WILLMAR –– Calling himself a “moderate,” Willmar businessman Dave Baker said Friday he intends to challenge Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, this fall in the House District 17B race.

Baker, a Republican, said he had been actively recruiting candidates to run for the seat but when they all declined, he “started doing some soul searching” over the holidays and wondered if “this might be my time to take this chance.”

After talking with family and friends Baker said he decided in mid-January to enter the race.

He may have some competition winning the GOP endorsement at the March 8 Kandiyohi County Republican convention in Willmar.

The Minnesota Tea Party Alliance announced this month that Linda Kacher, of Willmar, was a candidate for the District 17B race and would be speaking at a Tea Party rally here. A rescheduled date has yet to be set for that rally after organizers cancelled due to weather.

When reached at her home Friday night, Kacher would only say that she was not ready to make a statement regarding her potential run in the race.

Baker has never run for public office before but said during his years as a business owner who has sought the ear of legislators, he has learned about the political process. Among other community activities, Baker has in the past served as an appointed member of the Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission.

Baker said he is a moderate and would listen to both sides of an issue, but he had sharp criticism for legislation passed in the last session, including increased taxes on the wealthy.

Sawatzky, a special education teacher from Willmar who is midway through her first term, is a DFLer who’s bucked her party on several occasions.

“I’m an independent person in the Legislature,” said Sawatzky, who was one of the rare DFLers who voted against legalizing same-sex marriage. “I’ve voted against my party many times.”

Baker, who owns a restaurant and hotel, said he is concerned proposals to raise the minimum wage would harm Minnesota businesses.

Sawatzky, however, said increasing the minimum wage would help reduce taxpayer-funded programs people use when their income doesn’t cover living expenses.

Baker said if he is endorsed, he intends to put together a campaign committee, undertake fundraising and begin door-knocking and signing up for summer parades.

He said Sawatzky has a “good ground game” and will run a strong campaign.

Baker predicted the District 17B race will be a “highly watched race” in the state as Republicans try to win back control of the House.

Sawatzky said she intends to spend the next 10 months continuing to work for constituents and pursuing major projects, like housing for veterans and finishing the Highway 23 four-lane project.

Baker is a lifelong resident of Minnesota and has lived in Willmar for 20 years.

He and his wife, Mary, created Baker Hospitalities Inc. in 1999, which includes the Oaks at Eagle Creek restaurant, Green Lake Cruises and Willmar Super 8.

In 2011 they sold Melvin’s on the Lake in Spicer after 10 years of operation.

Before announcing his political ambitions, Baker resigned from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, of which he was set to become chairman later this year, and he also resigned his post with the Spicer Commercial Club.

He’s also made arrangements with employees to keep his businesses running while he’s campaigning and if he is elected.

In a written statement Baker said he wants to “change the tone in St. Paul and use my experience in building teams, coalitions and communicating a sensible plan and start turning heads instead of turning backs of lawmakers.”

Recently Baker led the Willmar iCardinal campaign which raised more than $400,000 to bring the community and school district together to purchase an iPad for every student in ninth through 12th grade.

He has volunteered for many years in many organizations, including the Minnesota Chamber, Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission, Spicer Commercial Club, Willmar Lakes Area Chamber and co-founded the Dan Baker Foundation helping individuals and families fighting addiction.

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