Six candidates vying to represent Eden Prairie and part of Minnetonka in the Minnesota State Legislature pitched their views and themselves to voters earlier this month.
The six did so during the two-hour Senate District 49 and House Districts 49A and 49B candidate forum. Hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, and Hopkins, it took place Sept. 7 at Eden Prairie City Center.
Candidates gave opening and closing remarks and answered questions submitted in advance by the public. Topics discussed included public safety, inflation, education, gun regulations, and abortion.
Democratic state Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, in office since 2017, is running for reelection in the Nov. 8 election against Republican Marla Helseth for the District 49 seat. The district encompasses all of Eden Prairie and southern Minnetonka.
State Rep. Laurie Pryor, a Democrat in office since 2017, is running for reelection against Republican Ryan Chase for the 49A seat. District 49A represents northern Eden Prairie and southern Minnetonka.
And Democratic state Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, in office since 2019, is running for reelection against Republican Thomas Knecht for the 49B seat. District 49B represents southern Eden Prairie.
Not surprisingly, the three Democratic incumbents and their GOP challengers often disagreed on the path forward in tackling the state’s many issues.
But, the political atmosphere was mainly polite, and the candidates deliberate with their remarks as they attempted to define themselves against their opponents.
“It’s an essential night of the campaign,” Pryor said in her closing remarks. “It’s the best way of coming together and talking about various issues.”
This story is a capsulized version of the forum (written out-of-sequence with the above video), highlighting the answers to six (two are combined) of the many questions asked of candidates on Sept. 7. Each issue highlighted below contains a link to that discussion’s starting point in the video. Links are also provided to the candidate’s opening and closing statements, as well as each of their campaign websites.
A sidebar to this story focuses on many of the other issues discussed at the meeting by the candidates.
In their opening and closing statements, each candidate offered reasons for running. The following was gleaned from those comments.
Cwodzinski, who taught U.S. government and history at Eden Prairie High School for 31 years before retiring in 2016, said his campaign focuses on four core values: healthier and safe communities, stronger schools, civility and voting rights, and environmental preservation and protection.
Seeking his third term, Cwodzinski said he is committed to serving with optimism, an open mind, and a belief that all is possible when “we, the people” come together to find common ground for the common good.
“Because when we do, we do amazing things,” said Cwodzinski, who lives with his wife in Eden Prairie. “And No. 1 among those amazing things is we leave this world a little bit better than we found it.”
Helseth described herself as “just a regular person,” a wife, mother and former teacher. She has lived in Eden Prairie for 10 years.
Running for political office for the first time, Helseth said that she is not “yearning to be a politician.” Instead, she wants to bring a “new voice and new energy” to the state Legislature.
She would focus on education. “We really do need to work together on how we could better educate our kids to get them more proficient in reading and math and close the achievement gap,” she said.
Chase, a political newcomer who lives in Eden Prairie with his wife and two sons, said he has been in “corporate America” for the past 15 years, learning that budgeting is crucial to running a business.
From what he’s heard while campaigning, he thinks people view the economy, public safety, and education as the state’s three most important issues.
“We’re all looking to direct your funds,” Chase said. “You’re paying money into the state, and we need to pay it out a certain way, and it’s prioritizing what matters to Minnesota.”
Pryor, seeking her fourth term, vows to advocate for “excellence and education, strong economic opportunities, high quality, and affordable healthcare and safe neighborhoods.”
She admits it was a tough choice to first run for office in 2016. She had recently retired as a communications consultant and was doing childcare for her grandchildren.
“I knew I was giving up something precious to myself when I made that decision,” said Pryor, who lives in Minnetonka with her husband. “But that was the reason I made that decision because this is their future. And politicians need to pay attention to that generation that’s coming behind us, as well as every generation that we have to make laws for.”
Knecht, who has lived in Eden Prairie for about a year and is running for political office for the first time, described himself as an “independent, hardworking voice for Eden Prairie.” He stressed that he would work for bipartisan consensus on the state’s most polarizing and divisive issues.
Knecht said he would prioritize public safety, cutting living costs, and ensuring educational excellence if elected.
“I’m tired of elected officials who are too busy throwing bombs on Twitter or yelling at each other, rather than putting their head down and working for long-term common sense solutions to help hardworking Minnesotans,” he said.
Kotyza-Witthuhn, seeking her third term, said she is proud to be “that representative who works for bipartisanship and who hears the needs of the community.” The married mother of four has worked in operations and management in the private and public sectors.
Three issues of importance to her: investing more in public education and technical training programs, ensuring people have equal access to affordable health care, and taking action on climate change.
“Now more than ever, we need people at the table who know what life is like outside the (State) Capitol,” she said. “As a millennial, I worry that some of the policies being enacted or dismantled across the country now are taking us backward instead of focusing on our future.”
Candidates were asked what measures the state Legislature could take to address violent crime and increase police recruiting, training and retention.
The three GOP challengers agreed that getting a handle on violent crime starts with supporting and funding the police.
