A senate race in the western Minneapolis suburbs could help determine which party will be in charge of the Minnesota Senate next year.
Senate District 49, which includes parts of Edina, Bloomington, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, is one of several critical legislative seats up for grabs this year, and it just may receive the most attention and money too. Outside groups are spending heavily on the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Geoff Michel, and the contest highlights partisan differences over the size and scope of state government.
One of the candidates running is fairly well known in the district. Republican Rep. Keith Downey is looking to move from the state House to the state Senate. Downey is telling voters that he's got a plan to balance the state budget and says the Legislature needs to get serious about government spending.
"State government is basically 20 years behind the private sector in really looking fundamentally at what it does and trying to figure out how to improve it," Downey said.
But Downey's suggested improvements have angered Democrats and the state's labor unions. They say his plans to cut the state workforce by 15 percent, his efforts to change the state's pension system and his plan to reduce the number of state agencies will cost jobs and reduce needed state services.
Downey, who is a management consultant outside of his job as a legislator, isn't backing down, and he disputes the notion that he's been overly aggressive in his approach.
"I've been down there four years and the changes that I've been proposing that we have barely begun to implement, a private sector business would have implemented that in six to 12 months," Downey said. "Nothing that I have been proposing has been aggressive."
Melisa Franzen, an attorney at Target Corporation, is Downey's Democratic opponent. In her first run for public office, Franzen is working to paint Downey as an extremist in a district that values politicians who are fiscally conservative but moderate on social issues.
"His record is not stellar. It's anything but," Franzen said.
She said she got into the race after the state government shutdown in 2011.
"I have never seen it so bad in terms of national politics and the wave of divisiveness and how it finally hit Minnesota. I finally said this is enough," she said. "With the government shutdown, with the funding shift for schools, I never seen it so polarized. I thought that I can either complain about it or do something about it."
Earlier this week, nearly 150 people attended a debate between Downey and Franzen in Edina.
The debate focused on a wide range of issues, but the biggest dispute was over taxes and spending. Downey, who's opposed to raising any taxes to balance the state's budget, challenged Franzen on whether she supports higher taxes to balance the budget.
"What I'm not hearing from my opponent, frankly, are concrete answers to whether or not she would support tax increases, the tax increases that Gov. [Mark] Dayton has proposed," Downey said.
Franzen said she's reluctant to back Dayton's income tax increase on top earners but doesn't want to take any ideas, including tax increases, off the table.
"We need to be open minded as to what solutions we need to deal with our budget and revenue issues," Franzen said. "I think taxes should be only a last resort. Let's see what we're doing with our current taxes and current revenue coming in."
After the debate, several Edina residents took stock of the race. Pat Bennett, a Democrat backing Franzen's campaign, said he's happy Franzen is campaigning on cooperation.
"I'm all for fiscal responsibility, but I think for legislators to characterize themselves as problem solvers and then take rigid ideological positions on either side is more than counterproductive," Bennett said. "It's actually dangerous."
But Angela Berger argued Downey is taking bold steps to show how he would balance the state's budget.
"You're seeing the whole state Legislature being fought in our district," Berger said. "We're getting outside influences. Keith is such a prominent figure. He's made such a name for himself and has really been a leader. He's put himself out for critique and for people to say 'What's our target?' It's been Keith. Since May he's had people coming after him."
Those outside influences are now coming from both sides. Downey and the DFL group, The Alliance for Better Minnesota are both running ads on cable TV. Business groups and unions are also flooding mailboxes with campaign mailings.
Both candidates are expected to raise and spend a lot of campaign cash. Downey opted out of taking a public subsidy which means both candidates can raise and spend as much as they want.
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