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Local legislative candidates — sans GOP — explain stances during forum

Featured Oct. 3 were Minnesota House of Representatives candidates Brian Hobson in House District 5A, Gregg Hendrickson for 5B, Rick Blake for 6A and Sally Boos for 6B. Minnesota Senate candidates appearing were A. John Peters for Senate District 5, Steve Samuelson for District 6 and Suzanne Cekalla for District 10. All except one are running as the DFL candidate in their respective races, with Hendrickson part of the Independence-Alliance Party of Minnesota.

Central Lakes College exterior entrance
Central Lakes College
Brainerd Dispatch file photo
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BRAINERD — Something was missing Monday, Oct. 3, from a legislative candidate forum hosted at Central Lakes College by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters — the entire slate of Republican candidates.

Those seeking office in five state house districts and three state senate districts received invitations to participate in the forum, one of 18 candidate forums hosted by the group in the Brainerd lakes area intended to provide voters an opportunity to learn about who wishes to represent them.

Forum moderator Rebecca Timmins told the audience of about 50 people in the Dryden Theatre those not participating in the event were either unable or declined to attend.

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Featured Monday were Minnesota House of Representatives candidates Brian Hobson in House District 5A, Gregg Hendrickson for 5B, Rick Blake for 6A and Sally Boos for 6B. Minnesota Senate candidates appearing were A. John Peters for Senate District 5, Steve Samuelson for District 6 and Suzanne Cekalla for District 10. All except one are running as the DFL candidate in their respective races, with Hendrickson part of the Independence-Alliance Party of Minnesota.

Not present were Republicans Krista Knudsen for 5A, Mike Wiener for 5B, Ben Davis for 6A, Rep. Josh Heintzeman for 6B, Sen. Paul Utke for District 5, Sen. Justin Eichorn for District 6 and Nathan Wesenberg for District 10. Rep. Ron Kresha was also invited to the forum, although he is unopposed in House District 10A.

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Senate candidates

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Minnesota Senate candidates A. John Peters, left, Steve Samuelson and Suzanne Cekalla participate in a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Three candidates for the Minnesota Senate appeared Monday: A. John Peters for Senate District 5, Steve Samuelson for 6 and Suzanne Cekalla for 10. Prepared questions broached topics including voter confidence in election outcomes, school curriculum, abortion, gun violence, health care and spending priorities.

DFL candidate Cekalla, running against Nathan Wesenberg, said she’s seeking office because she believes severe partisanship is preventing lawmakers from accomplishing what’s needed for Minnesotans. As a nurse, parish pastor and chaplain, Cekalla said she’s skilled in working in the middle of political divide and believes she could help contribute to getting the job done.

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Senate District 10 candidate Suzanne Cekalla participates during the legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“We in rural Minnesota in particular really suffer a lot, because we do not have some of the infrastructure that they have in the metro area. … It’s across the board, there’s so much, so I don’t know if I could pick one (issue),” Cekalla said. “But I think we need to recognize that the partisanship is destroying who we are as a state and as a nation.”

Cekalla said reproductive rights is the No. 1 concern among people she’s talked to during her campaign, many of whom said they fought this battle 50 years ago and are in disbelief it must be fought again.

“We should not be going backwards, we should be going forward. We should provide better health care for women and children,” Cekalla said. “And in particular, we should take more care of the people we already have rather than just fetal cells.”

Cekalla criticized Wesenberg for what she described as his belief public school students are being indoctrinated and said he has no intention of being collaborative.

“My opponent is very much into one idea of how things are done and does not want to … be working and collaborating with other people,” she said. “I plan, and I promise, to work with everybody.”

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Peters, a DFLer challenging Republican Sen. Paul Utke, said as a mathematician and self-described computer nerd, he believes in facts and their importance.

Peters said the top three spending priorities for the state in the next biennium should be public safety, education and health care, especially mental health care. He said he supports a move toward a single-payer health insurance system and believes in more tax cuts for the lower and middle classes while asking those who make in excess of $400,000 a year to pay more.

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A. John Peters, candidate for Senate District 5, speaks during a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

In response to a question from the audience about how the state should prepare for more extreme weather events due to climate change, Peters said he doesn’t neatly fit into the party’s environmental ideas with his support for nuclear power.