“We as the Legislature should fund police departments so that they can do those things (community policing programs),” Helseth said. “And, so that we don’t have another Derek Chauvin, we do need to also focus on reform and better training of police officers. Especially in Minneapolis.”
The Democrats also voiced support for the police, with Cwodzinski stressing that on behalf of all three incumbents.
“No one up here wants to defund the police,” he said. “None of us ever once stated we want them to defund the police.”
Chase said officials in police departments in Eden Prairie and Minnetonka do have the support of the communities. But, he added, it’s not the same way in Minneapolis.
“We need to work across the state, and I think especially focusing on Minneapolis right now,” he said. “They’ve lost a lot of officers and we pulled in a lot of state troopers down to Minneapolis.”
Pryor said the Legislature has proposed different policies and funding possibilities focused on safe communities. “This isn’t just like one thing that’s going to work,” she said. “We need to do everything. This is an ‘and’ question on what we need to do.”
For instance, Pryor favors Minnesota enacting “common sense” gun violence prevention legislation, “which we do not have in Minnesota right now.” She cited extreme risk protection orders as an example.
“When we see that there is somebody that is known to be a danger to themselves or others, that there is a court process, a procedure, that we can go through to get these weapons out of the hands of people that should not have them,” she said. “Florida is a state that has it. It’s a policy that’s worked.”
Knecht pointed to the defund the police movement that he says was “championed by far-left DFL politicians.”
“We need to push back against that rhetoric that villianizes police and makes it harder for communities to recruit and retain officers,” he said.
Knecht added much can be done to address violent crime. He suggested prosecuting gun crimes and holding repeat offenders accountable.
Kotyza-Witthuhn noted that her challenger, Knecht, likes to tie her to far-left politicians. She stressed that she does not support defunding the police.
She said that “all our neighbors” — white, black, brown or indigenous — deserve to feel safe.
Kotyza-Witthuhn favors what she described as “prudent financial investments in good law enforcement and advancing common-sense policies to hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct and to strengthen community trust.”
She said those goals are not mutually exclusive. “We must do both,” she said.
Inflation, budget surplus
Candidates offered different views on how to address increasing inflation.
Democrats focused on assisting those on fixed incomes, such as senior citizens. Republicans favored cutting taxes and getting more people back to work.
Also broached (in another question) was how $9.3 billion in state surplus funds could be used for such things as tax cuts, additional money for schools, or a rainy-day fund.
Cwodzinski said a plan to use that money was in place during the last session but fell apart at the last minute.
That proposal set aside $3 billion for a rainy day fund, $3 billion to help pay for state infrastructure, mental health spending and education, and $3 billion would go back to taxpayers.
All three Republicans favor using part of the surplus for tax relief to help cut Minnesotans’ living costs.
“We can reduce our tax burden in a fiscally prudent way (and still) have plenty of money to fund government services and the rainy-day fund,” Knecht said.
Chase favors tax cuts, noting it’s good for Minnesota. “Being a tax-friendly state is just good for business, and it’s ultimately good for the taxpayers as well,” he said.
According to Chase, the state is still missing 70,000 people from the workforce who had been there in 2019, before the pandemic. Chase said getting more people to work is the easiest way to right-size the inflation problem.
Pryor favors a balanced approach in figuring out what to do with the surplus.
“There are real needs in our state,” she said. “And we had an opportunity (in a bill discussed at the end of the last session) for programs that would have improved lives now into the future. I think some of it was a permanent budget surplus. And we could have made permanent solutions.”
Kotyza-Witthuhn would like to see a portion of that money go toward public schools.
“We need to look at indexing the investment in our public schools to the rate of inflation so that our schools aren’t wondering on a year-to-year basis just how many teachers they’re going to have to cut before the next school year,” she said.
Helseth also favors using surplus dollars for education. Her approach was different.
“We need to change how we’re doing education,” she said. “I’m not saying we should not fund education. I think we should. But I think some of the surplus should go to funding education and, in addition, creating funding so that we could do something similar to what Arizona has done, which creates education savings accounts for each student.”
Education was a key issue at the forum. Candidates offered their views on what steps Minnesota could take to narrow the achievement gap between white and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students, as well as the learning loss for all students due to COVID-19.
Cwodzinski said he set one goal two years ago when the state faced civil strife and economic unrest: Get more teachers of color into classrooms.
“I can’t imagine me going through K-12 and never seen anybody that looked like me,” he said.
Helseth said breaking the stronghold of the teacher’s union is one step.
“We need to expand the options for kids and how they learn,” she said. “I think we are going down the wrong road by focusing so much on race and on the race of the teachers or the students because the focus on race is not educating them.”
Chase said many industries have taken a hit from the pandemic mandates and requirements.
“When teachers are told that they have to teach a very specific way that isn’t even helping the students learn to read or write better, learn math skills any better, (it’s) getting them distracted from what really matters, which is to learn,” he said.
