If every voter in the Anoka area who admired former state Rep. Jim Abeler’s 16 years of service in the Minnesota House turned out at the polls next Tuesday, we have no doubt that he would be the GOP nominee and, most likely, the next state senator from District 35.
But special elections are notoriously low-turnout affairs, and special election primaries are worse. That’s why Abeler’s fans should mark their calendars now for the Jan. 12 election that will determine the Republican nominee to replace GOP Sen. Branden Petersen, who has resigned from the Legislature. Next week’s primary is the de facto election in the Republican-leaning exurban district; the ultimate election is set for Feb. 9. With no party registration or loyalty pledge as an impediment, any qualified District 35 voter can cast a primary ballot.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long valued Abeler’s constructive contributions to lawmaking, so much so that we recommended him over Mike McFadden in the 2014 U.S. Senate race. Then and now, Abeler’s opponent is a first-time candidate with scant policymaking experience who bested Abeler for party endorsement.
His rival Tuesday is Andy Aplikowski, 40, of Andover. He’s general manager of Lakeside Homes, his family’s manufactured-homes business, and a Republican Party activist and blogger given to salty-tongued criticism of Democrats. He’s also a former member of the Blaine Park Board. (There is no DFL primary. The DFL candidate is Roger Johnson of Coon Rapids. Zachary Phelps of the Legal Marijuana Now party is also on the ballot.)
Aplikowski says that winning more funding for highway projects in his district would be his top priority as a state senator. But by signing a pledge not to increase gas taxes this year and a no-new-taxes pledge that he says would govern his entire legislative career, he has already limited the deal-making flexibility that he would need to secure that funding while DFLers control any part of state government.
By contrast, Abeler was one of six House Republicans in 2008 who voted to override a veto by his party’s governor to authorize a $600-million-per-year increase in transportation funding, financed in part with an 8.5-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax. That one vote is likely what has cost Abeler the blessing of his party. He does not apologize for it, noting that transportation is a government responsibility mandated by the state Constitution and that 172 deficient bridges were repaired and a highway in his district was expanded with those funds.
While Abeler would bring considerable depth to transportation and education policy debates in the Senate, his long suit is health care policy. As a practicing chiropractor and former chairman of the powerful House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, Abeler is an expert on programs that consume 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget. The bipartisan respect he enjoyed helped him craft reform measures in 2011 that trimmed upward of $1 billion a year from human services budgets without denying vulnerable people the care they need.
At 61, Abeler says that he has more years of public service in him and that the knowledge of this state he gained as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2014 has equipped him for better service than he offered before. We hope District 35 voters let him prove those claims.