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Gridlock? Not Me, Say Minn. Legislative Candidates

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Minnesota House, Republicans, GOP, session, 2011

(credit: CBS)

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BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. (AP) — State Sen. Benjamin Kruse didn’t boast to voters in Brooklyn Park about how GOP lawmakers won last year’s stare down with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to erase a huge deficit without raising taxes. He didn’t bring up the government shutdown that preceded the budget deal, as he campaigned door to door last week.

Instead the freshman Republican talked about working with Dayton to help schools — Exhibit A in his case for bipartisanship.

Kruse is one of several first-term Republicans emphasizing across-the-aisle cooperation as they face tough campaigns. Democrats are running hard against GOP incumbents in Blaine, Eagan, Woodbury and other suburbs and outstate districts including Red Wing, Willmar and Rochester, as they try to regain legislative majorities they lost two years ago. The 20-day shutdown — and the gridlock and political dysfunction it represented — is key evidence as they ask voters to put them back in the driver’s seat.

Control of the Legislature means the power to set the agenda and frame the debate over taxes and spending on everything from public schools to health care and roads. Republicans used that power effectively to stymie Dayton’s effort to raise income taxes on the highest earners. The first-term governor, who last year labeled a new crop of Republican legislators “intransigent” and “extreme right-wing,” is imploring voters to give Democrats full control in St. Paul as the state faces another projected deficit next year.

Republicans will have to hand over the gavels if they lose a net of four seats in the Senate or six in the House. Things could go either way on Election Day, with the outcome of several dozen close races difficult to predict.

Democrats like Alice Johnson, a former House member who came out of retirement to challenge GOP Sen. Pam Wolf in a Blaine district next to Kruse’s, are campaigning as the alternative to gridlock. Johnson said she decided to run after watching “the bickering, the partisanship, the lack of willingness to compromise and cooperate, and disrespect for each other.”

“To me, it was just very sad,” she told one voter in Blaine.

A few miles away, in a subdivision of large, new homes, Kruse handed out a flier that showed the state’s red ink turning into a $1 billion surplus. But he spent his time with voters explaining a law he passed with Democratic support to yield more revenue from public lands designated to raise money for schools.

“The good that gets done gets lost in the politics of it sometimes,” said Kruse, a real estate agent who said watching the fallout from foreclosures motivated him to get into politics.

Kruse faces Democrat John Hoffman, who got into the race out of frustration with the shutdown and criticized Kruse for taking a Senate paycheck during the stoppage.

“We never shut down the school district and went home with our marbles,” said Hoffman, who serves on the Anoka-Hennepin School Board. “We stayed and got the work done.”

Both sides are reaching for the middle with talk of compromise and bipartisanship.

In Eagan, first-term Republican Sen. Ted Daley talked about bills he sponsored that Dayton signed — one allowing private employers to give military veterans preference when hiring, another requiring teachers to pass a basic skills test. He said voters are most concerned about the economy.

“We still have work to do, but we’re in a much better financial position than we were when I started,” Daley said.

Voters are getting a steady stream of glossy fliers filled with claims about the candidates in close races.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is slamming Republicans for a sex scandal that toppled the former Senate leader and led to a lawsuit from a top aide. Eagan voters got DFL mail claiming that Daley “threw out our priorities on his way to St. Paul,” alluding to legal costs for the lawsuit. A GOP piece dubs his DFL rival, former Sen. Jim Carlson, “the job crusher.”

Republicans have made much of the state being in the black in the current budget period, which ends next June, after winning the showdown with Dayton over taxes. What the fliers omit is that Minnesota Management and Budget projects another $1.1 billion deficit starting in mid-2013, while the state remains behind on $2.4 billion in school aid checks.

Meanwhile, some Democrats are reluctant to take a position on Dayton’s plan to raise income taxes on the top 2 percent of earners, a goal he strongly reaffirmed in a speech last month.

“I’m not making any commitment to anything,” Johnson said as she left fliers with hand-written notes on door handles.

Hoffman said he’s willing to consider higher income taxes for those making $450,000 and up as part of a larger overhaul that would take pressure off property taxes and have taxpayers at all levels paying a similar percentage of their incomes.

“It’s about fairness,” he said. “It’s not about paying more or less.”

Dayton stumps for Democrats in competitive races in Northfield, Owatonna and Albert Lea on Monday. He has helped DFL candidates in Brainerd, Worthington, Rochester, Willmar and Eden Prairie in recent weeks.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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