The fight in the 1st District

Ethanol tour
Corn Plus consultant Brian Copeland, left, shows U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht around the Corn Plus plant in Winnebago.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Corn Plus in Winnebago is one of the district's many ethanol plants. Rep. Gutknecht has stopped here for a tour and a chat with board president Richard Lunz. Lunz tells Gutknecht that people want ethanol as a gas alternative.

"I think it's our duty to make it more efficient. And I think that will happen," says Lunz.

Gutknecht may need to court his constituents more vigorously this election year. His challenger, DFLer Tim Walz, says he's raised more money than Gutknecht so far this year. Walz is a school teacher and National Guard reservist from Mankato.

Running for Congress
Democrat Tim Walz, a National Guard member, is challenging Gutnecht in Minnesota's 1st Congressional District.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Gutknecht chairs the House Subcommittee on Agriculture. Despite 12 years in office, he has no major bills to his name.

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Gutknecht calls himself an independent. Democratic opponents characterize him as a Bush lackey, and say they hope that will work against him this election. But Chris Gilbert, a political science professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, says that's unlikely.

"Even if one could, on the opposite side, start to say, 'Well, this is someone who is following a failed plan on all these fronts,' he's really good at sort of presenting himself as one of the people," says Gilbert. "And once you're in office, after a long period of time you become very -- not totally invulnerable, but pretty close to invulnerable."

Gilbert says Gutknecht has established an identity separate from the president. And he says Gutknecht is in many ways a great fit for the district, because he's what Gilbert describes as "congressman-light."

"You can take that in a really nasty way, but Congressman-light in the sense that -- I'm not sure that people in the 1st want their congressman to be really out front and leading. You know, it's a strange thing to say," says Gilbert.

(Gutknecht is) Congressman-light in the sense that -- I'm not sure that people in the 1st want their congressman to be really out front and leading.

Gilbert says the voters in the district don't see how the federal government can help.

But a few national issues are playing out in the region. The energy crisis is helping Minnesota's ethanol plants, and places like Worthington are experiencing a growing population of low-wage immigrants. Another issue is the potential high-speed rail line proposed by DM & E Railroad.

Last year Gutknecht introduced the "10 by '10" initiative, which would require all gas to be 10 percent renewable fuels by 2010. That act was recently introduced in the Senate. Gutknecht says he can help the region be a player in the global market.

"There are only two things the world needs more of. One is energy, and the other is protein. And the good news is we have farmers in southern Minnesota who are providing both," says Gutknecht.

But DFLer Tim Walz says that's simply not enough.

"His '10 by '10' initiative is fine, but it's a very short vision. I don't know why we're not shooting for 100 percent, making sure we get 100 percent of our oil or whatever it is that we need from the United States," Walz says.

Walz and Gutknecht also come out differently on immigration and the war in Iraq, but not markedly. Gutknecht says the U.S. should secure its borders and deport illegal workers. Walz says border security is critical, but shipping people out without talking about the U.S. economy doesn't solve the problem.

Discussion is also key for Walz when it comes to Iraq. As a member of the National Guard, he says there's a need for an exit strategy.

"I have to look into the eyes of students that I taught. They played football for me, they joined my Guard unit; I trained them. They deployed with me the first time; they're in Iraq now," Walz says. "I don't have the option to decide whether this is a political issue or not. It is an issue, and it needs to be decided."

Gutknecht says there is a plan.

"I think there's a very high degree of likelihood, and this is according to General McCaffrey, that we'll be able to bring home at least 40,000 of our troops by the end of this year. I think people will start to see that sooner than some might imagine," says Gutknecht.

Political scientist Chris Gilbert says splitting hairs over troops and immigrants won't win the DFL an election. He says the Democrats need a wedge issue to overtake a strong incumbent.

However, he says, if state Democrats win in the Senate and gubernatorial races, that may help other DFLers across the state.