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New Republicans in the Minnesota House vow to set the agenda

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The House floor
The floor of the Minnesota House during opening session of the 2014 legislature, Feb. 25, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News file

When the Legislative session gets underway in January, the Minnesota House will have 26 new members, including 21 Republicans who will be taking their seats for the first time.

Eleven of those Republicans are receiving a lot of attention given that they knocked off incumbent Democrats to flip control of the House to the GOP, shifting the balance of power at the state Capitol, where Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton can look to a Senate controlled by his party.

Several weeks before they take their seats, they've made it clear that they intend to push the House in a more conservative direction, one that focuses more on rural Minnesota.

The incoming cast of Republican lawmakers includes two legislators who aren't new to the job. Dave Hancock of Bemidji, who defeated DFLer Roger Erickson, is returning after a two-year absence. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud, who defeated Zach Dorholt, is back after an eight-year break.

Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach
Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach speaks to the St. Cloud Rotary Club Sept. 16, 2014 for a legislator forum.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Knoblach's earlier seniority already has landed him a top post as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"I think people know me and trust me and are trusting me to represent them in St. Paul," he said.

As a private citizen, Knoblach waged an unsuccessful legal challenge last year to try to block construction of the new Senate office building. The project was a big campaign issue for Republicans, who insisted it was an example of the free-spending ways of Democrats.

But with the building now taking shape, Knoblach said he will no longer fight that fight as a legislator.

"If there's a way to turn it into a parking ramp, I think that would be good," he said. "But I'm not really sure what else can be done at this point. The Legislature and governor — you know, the Democrats — unwisely in my view decided to build it, and it's now being built."

Republicans in the House will have their own set of priorities in the upcoming sessions. Among them, Knoblach said, will be transportation. But he doesn't believe additional taxes are needed to fund road and bridge projects.

Republican candidate Dave Baker
Dave Baker at a forum hosted by the Willmar Chamber of Commerce, Oct. 3, 2014.
Catharine Richert / MPR News

Dave Baker, a businessman from Willmar who defeated Democrat Mary Sawatzky, also wants to hold the line on taxes.

"We are just coming off of a very heavy tax burden two-year session that was not very well done in my opinion," Baker said. "That's why I want to make sure we figure out how to move Minnesota forward without the first thing doing is raising taxes.  I think there's a lot of other things to look at before we get to that point."

Most of the new Republicans are small business owners.

Peggy Bennett, a teacher from Albert Lea, defeated DFLer Shannon Savick. Not surprisingly, Bennett said education is one of her top issues.

"We need to bring more local control into the picture, so that teachers and parents can make the best choices for our students," Bennett said. "Because those choices aren't always the same as what's better for inner-city kids or northern Minnesota or wherever."

Also important for incoming GOP lawmakers, especially those who campaigned against DFL opponents for supporting same-sex marriage, are conservative values.

Josh Heintzeman of Nisswa, who defeated Democrat John Ward, said he wants to see changes in that law to give businesses more flexibility. He said he disagrees that a private hunting club in Little Falls, Minnesota, should have been required to have held a same-sex wedding for a gay couple it denied service to.

In August, the Rice Creek Hunting and Recreation Inc. agreed to pay for the couple's wedding ceremony and reception to settle a complaint the two men filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights after the club turned down their request for a country-themed wedding.

"People of faith need to be able to know that they can practice their faith in the way, in the tradition that their family has over many, many years, without being afraid of somehow violating the law," Heintzeman said.

Despite deep partisan differences with Democrats, most new Republicans are talking about finding common ground with Dayton and the DFL-controlled Senate.

Dale Lueck
Dale Lueck stands on his cattle ranch near Aitkin, Minn. on Thursday Oct. 18, 2012.
Dan Kraker / MPR News 2012

Dale Lueck of Aitkin said he thinks everybody can get along. But Lueck, who defeated Democratic state Rep. Joe Radinovich, said the issues affecting rural Minnesota need a lot more attention.

"Of the 11 new members that replaced DFL incumbents, 10 of them were from rural Minnesota," Lueck said. "If that isn't a message, I don't know what would be. It was pretty clear that the needs in rural Minnesota were not being met down in St. Paul."

Other Republicans who defeated incumbent DFL representatives include Jeff Backer of Browns Valley, Brian Daniels of Faribault, Tim Miller of Prinsburg, Roz Peterson of Lakeville and Jason Rarick of Brook Park.

The focus on rural Minnesota is reflected in a new committee structure that House Republican leaders unveiled this week. Many of the new leaders are from outside of the Twin Cities.

But the response from House Democrats suggested that getting along might take some work. They said the plan was another GOP attempt to create a political divide between rural and metro areas of the state.