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Al Juhnke chats Wednesday over a cup of coffee in Spicer about his career options after a surprising loss in the Nov. 2 general election. The 14-year legislator from Willmar lost to Republican Bruce Vogel. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

After election defeat, Juhnke looks for new doors to open

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Looking rested and getting more comfortable every day with his new status as a lame duck legislator, Al Juhnke is looking at a lot of doors right now. He's confident the right one will open and he'll walk into a new adventure. "I'll see where the future takes me," said Juhnke in an interview last week in Spicer . "I'm waiting to see what door opens up."

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Juhnke, a DFL member of the Minnesota House from District 13B, was defeated earlier this month in his bid for an eighth term in office.

Republican political newcomer Bruce Vogel of Willmar defeated the 14-year legislative veteran, who had risen to the rank of chairman of the House Agricultural, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Committee. His upset loss, as well as the widespread defeat of numerous Democrats across the state, had not been expected by Juhnke or the DFL Party.

"I got caught in the wave," he said.

Juhnke, who is pro-life and supports gun ownership rights, said he's part of a "dying breed" of moderate Minnesota politicians. He prided himself for working across the political aisle when his party was in the majority and minority in the House.

Juhnke blames the turnover on the failure of Democrats to get out and vote. He does not believe there's anything different he could have done in his campaign to change the outcome.

The 801-vote loss was an immediate shock. "But every day gets better," Juhnke said. "We'll move on."

The question he gets asked the most is if he intends to run for office again.

Any response is premature at this point, Juhnke said. But he's following the advice of other politicians who have told him not to throw away his campaign lawn signs.

Juhnke said he has been in contact with Mark Dayton's gubernatorial transition team and would not mind playing a role in a Dayton administration on agricultural and rural issues. With an education and career steeped in agricultural science and ag real estate and hands-on farm work experience, Juhnke said he has a "skill set that's fairly unique" that could be helpful to the next governor looking to set agriculture policy.

He said he's also been fielding phone calls from agricultural organizations that might benefit from having a political insider who has a "passion for agriculture" on staff.

Juhnke also has his own agricultural land appraisal business that he could rejuvenate, or he might start a different ag business. But since he's no longer required to stay in a geographic location, the 51-year-old said he may be tempted to look outside of Kandiyohi County.

His love for providing public service will no doubt guide his decision, he said.

"I'm looking where my talents can be used," Juhnke said. "I still feel the need to lead."

He hopes to resume some parts of his life, like attending family reunions and performing in plays, that were put on hold while he spent six months a year in St. Paul and summer weekends in community parades.

Looking back on 14 years in the House, Juhnke said his list of accomplishments is "as long as my arm."

Some of the items on that list include: State bonding money for the Westby addition at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center; sales tax exemption for farm machinery; keeping the poultry testing laboratory in Willmar; biofuels mandates; the dental clinic at Rice Hospital; funding for New London's Little Theatre; Willmar's local option sales tax; funding for the Willmar airport and wastewater system; preserving the Prinsburg school district; funding for Let's go Fishing; veterans issues; and, of course, Juhnke's famous "hotdish bill" that prevented potlucks from being subjected to strict food safety regulations.

"A lot of this stuff wasn't necessarily sexy stuff," said Juhnke, who had expected to be spending the next two years adding to the list.

"I truly believed I was still making a difference in people's lives," Juhnke said. "I enjoyed getting up every day and going to work."

Juhnke is still busy doing his job -- going to legislative meetings in St. Paul and providing constituent services. Helping individuals has been the most gratifying part of his job, said Juhnke.

Before January, Juhnke will leave the Capitol building that "still takes my breath away" and will clean out his office that's packed with memorabilia from the district. He will also say goodbye to longtime DFL staff members who have also lost their jobs as the majority control in both houses is turned over to Republicans.

With the change in leadership, Juhnke wonders if there will be as much help for local communities as there was in the past.

He said Vogel has signed the "no new taxes" pledge. That could make it difficult, Juhnke said, to get money to fight invasive aquatic species in area lakes or for towns like Willmar to secure another local options sales tax for civic projects.

Balancing the state's budget without new revenue, and cuts expected in state aid to cities and counties, will result in the loss of services that are important to Minnesotans and put the financial burden on local property taxpayers, he said.

"They're in power now," said Juhnke of the state's Republican Party. "Good luck to them."

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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