“Do you realize that the insurance companies and the Defense Department are now studying on mitigation effects and preparing for disasters for our country right now? If they’re doing it, what’s the argument? Because they don’t do things willy-nilly,” Peters said. “ … We’ve gone past the point where we’re not going to have problems. We have to start working and preparing for some of the disasters coming down the board.”

Samuelson, challenging Republican Sen. Justin Eichorn, said he’s running for office because he’s afraid of the U.S. losing its democracy and is frustrated by partisanship. He said not enough people exercise their right to vote and he believes people should be automatically registered rather than having to seek it out themselves.

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Steve Samuelson, candidate for Senate District 6, at a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“Too much politics gets played and bills don’t get passed that would benefit people, because it wouldn’t be good for the next election,” Samuelson said. “ … I think the parties need to work together on everything. There’s nothing wrong with being together and saying, you know, ‘We did this together. We did a great job.’”

Samuelson said he knows firsthand what it’s like to suffer being uninsured, noting his glaucoma became worse when he lacked insurance and could not afford the expensive eyedrops.

“People should not have to be going through not being able to decide whether to eat or buy their medicine,” Samuelson said. “MNsure needs to be expanded. They could have some kind of sliding scale as far as how much it costs, but the for-profit health care industry is not a very good thing.”

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House candidates

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Minnesota House of Representatives candidates Brian Hobson, left, Gregg Hendrickson, Rick Blake and Sally Boos participate in a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Four candidates for the Minnesota House appeared Monday: Brian Hobson for House District 5A, Gregg Hendrickson for 5B, Rick Blake for 6A and Sally Boos for 6B. Prepared questions broached topics including voter confidence in election outcomes, school curriculum, abortion, gun violence, health care and spending priorities.

Blake, the DFL candidate running against Republican Ben Davis, said Minnesotans need access to high-quality, affordable health care, including mental health care and an insurance system that’s easier to navigate. He noted support for medical marijuana but pointed out insurance companies do not cover the treatment, relating his experience with his daughter’s brain tumor and the effectiveness of the drug in treating her symptoms.

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House District 6A candidate Rick Black answers a question during a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

He said the Legislature failed to deliver last session and left rural Minnesotans in the lurch, and he wants to see omnibus bills go by the wayside in favor of taking policy out of budget bills and focusing on single issues.

Blake criticized Davis multiple times for what he characterized as his belief in widespread election fraud, defense of Jan. 6 insurrection defendants, support for a total abortion ban and lack of interest in working with others who don’t agree with him.

“My opponent, who’s not here, doesn’t know how to work effectively with others,” Blake said. “He demonizes those who disagree with him and he has an extremist agenda he wants to impose on the rest of us. I’ve been in public service for years. My commitment to you is to effectively represent your interests in St. Paul. I will fight to preserve our freedoms, including a woman’s right to manage their own reproductive health.”

DFLer Boos is challenging incumbent Rep. Josh Heintzeman. A former teacher, Boos focused several of her answers through the lens of education, which she said needs much more funding to ensure students realize their full potential and gain workforce skills. She said she supports public education being available from the age of 3 through two years of training past high school.

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House District 6B candidate Sally Boos speaks during a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“It would give us some of the workforce we need so badly, and expanding health care and child care,” Boos said. “ … There’s something like 40,000 kids looking for child care placement in Minnesota, so we need to expand some of the state programs.”

Boos also criticized her opponent Heintzeman, particularly on his voting record in the House on transgender issues and his penchant to vote against bills in a litany of subject areas ranging from jobs and higher education to environmental policy and health and human services.

“I regret he’s not here to defend himself, although I don’t think he could defend this,” Boos said. “ … All of his constituents lost somehow. Public schools lost out, seniors lost out, everyone who pays income tax lost out, small business owners and local governments. Please don’t send this man back to St. Paul.”

Independence-Alliance Party candidate Hendrickson, running against Mike Wiener, said he would be a swing voter at the Capitol and would help to repair the broken party-focused climate.

Hendrickson said he thinks it’s wrong an 18-year-old can purchase an AR-15 weapon and walk out of the store without any training. As an Army veteran, he said he received extensive weapons education that required annual recertification, and something similar should be expected of those wishing to own semi-automatic weapons.

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House District 5B candidate Gregg Hendrickson takes part in a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Hendrickson said he’s a big supporter of broadband internet expansion and wants to see the state’s budget surplus go toward tax relief. He said permanent property tax relief is necessary because local governments won’t be able to get it done. He’d like to see more emphasis on local food production to combat inflation and ensure farmers receive fair prices.

