Editor’s note: Over the next several days, the Editorial Board will offer endorsements for the Aug. 12 primary in some of the more competitive races for statewide offices, congressional seats and the Minnesota House. For more on how the process works, watch the video at http://tinyurl.com/lxr2n5s.
Michele Bachmann’s eight-year run in the U.S. House of Representatives is coming to an end, but her Sixth District’s tradition of sending a fiery conservative to Washington is likely to continue without missing a beat.
Bachmann’s north-metro, Interstate-94-corridor-to-St.-Cloud constituency is as reliably Republican as it gets in Minnesota. That’s why the winner of this month’s GOP primary will head into the general election as the strong front-runner.
Primary voters on Aug. 12 will choose between two candidates whose positions on taxes, government size and spending, the Affordable Care Act, gun rights, abortion, regulations, and other key issues generally have been in line with Bachmann’s through their years of public service.
Tom Emmer, who has the Republican party’s endorsement, is a 53-year-old attorney, former gubernatorial candidate and former state legislator from Delano who has spent the past few years as a talk radio host.
Rhonda Sivarajah, 48, of Lino Lakes, is the current chairwoman of the Anoka County Board and a former candidate for lieutenant governor. She has served on the County Board since 2003. She previously worked for the county and was a small-business owner.
The difference between the two is less about policy than style. While Emmer’s voice is a familiar one for Minnesota voters, Sivarajah’s is fresher, more energetic and more welcoming. That, plus her strong and recent record of turning conservative principles into policy on the County Board, gives her an edge over her better-known opponent.
A closer look at the candidates’ campaign websites is illustrative. Emmer’s offers mostly feel-good messages about bringing Main Street to Washington, with videos featuring gauzy images of Emmer and flag-waving supporters in small-town settings. Policy details are scant, as they were in an Editorial Board interview.
Sivarajah’s website is a substantive contrast. “Here’s what I’ve done and here’s what I’ll do” is the theme. The County Board chairwoman’s list of accomplishments is impressive. Among them, she:
• Reduced debt by $30 million in the county, which has not borrowed in the past three years.
• Cut net property taxes by 10.5 percent over three years.
• Ended the county wheelage tax.
At the same time, Sivarajah pushed to find efficiencies to protect human services and to continue to invest in roads and bridges. One smart change: identifying a phone resource and referral service run by the county that duplicated some services offered by another well-known senior help line. Savings allowed the county to meet a need for short-term caseworkers to help seniors stay in their homes or to access care or other resources.
Early in Sivarajah’s County Board tenure, she also worked with faith-based organizations to shelter homeless families. At the time, skepticism abounded that the suburban county had homeless residents. The network of churches Sivarajah played a key role in organizing continues to provide this assistance today. Her work embodies the “compassionate conservatism” that many politicians talk about but few actually act on.
Sivarajah’s leadership has not been without critics. She was often the lone conservative voice on the board before she helped build a conservative majority with newly elected members. Previous board members have complained about her management style.
While these concerns shouldn’t be discounted, criticism like this isn’t unusual as new leadership occurs, particularly when the leader is a woman. Bachmann also didn’t find many fans in the U.S. House’s mostly male leadership, but her Sixth District supporters cheered her willingness to take on entrenched powers. Sivarajah has a similar track record.
Constituents say Sivarajah is a problem solver. Mary Johnson, who owns two adult foster-care facilities in Lino Lakes, said Sivarajah helped her facilities navigate regulatory hurdles. Johnson said Sivarajah will be a forceful but approachable advocate for other businesses.
Sivarajah’s life experience is also an asset. Her marriage of 24 years to a native of Malaysia gives her an international outlook that would prove valuable not only as Congress tackles immigration but as it weighs foreign policy challenges. Her outreach during the campaign to the district’s immigrant communities would heighten her electability in future campaigns.
Sixth District GOP primary voters have two solid conservative contenders to choose from, but Sivarajah is the stronger candidate.