District 40A: Will Morgan

First-term DFL Rep. Will Morgan seems like an average guy — until he starts talking about state policy. Then the Burnsville High School chemistry and physics teacher moves to the head of the class.

Morgan, 41, exhibits both exceptional grasp of complex issues such as K-12 finance and health care and sound judgment in recommending change. For example, he sees ways to unleash the creativity of local school districts to reduce instructional costs, while at the same time relieving property taxpayers of their growing school funding burden.

Minnesota needs to keep a thinker like Morgan in the Legislature in 2009. But our endorsement must be a qualified one. The House race in Burnsville took an unfortunate turn earlier this month when GOP candidate Todd Johnson revealed that he is in treatment for cancer. Johnson, a two-term member of the ISD 191 school board, was forced to curtail many of his campaign activities, including an interview with this newspaper’s Editorial Board. We wish him a full recovery.

District 41A: Ron Erhardt

If there was an award for best legislator of the past four years, this newspaper’s nominee would be Edina’s Rep. Ron Erhardt. Seldom has a single legislator been so effective in engineering a policy and funding breakthrough as he was on the transportation bills of 2005, 2007 and 2008.

And seldom has a legislator paid a higher price for a show of leadership. Erhardt was denied his Republican Party’s endorsement after voting to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto last February. As a result, he is seeking his 10th term as an independent, confronting two hard-charging opponents, DFLer Kevin Staunton and Republican Keith Downey. While both are qualified, neither makes a compelling case for unseating Erhardt.

The Republican Party’s rejection of Erhardt says more about its judgment than his. Over nine terms, Erhardt has won numerous awards for environmental protection, support for the arts, advocacy for small business interests and work on behalf of the University of Minnesota.

His transportation work underscored his mastery of the legislative process. He was tenacious and adaptable as he maneuvered against powerful forces in his own party while maintaining an alliance with enough of his fellow Republicans to get the job done. He can be prickly and outspoken in response to his critics. But he’s well respected by his peers, which bodes well for the committee chairmanship he is sure to claim if he is reelected. He says he will caucus with the majority party.

Challengers Staunton and Downey agree on little when it comes to policy. Businessman Downey is a small-government conservative who favors market-based approaches to education and health care. He would turn the district’s representation sharply to the right, particularly on social issues. Staunton, a private-practice attorney who also serves as city attorney for Excelsior, is a DFL moderate, fiscally cautious but willing to employ government to solve problems.

Both contend, with varying degrees of subtlety, that Erhardt’s day has come and gone. Today, Erhardt turns 79. In Edina, the community with the metro area’s largest share of seniors, voters should be wary of agism.

District 41B: Paul Rosenthal

The Republican Party did a disservice to west Bloomington and Edina — and the whole state— when it refused endorsement to two-term GOP Rep. Neil Peterson and rejected him in the Sept. 9 primary. Peterson capped a long, exemplary record of public service, including five years as mayor of Bloomington, by putting the state’s needs ahead of partisan politics last February and voting to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto.

Peterson’s absence from the ballot leaves District 41B with clear choice. Voters should elect DFLer Paul Rosenthal, whom Peterson defeated in 2006.

An international currency trader, Rosenthal, 48, is a mild-mannered proponent of middle-of-the-road ideas. He draws from lessons of an eclectic background — a metropolitan studies-urban planning major at New York University, an internship in energy policy at the National Audubon Society, a stint in commercial real estate in New York City, a small-business venture as owner of a paint-your-own pottery store in Minneapolis. That blend should benefit a district that’s also mixed, encompassing the Interstate 494 commercial district as well as a variety of housing.

Jan Schneider, 53, the Republican business consultant who bested Peterson in the primary, is also making her second bid for the Legislature. She comes at state problems with an antigovernment perspective that borders on antagonistic. In her view, government intervenes too much in matters like health care and energy costs and creates barriers for business. It’s hard to envision her as an effective voice at the Legislature.