District 46B: Youakim

Eight years on the Hopkins City Council and two as state Senate Judiciary Committee administrator make DFLer Cheryl Youakim one of this year’s best-prepared new legislative candidates. She’s positioned to be a worthy successor to DFL state Rep. Steve Simon, who is leaving the Legislature after 10 years to run for secretary of state.

Youakim, 45, can arrive in the state House ready to go to work. She knows education policy issues well, having started her public affairs sojourn as a co-founder of Start Learning Early, a nonprofit that advocated for quality early childhood programs. She’s well-versed in transportation matters and regional planning after serving as Hopkins’ representative on the Southwest Light Rail Transit Corridor Management Committee. She learned about the power and role of government while working as an aide to state Sen. Ron Latz as he shepherded into law a reparations bill for victims of the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

Perhaps because Youakim is such an able candidate, the Republican Party has not mounted a competitive race in the St. Louis Park-Hopkins district. The GOP candidate, Bryan Björnson, declined our invitation for screening. On various websites, he advocates for much-reduced government spending and issues screeds against career politicians and “unelected bureaucrats.” It’s regrettable that the GOP is so poorly represented.

District 53B: Fenton

Few political careers involve challenges as daunting as Kelly Fenton faced when she was elected deputy chair of the state Republican Party in December 2011. She immediately became acting state chair in the wake of the resignation of state chair Tony Sutton amid revelations that the party was $2 million in debt. Her coolheaded decisions and insistence on transparency in the ensuing weeks helped right the listing ship.

Fenton left the state party post two years later to run for the House from the Woodbury district being vacated by two-term Rep. Andrea Kieffer. Fenton gets our nod over DFLer Kay Hendrikson on the strength of her proven leadership under pressure, political connections and familiarity with a wide range of issues.

A former teacher in both her native Texas and Minnesota, Fenton, 48, can bring experience and ideas about education reform to the Legislature. She’s particularly interested in improving teacher proficiency. While her positions on issues generally adhere to the state GOP platform, she points to her work with DFL state chair Ken Martin on efforts to move the state primary to an earlier date as evidence that she can find common ground with DFLers for the good of her district.

Fenton’s political savvy stands in contrast to Hendrikson, 62, a recent retiree making her first bid for elective office. Hendrikson had an impressive career in information technology for the health care industry and in state and Hennepin County human services operations. Her expertise is deep but not wide. She would be an asset as the Legislature seeks more efficiency from state agencies and improvements in MNsure, the state health care exchange.

We hope that if she does not win next Tuesday, Hendrikson stays involved in public affairs and lends her skill to policymakers in other ways. If Fenton wins, she could make good on her vow to work across the aisle by involving Hendrikson in a quest for government cost savings.

District 55A: Whiting

Both candidates to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Michael Beard in Shakopee are well-connected, long-serving community activists. But DFLer Jay Whiting has a record as a consensus-builder and is better prepared for legislative service than Republican Bob Loonan.

Whiting, 49, has worked in the printing industry for 33 years and spent three years on the Shakopee City Council, focusing on economic development. He has been involved in a whopping 19 city and county boards and organizations, including service as chair of the Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency, an intergovernmental collaboration among county, city, school, township and tribal governments. He also chaired Shakopee’s 150th anniversary committee and helped found the local historical society.

Whiting’s familiarity with issues would be a plus at the Legislature, and his bent for bipartisan, pragmatic problem-solving would be helpful in finding solutions to divisive issues like transportation funding. He’s keen to craft policies that would serve his fast-growing community’s future needs.

Loonan, 54, heads a downtown Shakopee insurance agency and served two terms on the school board, leaving office in 2009. A Shakopee Valley News editorial described him as a “free thinker” on the school board. His independence from his party’s line was exhibited this year as he challenged the GOP’s endorsed candidate and defeated him in the Aug. 12 primary by a spare 17 votes. Loonan’s community involvement has centered on youth sports. We admire his upbeat, can-do spirit, but believe he would face a steep learning curve in the state House.

Also on the ballot is Independence Party candidate Derek Thury.