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District 53 voters: meet your candidates

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Minnesota District 53 Senate and House candidates gave voters a glimpse of where they stand ahead of the Nov. 8 election last Tuesday in Woodbury. From left to right: Andy Turonie, R, House 53A challenger, Susan Kent, DFL, Senate 53 incumbent, Kelly Fenton, R, House 53B incumbent, JoAnn Ward DFL,House 53A incumbent, Sharna Wahlgren, R, Senate 53 challenger and Alberder Gillespie, DFL, House 53B challenger. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad) 2 / 2

In the first public appearance for all six candidates running for state offices, the Woodbury Area Chamber of Commerce held a panel discussion with candidates last Tuesday afternoon in Woodbury.

The Chamber moderated the panel discussion, asking candidates to touch on state and regional issues such as health care, the economy, education and this year’s legislative session, to give voters a glimpse of where candidates stand as election day approaches.

Republican candidate Andy Turonie of Maplewood, who is challenging DFL incumbent state Rep. JoAnn Ward for the District 53A House seat, emphasized a need to cut government spending after hearing a number of similar concerns from people in the district on quality of life.

"Everything is getting a little bit more expensive, and I see it all the time where people are saying it's more difficult to just maintain," Turonie said, adding that the state's increased budget during the past two decades has risen at an alarming rate.

He said he plans to find ways to lower spending by finding more efficient ways to manage government programs.

District 53A serves Landfall and the northwest part Woodbury, as well as parts of Maplewood and Oakdale.

Ward, a former school teacher and Woodbury resident, emphasized transportation and issues like teacher shortages, early education and childhood nutrition, which she said are contributing to the state’s harrowing achievement gaps in some areas.   

"Access to early childhood education is just not there. There’s a reason for that, but that means we're getting kids off to a slower start,” she said.

Ward added that she is working on identifying issues for kindergartners with severe mental health issues.

“That's going to make a huge difference as they move on,” she said.

DFL challenger Alberder Gillespie, who is challenging Republican incumbent state Rep. Kelly Fenton of Woodbury for the House 53B seat, stressed a similar point on finding solutions to the achievement gap.

Gillespie, a Woodbury resident and Mississippi transplant, added that she’s noticed that small business owners, as well as people living in poverty, often aren’t able to find or are unaware of resources that exist, which she said she plans to address if she is elected.

"If we ignore the things that work and only put our money to the things that don't work, that doesn't make sense to me," she said.

The number of people without health insurance is also a concern, Gillespie said.

Attracting and retaining businesses in the state and Washington County is among Fenton’s priorities, she said while highlighting recent work she’s done to help businesses expand or start in the county.

Because of the growing number of entry-level jobs in Woodbury, Fenton added that transportation infrastructure connecting St. Paul to the Woodbury is also an important issue.

"Everywhere else there's transit infrastructure going in, and the east metro looks like the redheaded stepchild of the rest of the metro," Fenton said.

Maplewood resident Sharna Wahlgren and Senate District 53 Republican candidate called for affordable health care, education opportunities and lower taxes.

Wahlgren called for finding solutions to education through innovation, especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, which have some of the highest achievement gaps in the country.

“If we want to think we’re No. 1 at something, we’re No. 1 in achievement gaps,” Wahlgren said. “And that’s nothing to be proud of.”

DFL incumbent state Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury is seeking a second term on the District 53 Senate seat and touched on her experience working across the aisle and involvement with the Senate’s so-called Purple Caucus, a coalition of more than 20 bipartisan senators.  

Health care, education and transportation are also issues she plans to continue addressing if given the nod.

“When it comes to the health care providing system, clearly it’s a challenging case because there is no transparency in what we’re paying for,” Kent said.

Some candidates criticized partisan politics leading up to Legislature’s failure to pass a bonding bill minutes before session ended and the recent stalemate between party leaders in calling a special session.

House lawmakers received only one copy of the bonding bill 20 minutes before session adjourned, which led to the bill dying on the Senate floor, Ward said.

"Process is really, really important," she said. "The deadlines were late, the targets were very late and difficult to meet and no time to actually do anything about it and make the conversations."

Kent said she has been pushing for rules that would make it so lawmakers have to file bills the week before session ends in order to avoid future breakdowns.

Still, candidates agreed that voters have been frustrated with recent outcomes at the Capitol.

“People don't care about procedure, they just want the job done correctly across the board,” Turonie said.

Moderators ran out of time Tuesday before asking candidates about the Gateway Corridor and the proposed Gold Line bus-rapid transit route.

Candidates and voters will have another chance to meet from 7-8 p.m. on Oct. 25 at Central Park in Woodbury, where League of Minnesota Voters Woodbury, Cottage Grove will be hosting a similar event.