WILLMAR -- It's a three-way race for the State House of Representatives District 17B seat representing nearly all of Kandiyohi County, but the candidates were often of one voice when it came to issues important to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
Incumbent Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, and challengers Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, and Zachary Liebl, Independence Party-Atwater, pledged their support for Local Government Aid and property tax relief at a forum held Wednesday evening in Willmar. Sponsored by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the candidates responded to questions posed by the Coalition.
All three would oppose amending the constitution to require a super majority vote in the legislature for a tax increase. They agree on targeting economic development programs to different regions. They all emphasized the importance of providing job training opportunities to support economic development.
But there were differences that hinted at the themes of the campaign ahead.
As the incumbent, Vogel told the audience that he went into office two years ago with the state facing a $6.5-billion deficit and helped turn it into a $1.2-billion surplus. He pointed to 158 bills passed during the last session as evidence that there was more bipartisanship than acknowledged.
Vogel also emphasized an ability to put his constituents before his caucus, citing his votes for the bonding bill and Vikings stadium.
The Legislature also reduced regulations and taxes on businesses, while reforming state agencies. "Let's continue going in the right direction,'' Vogel said in closing remarks.
Yet the budget and partisanship were exactly the issues that Liebl and Sawatzky took aim at when the opportunities arose. Sawatzky charged that the budget surplus is really an accounting shift at the expense of education, with no plans in place to pay it back.
She said the number one concern she has been hearing from constituents is their concern about the inability of legislators to work together.
"When the number one issue going to St Paul is to get along and get something done, that tells us we're in a sad state of affairs,'' she said.
Sawatzky said she has already put party officials on notice that if elected, she was going to put constituent needs before the party.
Liebl too charged that the state's budget surplus was actually a deficit in the waiting due to the shift in education funding. "You pushed it down the road and kicked the can,'' he said.
He promoted himself as a "fresh face'' and emphasized his independence from the two major parties. "(I'm) not going to have to worry about pleasing any political party. Constituents first, party second,'' he said.
Liebl is an admissions counselor representative with the Minnesota School of Business in Waite Park and member of the National Guard unit in Cambridge.
Sawatzky is a special education instructor with the Willmar Public Schools.
Vogel is a business owner and Realtor with Edina Realty of Willmar.