When it comes to learning loss seen through the pandemic, Pryor said one way to help ease that is time in the classroom.
“We need to make sure that kids have that access to additional help that they need for whatever they lost,” she said. “Some kids did OK, but some kids didn’t. We need to recognize the ones that fell behind and make sure that they get a chance.”
Knecht said the dispirit of educational outcomes between white and BIPOC students in Minnesota preexisted COVID. “We have the greatest disparity of any state in the nation, and it needs to be addressed,” he said.
He said he would favor increasing teacher salaries.
“We could reduce the legislative salary and give it to the teachers if it was up for me,” he said. “I don’t think I would get my colleagues to sign on to that if I were elected. We can start there.”
Kotyza-Witthuhn said addressing learning loss, and the opportunity gap between white and BIPOC students is something education professionals and the Legislature have been battling for years.
“We do have some of the worst opportunity gaps in the nation,” she said. “And I think COVID exacerbated so many problems that our community is facing, our state is facing, the world is facing.”
She is a proponent of early childhood education, noting her and Rep. Pryor’s committee work on it. “Study after study shows that the single best return on investment that we can make as a state is in early childhood education,” she said.
A question on gun regulations saw a clear divide among the Republican and Democratic candidates.
It asked candidates if they would institute gun regulations similar to legislation for automobiles. They were asked to answer yes or no, then explain their answer.
Helseth, Chase and Knecht said no, while Cwodzinski, Pryor and Kotyza-Witthuhn said yes.
Chase said the question is difficult to answer because “we’ve never heard of anything like this before, considering a car and a gun similar.” He said reregistering millions of guns wouldn’t solve the problem.
According to Chase, the problem is that people with bad intentions are “using weapons for the wrong use,” instead of hunting or protection. “So tracking guns and cars similarly, I think is a very strange concept actually,” he said.
Pryor, though, described it as an “important comparison.” She said owning a firearm and operating a car are both responsibilities.
“It means that we do need to make sure that the people that have these weapons, firearms, that we also know that these are people are responsible for using them,” she said.
After stating no, Knecht said men usually perpetrate gun violence.
“And the school shootings or the urban violence, it’s usually perpetrated by young men,” he said. “As a society and culture, we need to do a much better job of figuring out what’s causing young men to pick up a gun and cause harm in our communities.”
Minnesotans, Kotyza-Witthuhn said, know that with rights come responsibilities. She said she and her husband are “safe and responsible” gun owners.
“With deference to our Second Amendment rights, all options should be on the table for consideration by community members, law enforcement and the Legislature as we look to stem the tide of gun violence,” she said.
Helseth said whoever buys a gun already needs to go through specific protocols, such as gun permits and background checks.
“I don’t support adding on legislation to purchase them,” she said.
Cwodzinski challenged anyone to walk into a classroom and break the news about another school shooting to students.
“Watch those kids faces and tell me that we do not need reasonable, rational regulation of our firearms industry,” he said.
Candidates showed a divide when asked if they would vote to restrict abortion in any way in Minnesota. They were asked to answer yes or no, then explain their answer.
All Democrats stated no, stating they would vote to codify access to reproductive rights and abortion access in the state constitution.
Pryor said a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling held that the state’s constitution protects abortion. But, she said courts change, pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Roe v. Wade.
“We literally need to put in the Minnesota State Constitution, the rights of my mother and my wife and my daughter and my granddaughters so they don’t have to listen to this debate 30 or 40 years from now,” Cwodzinski said.
Helseth stated yes.
“We have a class of people who have no rights and can be legally killed before their birthday,” she said. “We have a class of people in our country that have no rights, and that can be killed before they’re born. Yes, I would vote to restrict that we have some kind of limit and restriction on killing unborn children. And I hope other people would too.”
Chase said no, and “my reasoning for that is that I truly don’t believe we have any way of doing that.” He said he does not believe this is an election issue right now.
“I’m pro-life, and I do believe in life that starts at conception,” he said. “But I don’t believe there is any legislation that could be voted on.”
Several people in the audience yelled out after Knecht didn’t initially answer yes or no in his answer to the question. After asking for the question to be repeated, he was tentative while answering.
“If this comes up, I will vote … we need more nuance in this discussion,” he said. “I would say yes, abortion policy should be safe and legal and we should assure there are limits on post viability procedures.”
Knecht reiterated that he would vote yes to having limits on post viability procedures. He added that reflects what most Minnesotans want, the majority of doctors in America believe and past presidents of Planned Parenthood.
Kotyza-Witthuhn said she would not vote “in any way” to restrict abortion access in Minnesota.
According to Kotzyza-Witthuhn, the state is an island of reproductive rights access in the Midwest. Each year during her time in the Legislature, she said her GOP colleagues have introduced anti-choice legislation banning abortion.
“Anything less than a wholehearted support of abortion access, access to contraception and for women to be able to make their own decisions about their own bodies is completely unacceptable,” she said.
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