's important to them as renters and homeowners, he added, and make judgements based on what's affordable and what's best for the long run.

As for his position, Hering said he'd look at lowering property taxes to a more manageable level.

"Because it's not based on your ability to pay that property tax, its based on an assumed value," he said. "But, it's a factor that you're still paying in your mortgage payment, or paying after your mortgage, just to exist in that space."

Hering noted affordable housing and environmentally friendly, energy-efficient housing are not mutually exclusive and he sees that as a point of focus should he be elected. Energy efficiency can reduce the after-load cost, or the out-of-pocket payments for utilities that come attached to other housing costs.