Our View: Senate District 25 Judy Ohly vs. Dave Senjem
One of the things we like about Sen. Dave Senjem is his ability to get along with people. Indeed, in previous editorials we've pointed out that some members of the Republican Party think he isn't sufficiently cutthroat. We believe that's why, after four years as Senate Minority Leader, he lost his leadership position to Sen. Amy Koch after helping the Republicans gain control of the Senate in 2010. With the GOP in power, the party wanted a hard-liner at the helm, and Senjem didn't fit that mold.
When Koch stepped aside in disgrace, Senjem took over once again, and as Senate majority leader and chairman of the Capital Investment Committee, he became one of the most powerful people in the Legislature. We celebrated this development as being great for the spirit of bipartisanship in St. Paul, and potentially yielding dividends for Rochester.
And Vikings fans, due in no small part to Senjem's leadership, can look forward to at least three more decades of NFL football in downtown Minneapolis.
Yet today, Senjem is on the defensive.
Judy Ohly, an Olmsted County Commissioner who is leaving that position to challenge Senjem in the Senate District 25 race, proved prophetic on Sept. 6, exactly one week before Gov. Mark Dayton announced that Rochester would receive no economic development money for its long-sought $75 million expansion of the Mayo Civic Center.
"Dave Senjem could have had that project," she said. "He was the Senate majority leader and the chair of the bonding committee, but he didn't make it happen, because of party politics. This is a huge missed opportunity." When we pointed out that DEED money might still be awarded to Rochester, she laughed out loud. "Oh, please! Deals were made behind closed doors. If we get anything, it will be a drop in the bucket."
Days earlier, Senjem had assured us that the civic center was well-positioned to get a large share of the $47.5 million in economic development funds. "Everybody knew that the DEED block grant was directed toward the civic center. That's no secret," he said.
Apparently not everyone knew about the plan — at least not the important people. Regardless, the only thing that matters now is that Rochester's aging civic center remains in limbo, needing $10 million in repairs, and civic leaders must go back to the drawing board yet again, trying to figure out what went wrong.
Senjem shouldn't bear the blame alone. We're not thrilled with Dayton, DEED and some other Republican members of Rochester's legislative delegation. If they'd fought for the civic center in the House, things might have turned out differently.
But they didn't. And in this case, the buck stops with Sen. Senjem. He didn't deliver, and in this election year, there's a strong challenger waiting in the wings.
Ohly isn't a newcomer to government. After eight years as a county commissioner, she's deeply aware of how recent decisions in St. Paul have trickled down to local government, homes and businesses — and not in a good way.
We believe she's ready to step up to the next level, and we endorse Judy Ohly in Senate District 25.
She's been involved in real estate and banking for nearly 30 years, which means she knows what it's like to run a business in Minnesota, but most of her views are colored by her experiences on the county board. For example, when asked about health care reform in Minnesota, she said, "It's part of a bigger discussion, which is health and human services. We, as county commissioners, have witnessed the growing demand for those services, and they're going to continue to grow as baby boomers retire and our work force declines. Simply adding more money to the system isn't the answer."
So, we asked, what is the answer?
"Magic," Ohly said.
OK, she actually told us about the MAGIC Act, which is shorthand for Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration. It's legislation that's been in the works since 2008, with the goal of giving counties fewer mandates — especially unfunded ones — and more freedom to test new ways of delivering services. The goal is to eliminate red tape and redundancy, achieve better outcomes and foster collaboration between counties.
"It would set the wheels in motion for county government to actually get excited about some of the ideas they've been tossing around for years," Ohly said. All 87 counties have passed resolutions of support for the MAGIC Act, and Ohly said its passage would be her top priority if she is elected.
Senjem, too, recognizes that health care reform and collaboration at the local level should go hand in hand, and he's a big advocate for consolidation of services. "The state Health Department and Human Services Department are two large organizations, dealing largely with the same people," he told us. "Yet they have separate administrations and generally speaking, I'd suggest that they probably don't talk to each other much."
Ohly's views on taxation and the state budget also reflect her experience on the county board — namely, the unpleasant task of setting tax levies. "It's just not fair to keep putting more and more of the burden on homeowners through their property taxes," she said. "It's time to get serious about the whole tax package. We need to put everything on the table and have a full tax discussion, and that's not something the Legislature wanted to do the past two years. That's why we had a government shutdown."
But there's more to Ohly's views than just tax reform and a focus on health and human services. She's surprisingly passionate about protecting Minnesota's environment, and she took a dim view of what she described as the GOP's attempt to roll back regulations concerning new coal-fired power plants and the moratorium on new nuclear power plants. "If we start degrading our water and air quality, we'll jeopardize our tourism, which is one of our biggest industries."
We also should note that Ohly was among five county commissioners who voted in favor of Olmsted County's workplace smoking ban in 2007 — which, of course, set the stage for the state to follow suit.
Ultimately, however, what we like most about Ohly is the "local" knowledge she'd bring to St. Paul and her eagerness to help other legislators understand what's been taking place in counties all over Minnesota for years.
"When the state makes rules, they make rules for the entire state, but the needs are different," she told us. "One size does not fit all."
With Judy Ohly in the Senate, there would be at least one voice in St. Paul who would be ready to say, "I've been there, and this plan won't work for everyone. Let's try something new — or better yet, let's allow the counties to take a shot at it."