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Juhnke brings experience, seniority to District 13B race

WILLMAR -- People still bring up Rep. Al Juhnke's "hotdish bill" of 2000, which made it officially legal for Minnesotans to bring their home-cooked casseroles to potluck dinners.

Juhnke calls it "probably the best bill I ever did."

But the six-term DFLer from Willmar is emphasizing the rest of his legislative record too, as he campaigns in District 13B this fall for re-election to the Minnesota House of Representatives.

His two chief assets: experience and seniority.

As chairman of the House Agriculture and Veterans Affairs Finance Committees, Juhnke holds a powerful position overseeing millions of state budget dollars. This past session he helped author the first biodiesel bill in the U.S.

He has been successful in getting state funding to help build a new wastewater treatment plant for the city of Willmar and funding to launch a dental clinic and training site at Rice Memorial Hospital. He's also the region's senior DFLer in the House of Representatives.

Juhnke says it's a role he takes seriously.

"My priorities are the priorities of the district," he said.

He hopes to be elected next week to a seventh term representing District 13B. For the third time in a row, his opponent is Republican candidate Bonnie Wilhelm.

In a district that's both politically and demographically diverse, Juhnke is largely mainstream. A product of rural Minnesota, he's self-employed as a real estate appraiser and is a political moderate known for being able to work on both sides of the aisle.

Juhnke said he's proud of running what he describes as "one of the most bipartisan committees in the Legislature."

"Anyone who has a good idea, we want to hear it... I work across party lines. I certainly don't follow the party mantra all the time," he said.

He sees challenges ahead for Minnesota. The tumbling stock market has left rural Minnesotans apprehensive about the economy and about their own futures. Growing needs are straining the state budget.

But for Juhnke, it's the best of times to seek re-election.

"I believe in a good efficient government and I want to be a part of it," he said.

The 2008 session was a productive one that finished both on time and on budget -- a sign that bodes well for the Legislature's ability to work together in 2009, he said.

He has unfinished business he wants to tackle during the next session. One of the foremost: making veterans' services equally available in all 87 Minnesota counties. It might mean developing new models of care, particularly in mental health, Juhnke said.

He also wants to move forward with measures that support renewable energy research and development.

The boom in biofuel spells out a bright future for the state's agricultural economy, Juhnke said. "It's the biggest thing that's happened in rural Minnesota in my lifetime."

Some of Juhnke's critics have attacked his voting record, and he acknowledges that there are disagreements.

However, "I believe I do have the support of the majority," he said.

Juhnke said he's come a long way from being a novice in St. Paul.

"Every year I learn something about this place and this system and the people who work in it," he said.

Most satisfying is being able to find a solution, craft a bill and shepherd it through the legislative process, he said. "It's knowing that at the end of the day you did something good for the people you serve and the state that you live in."