Candidates find plenty to spar about

WILLMAR --District 17 senate and 17B house legislative candidates found plenty to spar about, a few things to agree on, but always differed on whether the Legislature is working as it should.

Mary Sawatzky, from left, and Zack Liebl listen as Rep. Bruce Vogel answers a panel question Friday during a Willmar Chamber business forum at the Willmar Conference Center which included all of the candidates for Senate 17 and House 17B. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR --District 17 senate and 17B house legislative candidates found plenty to spar about, a few things to agree on, but always differed on whether the Legislature is working as it should.

That issue separated incumbents State Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, and State Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, as they debated with their challengers, State Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and House 17B candidates Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, and Zack Liebl, Independent-Atwater, at a Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored debate on Friday.

The debate featured a range of questions from whether to support the use of constitutional amendments for governing to collective bargaining rights issues for public employees.

Incumbents Gimse and Vogel emphasized their belief that the state is "moving in the right direction."

The Legislature turned a $6.5 billion deficit into a surplus, and has reduced taxes and regulatory burdens on businesses, they told Chamber members.


The Legislature works together better than people realize, said Vogel. More than 90 percent of the bills taken to the floor in the house passed with bi-partisan support, he said.

In sharp contrast, Independence party candidate Zack Liebl said the "bickering back and forth and not looking at the big picture to solve our problems'' was chief among his concerns, and a big reason he decided to run.

Liebl charged there is too much party-based gamesmanship. "Right now in St. Paul we're missing the middle ground,'' he said at one point.

DFL-challenger Mary Sawatzky charged that the partisan divide remains the biggest issue she hears from voters. She blames Republicans who she said are unwilling to compromise. She pointed out that 21 Republican legislators had signed a "no new taxes pledge'' that ties their hands in any negotiations.

"We have to quit saying it's my way or the highway,'' said Sawatzky.

Koenen also emphasized the need to work together. "We have to stand up for what we believe in but in the end, we have to do the work and do the compromising,'' he said in his closing remarks.

The candidates' differences also showed in their responses to a question on whether or not it was appropriate to govern through the use of constitutional amendments.

Gimse and Vogel supported bringing the amendments on voter ID and marriage to voters. Gimse said the marriage amendment was both a matter of principle with him and the fulfillment of a promise to voters.


Vogel said the marriage amendment was necessary to re-enforce Minnesota's existing law "because of what activist judges have been doing around the country to change the law.''

He also defended the voter ID amendment as the approach needed after the governor vetoed a bill approved by the Legislature to address it. "To me it's just common sense. Why should we not have to show some form of ID when we go to vote- which is one of the greatest privileges we have -- when we have to go the bank and show an ID when you cash a check.''

Koenen said he is hesitant to govern through constitutional amendments because of the inflexibility it imposes, but said he voted to put the marriage amendment on the ballot. He said he knew that the majority of his constituents wanted it on the ballot.

Sawatzky took aim at the voter ID amendment, charging that voters are being asked to decide an issue when they don't know the costs, who is going to pay for it, or even the problem that is to be solved.

She suggested that legislators were shirking their responsibilities.

"We're elected to go to St. Paul to make some tough decisions,'' she said.

Liebl said he supports a voter identification system, but opposes using a constitutional amendment to do so. It creates an ultimatum with no leeway, and he added: "Voting is a right, driving is a privilege.''

He also believes that the marriage amendment is a matter for religious convictions. No matter his personal feelings on the subject, individual rights should not be put to a vote by others, he said.


All of the candidates said they favored ending the moratorium on new, nuclear power in the state. All five agreed on allowing teacher performance to be considered along with seniority when lay-offs occur in school districts.

Liebl, Koenen and Sawatzky said yes and Gimse and Vogel said no when asked whether public employees should be able to bargain collectively.

Asked if they supported legislation eliminating the requirement that all workers in a union shop be required to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment, they split: Sawatzky, Vogel and Gimse said yes, and Liebl and Koenen said no.

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