AUSTIN EDITION - Debate highlights candidates' stark differences
By Matthew Stolle
Republican Rep. Greg Davids and DFL candidate Peggy Hanson participated in a debate this week. By the end, one thing was crystal clear: District 31B voters will a have distinct choice in candidates for the state House of Representatives.
Hanson, a Lanesboro business owner, offered herself as a candidate willing to work across party lines and to restore fiscal sanity to the state's budget process.
Davids, a seven-term state representative and former mayor of Preston, portrayed himself as an experienced legislator who gets things done and is ready to do more as an influential committee chairman.
Then there was Heartland. The proposed tire-burning facility controversy has yet to stir up anything more energetic than a hornets nest of community strife.
During the debate, Hanson contrasted what she considered the unfairness of offering state subsidies and tax breaks to Heartland, even as the La Crescent school district in the past three years had cut 22 teachers, two administrators and 13 coaches.
"I think decent state funding for our schools is a better deal than a tire-burning plant that won't pay any taxes," Hanson said.
Davids countered with the observation that tire-derived energy would probably never to amount to a "speck" in the state's energy plan. The issue, moreover, was not a legislative one, but one for the courts.
Several people who watched the debate at Rushford-Peterson High School listed the Heartland issue as a dominant concern for them, the one that's generating the most talk at coffee houses, taverns and the dinner table. Duane Miner, a 46-year-old resident of District 31B, described himself as "middle of the road," not committed to either candidate.
But his attitude toward the proposed Heartland Energy and Recycling Inc. facility was unequivocal: "I don't care for it in my back yard."
Mike Fields, a Caledonia farmer and Hanson supporter, called Davids' remarks during the debate "too little, too late."
"The fact that his father-in-law (is the developer), that's all I need to know," Fields said, referring to Robert Maust, the primary force behind the Heartland proposal. "(Davids) is willing to jeopardize my health and my wealth to aid his family. I don't think that's what a representative should be doing."
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the plant would not significantly harm the environment. A group opposed to the plant has challenged that assertion, and the issue now rests before an Olmsted County judge.
Davids has denied any involvement in the Heartland matter other than to introduce his father-in-law to a legislator, who wrote the language that gave Heartland its tax-exempt status.
An Olmsted County judge, however, earlier this year criticized Davids for what he described as a "ham-handed effort" to speed up the permit process for Heartland.
Others say that Heartland is an irritant but not the world-shattering topic that its critics portray it to be.
Randy Dahl, a Fillmore County Commissioner, is one who believes there are more pressing issues. Fillmore County has a growing elderly population. The area's demographics are changing, the balance of power is shifting in St. Paul, and defending rural Minnesota's interests is becoming harder.
"One of the reasons we need an experienced legislator for rural Minnesota is, it's a tough place up there," Dahl said in explaining his support for Davids. Others cite as one example of Davids' ability to get things done a bonding proposal for a $600,000 nanotechnology building.
Yet, during the debate, Hanson took issue with the implication that she didn't have the toughness to represent District 31B.
"I'm running against a 14-year incumbent who has raised and spent more political (money) than anybody else in the last five years. I'm still on my feet, and I know how to fight, too," Hanson said.
But Davids argued that a senior representative would be in a better position to influence legislation than a freshman representative in the minority party.
It was just one of several areas where the two disagreed and revealed themselves to be two very different candidates.
Like many rural areas, school districts in District 31B are losing students with a consequent loss of state funding. Davids talked about using his legislative influence to create "ghost students."
Though they didn't actually exist, they served to up the amount of state funding rural schools received.
Yet Hanson argued that rural Minnesota is losing out in the battle for school funding. She noted that in 2001 when the Legislature reformed K-12 funding, rural Minnesota lost out, while wealthy metropolitan suburbs got the biggest cuts in their property-tax bills.
The two also clashed over the state budget. Hanson said the Legislature had mismanaging the state's finances by leaving the state in structural deficit. Davids said the Legislature had made tough decisions and had created the conditions for better times.
Both seemed to agree on one point: Voters will have distinct choice on Tuesday.