“We are losing population, we’re aging and the government keeps growing in these local areas,” Hendrickson said.

He said he was disappointed his opponent didn’t show up Monday, describing it as a discredit to voters in the newly formed district.

Hobson, the DFL candidate running against Krista Knudsen, also related a number of his answers through his personal experiences as a teacher. He said if he can handle a classroom full of 9-year-olds, he believes he could also work collaboratively with legislators across the aisle.

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House District 5A candidate Brian Hobson speaks during a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

He said beyond education, housing is one of the most pressing issues in the state, noting the cost is becoming prohibitive for some and requires legislative intervention. Funding could support community-based housing in small, rural towns, he said, to help put it in reach and have a positive impact on homelessness.

“LGA (local government aid) could … make starter homes available for folks who can’t afford it, to make people who really can’t afford to work right now because they can’t afford child care and housing and all that, maybe we take some of the strain away so folks can afford to work,” Hobson said. “And then the economic development is there so that smaller towns can create the opportunities for young folks to stay there.”

Missing candidates

The lack of opposing candidates was disappointing news for Jan Kahring of Park Rapids, who drove almost 90 minutes to CLC in hopes of gathering more information to help her decide how to vote. The 68-year-old said she moved to the area four years ago and as a lifelong voter who’s voted for candidates on both sides of the aisle, she came to the forum with an open mind.

“The people here were well-spoken, they had good ideas. But you can’t weigh it against people that don’t show,” Kahring said. “ … I think they worked really hard, the League of Women Voters, to put this on and do all this, and to not even have the courtesy of responding — I think that’s just rude. And not just to the League of Women, to their constituents. It’s like they’re showing no respect for me or to you to even show up. That’s a lack of respect.”

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Audience members listen during a legislative candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

The League of Women Voters Brainerd Lakes Area issued a written statement after the forum ended in response to the sparse candidate attendance. The group noted its 102-year history in the state as a trusted source for nonpartisan voter registration and education and its efforts to promote free, fair and safe elections. It does not support or oppose any political party or candidate, according to the statement, but works on vital issues of concern to members and the public.

“Our small group of dedicated volunteers have worked diligently to provide access and information to local voters,” the League stated. “All major party candidates on the ballot for the Minnesota House and Senate races this evening were invited to attend. We are disappointed that some of those candidates were unable or declined to attend. In accordance with LWV Minnesota policy, we decided to go ahead with the forum on Monday evening without their participation as we believed that was in the best interest of voters.”

Reached Tuesday, Knudsen said organizers changed the date of the forum recently, and she had a work meeting Monday night she could not cancel. Utke said he’s out of town attending a health care conference, something he’d committed to before the League scheduled its forum.

Heintzeman said Thursday he informed the League he’d be out of town Monday night for a previously scheduled mine tour in Hibbing the following day. The visit, he said, was part of his work as the chair of the steering committee on elections for the Republican caucus.

“I usually do that (forum),” Heintzeman said. “There may be folks from my delegation that had different reasons, but that was my situation.”

Wiener said he agreed to participate in the forum when originally scheduled for Oct. 4, but it was unclear for a time whether it would take place at all when the group learned of a Republican fundraiser dinner planned the same night at the Legacy Pavilion at Cragun’s. Wiener said he intended to go to both events. After the forum moved to Monday, Wiener said it conflicted with his plan to attend the Long Prairie City Council meeting.

Although Wiener said he didn’t directly speak to other Republican candidates about the forum, he knew some others said they wouldn’t participate.

“I didn’t understand when it was first scheduled for the 4th and I heard that there was some Republicans that weren’t going to be there because League of Women Voters was going to have some part of it — I didn’t understand the issue,” Wiener said.

Attempts to reach the other candidates who didn’t attend Monday’s forum were unsuccessful.

Republican candidates in the Moorhead area also failed to show for a League of Women Voters forum scheduled for Tuesday. The trend is occurring countrywide, including in New Jersey , Connecticut , Florida and Illinois . Some accused the organization of no longer living up to its nonpartisan roots in favor of progressive positions.

Watch the forum

Visit the Facebook page of the League of Women Voters Brainerd Lakes Area at facebook.com/lwvbla to watch the candidate forum.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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