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Three candidates battle for state Senate seat

Denny McNamara and Karla Bigham

Three candidates are battling it out in a state Senate special election Feb. 12 that could narrow control of the Senate.

The Senate seat was vacated when then-Democratic Sen. Dan Schoen resigned in December amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Former state representatives Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, and Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, are facing off in the Senate race, with Hastings Libertarian candidate Emily Mellingen also running.

READ MORE: McNamara clinches Republican spot

The Republican and Democratic parties have special stake in the election, with Republicans holding a precarious control of the Senate. With Schoen out of the office, there is a 34-32 Republican advantage.

The seat currently held by Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, came under scrutiny in a court case after she became lieutenant governor. The state Constitution required her, as Senate president, to replace Tina Smith, who was appointed to former U.S. Sen. Al Franken's seat after he resigned.

The parties would be tied Senate for control with 33 in each party if Bigham takes the seat and courts order Fischbach to hold only the lieutenant governorship.

The contested Senate area, District 54, includes southern Washington county and northeastern Dakota, as well part of southern South St. Paul.

Former Legislators

Bigham and McNamara, who have served in the state House of Representatives, have had to cross into their opponents' home turf to campaign. McNamara, who decided not to run for re-election in 2016, was the District 54B representative for 14 years. Bigham served two terms as the 54A representative, opting not to run for re-election in 2010.

McNamara and Bigham tout their experience with finance and budgets from their government roles.

"As somebody who signed the front and the back of checks for 20 years as a business owner, I know how to budget," he said. "... I get the big picture and know how to budget, and know how to find money when it's not being properly spent, to realign the priorities."

McNamara, a Hastings business owner for 30 years, said when he chaired the House environment and natural resources committee he pushed a change that moved money from a Pollution Control Agency account that received minimal interest into an account that paid the state interest.

Bigham has been part of the Washington County budget process since she was elected commissioner in 2014. One thing she has remained especially vocal about is "unfunded mandates," or orders from the state for counties to provide programs or services without giving them the funding to pay for it.

"The state has a tendency to tell us what to do, tell local government what to do, or even going so far sometimes as wanting to prohibit them from resolving an issue the way they see best as the front-line people," she said. "I believe local government knows best. You have to listen to local governments because we administer the programs and we build the roads and we build the bridges, and so I think by listening to them on how we can be more efficient and effective is key."

The candidates, who have been doorknocking through the subzero Minnesota winter, said they've found that along with healthcare, transportation and taxes, education has been on the front of voters' minds.

"Educating our kids is the No. 1 priority for the state of Minnesota," McNamara said. "We need to fund education like it is the No. 1 priority. Early education, special education are absolutely important, and we need to properly fund them, and we could fund them better today."

Bigham said the district needs more education funding to keep with the the east metro's growth.

"Our residents want well-funded schools that are going to have world-class education for our students and our future generations," Bigham said. "But the state is not keeping up with growth, and is not keeping up with inflation, and so that is a direct push onto property taxes."

East metro focus

Bigham said she's a "fierce advocate" for this district, and would continue pushing for funding at the Senate.

"We don't get our fair share of transportation funding in the east metro, and we're one of the fastest growing areas," she said.

McNamara said he would push to bring home the funding.

"If our district's getting ripped off in a transportation bill where they want to send all the money to St. Paul and Minneapolis, no, we shouldn't be supporting that," he said. "We should be voting for our constituents and the people that live in our district."

Bigham and McNamara also would push for local bonding projects from the Senate.

McNamara said he'd support the HERO (Health and emergency response occupations) Center, the South St. Paul Library and improvements to Hastings City Hall.

"We've got some special needs in our district, and I hope that the capital investment senators ... will see the wisdom in including our projects," he said.

Bigham, a longtime supporter of the HERO Center, said she will support that along with the South St. Paul Library and general infrastructure and sewer improvements.

"Those types of projects that are important to this district and to our local government as well, to improve efficiency and quality of service as well when you're looking at replacing aging infrastructure," she said.

Bigham is the Washington County Board chair. Deputy county administrator Kevin Corbid said is she is elected to the Senate, the board can appoint a new commissioner in her place. Commissioner Gary Kriesel, who is vice chair, will become board chair.

Mellingen did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the Libertarian candidate's website, she is a conservative on spending and liberal on social issues.

Mellingen is a nurse for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who lives in Hastings with her family.

As a third party candidate, Mellingen had to collect at least 500 signatures over three days to get on the special election ballot.

There are currently Libertarian city council members across the state, but no one in the party has been elected to the Minnesota Legislature.

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