District 56A: Kimmel

The Burnsville-Savage area is populated with families raising school-aged children. That’s why we find the matchup to replace retiring Republican Rep. Pam Myhra an odd one. It’s a contest between Republican Drew Christensen, a 21-year-old political science major at the University of Minnesota, and DFLer Dan Kimmel, a 62-year-old semiretired business software developer.

Kimmel has the clear edge in life experience and the pragmatism that instills. On that basis, he gets our nod. But we wish both parties had found candidates more representative of the district.

An Illinois native, Kimmel served eight years on the Lockport Township High School governing board in exurban Chicago before moving to Burnsville 16 years ago. He ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature 12 years ago, and is trying again after winding down his work as a self-employed business process improvement consultant. His familiarity with other cities gives him a sense of competitive urgency about Minnesota’s underfunded transportation system.

Christensen’s desire for a career in public service is commendable, and his field work on U.S. Rep. John Kline’s campaign has schooled him in practical politics. He’s bright and eager. But he has scant record of community involvement, and he seldom strays from simplistic partisan talking points on issues. He says he can be an independent voice for the millennial generation at the Capitol. If he gets that chance, we hope he does more independent thinking.

District 58A: Willingham

Lakeville is seeing its most competitive state House race in many years in the wake of GOP state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg’s departure from the Legislature to run for a seat on the Dakota County Board. The district leans Republican, but DFLers found a strong contender in school activist Amy Willingham. She’s our choice over Republican Jon Koznick, a mortgage banker.

Both are 42, enthusiastic, engaging and community-minded. But Willingham, a biology instructor at St. Paul College and a physical therapist, displayed something special as head of last year’s School District 194 levy referendum campaign. Previous levy increase requests in the district were either defeated or approved by small margins. Underfunding had produced the largest class sizes in the region and led to the dismissal of 170 teachers in the years before the 2013 vote. The campaign Willingham led produced record turnout and secured a 68 percent vote in favor of more funding.

A Lakeville native, Willingham’s ties to its public schools go deep. Her husband is a 27-year teacher there. Together, the couple has led Lakeville’s youth volleyball program for 16 years.

By contrast, Koznick said he “stayed out” of the levy campaign and questioned the district’s spending in prior years. A stickler for local control of public schools, he rejects as state overreach this year’s antibullying legislation and would resist new state mandates on school districts. He favors using tax dollars to allow families to move their children out of poorly performing public schools to private schools such as the one operated by All Saints Catholic Church, where he is a member of the parish finance council.

Koznick’s community activities include extensive Republican Party involvement. He had chaired Holberg’s campaigns since 2006 and managed GOP state Sen. Dave Thompson’s 2012 campaign. By comparison, Willingham has not been an active partisan and describes fiscally moderate positions on issues that would set her apart from other DFLers, including reluctance to increase the gas tax. It’s easier to imagine her as a bipartisan problem-solver at the Capitol.

District 64B: Pinto

There’s little contest for the open seat in St. Paul’s Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods. The reliably DFL area will likely elect Dave Pinto, who came out on top in a lively six-way fight last spring for the DFL’s blessing to succeed Rep. Michael Paymar, who is retiring after nine terms.

Pinto, 42, was a worthy choice. A native of Falcon Heights and Roseville who has lived in Highland Park for more than a decade, he is a Harvard-educated attorney who practiced with a major Twin Cities law firm before becoming a Ramsey County prosecutor.

He’s well-positioned to continue Paymar’s work. Paymar chaired the House public safety committee and was nationally known for his work to combat domestic abuse. Pinto also has specialized in crimes against women and girls, including sex trafficking, and directs statewide training under Safe Harbor, Minnesota’s program to support juvenile victims of exploitation.

He faces a learning curve in other state policy areas, but he appears to be a quick study. His campaign has conducted topical conversation sessions rather than typical meet-and-greets so that he could learn about constituent concerns. He crafted a “We take care of one another’’ agenda that calls for a fair minimum wage, universal health care, a strong education system that closes learning disparities, affordable housing and a range of transit options.

His opponent is GOP-endorsed Daniel Surman, a recent Macalester College graduate, blogger and Republican campaign office director. Surman does not have a campaign website and did not respond to our request for an interview.