SAUK RAPIDS – Jeff Howe is an abortion opponent. So is Joe Perske. Jeff Howe wants to protect the Second Amendment. So does Joe Perske. Jeff Howe wants to reduce health insurance costs. So does Joe Perske.
It is hard to distinguish between Republican Howe and Democrat Perske on many of the issues that matter to voters in this state Senate district that curves around St. Cloud, extending north, south and west into farm territory. It’s a piece of the state that will have an outsized impact on the balance of political power at the State Capitol in 2019.
The candidates are feeling the pressure as outside spending pours in and they devote most of each day to door-knocking, calling voters or speaking at forums. They have just one week to sway voters in the special election to fill Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach’s seat.
Fischbach, a Republican and former Senate president, was constitutionally obligated to fill the opening as Gov. Mark Dayton’s number two when he appointed Tina Smith to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. She later resigned from the Senate seat she held for 22 years, leaving the Senate with 33 Democrats and 33 Republicans.
A Democrat represented the district before Fischbach, but that was more than 20 years ago, and the area has more recently been regarded as a safe bet for Republicans. Perske, of Sartell, hopes people vote based on the candidate, not the party.
He describes himself as a “zealous moderate” who is tired of partisan bickering. He is a Stearns County commissioner and former Sartell mayor and council member who grew up in the area and spent nearly four decades teaching and coaching there. He said he would vote his conscience at the State Capitol — and that his conscience does not abide by party lines.
But Howe, who currently represents the southern half of the district in the state House, noted that whichever political party gains the majority will be able to drive the agenda at the State Capitol — even if he and Perske hold similar views on some issues.
“It’s got huge implications for the direction of this state,” Howe said of the race. “That’s the key.”
Howe, who has lived in Rockville for 27 years, also has strong community ties. He has served on his City Council and worked for various local fire departments in roles ranging from fire marshal to emergency management coordinator to volunteer firefighter.
But it was his experience with the Minnesota National Guard — he recently retired as a lieutenant colonel — that compelled him to run for office. He was deployed as commander of a 250-person transportation company. One of his soldiers died in Iraq; 15 were wounded. Many struggled to find work when they returned home. Two died by suicide. He wanted to improve the situation for those who served, so he ran.
Over the past six years in the state House, he has supported many veteran-related proposals. But he said the piece of legislation he learned the most from was a bipartisan proposal he authored in 2015. It prohibited manufacturers from using certain flame-retardant chemicals that firefighters argued were ineffective and toxic. It was the toughest such restriction in the nation at the time.
Scott Johnson, of Rockville, was grabbing dinner at a food truck parked on the small main drag of his town one evening and paused to reflect on Howe, whom he said he knew through the National Guard.
“He sticks behind his word. He always has,” said Johnson, who works in a foundry in St. Cloud. “He stands a fairly good chance. People know who he is … He has never offended anybody.”
Howe values the Second Amendment. He also wants to ensure Minnesotans can get a good education, Johnson said. Perske has also prioritized education and, as he puts it, “preserving our hunting heritage.”
Earlier that day in Sauk Rapids, Perske was door-knocking when he happened upon the home of Shannon Zinken, a counselor at the school where he used to work. She also went to high school with his son-in-law.
“You know what you got with me,” Perske said after the two caught up briefly.
“He is the kind of guy who, when he wants something he doesn’t slow down until he gets it. And that’s what you want for someone in schools,” Zinken said, as Perske — who has run more than 100 marathons — took off at a quick pace toward the next home.
Two young DFL workers were out with him. As they followed the planned route, hitting the doors of known Democrats on a party list, a frustrated Perske largely ditched their system.
“They might be a Perske voter,” he said — even if they’re not a Democrat.
Health care is the top issue in this race, both candidates said, and they both talk wistfully about the state’s system before Obamacare. Howe wants the next governor to ask the federal government to waive Obamacare requirements and return to the old system. Perske said he doesn’t have the solution, but rising costs are untenable and he wants an honest conversation about the private sector and single-payer systems.
On education, Howe would like a task force to examine the state’s school funding formula, simplify it and end the practice of funding metro-area schools at a higher rate. Perske also wants to ensure rural schools are funded fairly and to shift away from reliance on property taxes. But he is particularly concerned with reducing student loan debt.
The two candidates have largely tried to keep their campaigns positive, but outside funding has been flowing into the high-stakes race, often funding attack ads. Four independent groups have devoted more than $238,400 to the race, according to the state Campaign Finance Board.
A resident of the district recently filed a complaint against Perske, claiming he was violating the law by accepting an in-kind contribution of radio airtime and by reusing campaign signs from his 2014 congressional bid against Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer.
“I’m a frugal guy and I know many people who have reused signs in the past … I think in the end it’s going to show I had no wrongdoing,” Perske said.
Aaron Brutger, chairman of the Senate District 13 Republicans, struggled to think of significant policy differences between the two candidates, and said in this race, candidates’ personal relationships will be key. He sees Howe as the best fit because of his experience at the Capitol and his leadership role in the National Guard.
The ability of each candidate to genuinely connect with voters is critical, agreed Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. He said Perske “has that in spades” and called the race a tossup.