The six candidates vying to represent the University of Minnesota’s Senate district in the upcoming legislative session gathered Monday night on campus to discuss issues surrounding the University, district and state.
On Jan. 10, voters will select a new senator to represent district 59 after Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, stepped down after nearly 30 years in the Legislature.
A Dec. 6 primary will narrow down the five DFL hopefuls.
The forum was hosted by the Minnesota Daily, the Minnesota Student Association and the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition.
In front of approximately 80 attendees, the potential senators handled questions on higher education, University representation and the state economy.
Paul Ostrow, who served on the Minneapolis City Council from 1998 to 2009, touted his experience as an elected official and his work with former President Bob Bruininks. He spoke strongly about finding new revenue options for the state — specifically a clothing sales tax.
The three-year City Council president pushed for an expansion of President Barack Obama’s debt relief plan for student loans and proposed erasing loan debt altogether for Minnesota teachers after college.
Ostrow boasted of his strong presence in the district and his connection to the community from his days on the Council.
“Elected officials need to be seen … When I was on the council I was at a neighborhood meeting every night.”
To sum up his interaction with multicultural constituents, Ostrow simply said, “I eat.” He was referring to the relationships he’s fostered with owners of ethnic restaurants.
Ostrow was unique in addressing the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests.
“Students aren’t the only ones who feel left out. People are disenchanted, disengaged.”
Ostrow pushed for government transparency on all levels, including reporting all campaign finances.
The youngest of the six candidates, Ben Schwanke stood out among the field of five DFLers as the lone Republican.
As a current student at Augsburg College, Schwanke said he empathizes with students on high tuition and rent costs. He proposed that students pay a set tuition rate throughout their university career.
Like the DFLers, Schwanke supported more funding to the University of Minnesota, but repeatedly addressed the need to manage where money is spent.
Schwanke pointed to University administration costs as a spending problem.
“Put the money where it belongs. It will grow the U of M. It will grow jobs. Money spent on the University is for the education.”
Addressing the issue of student involvement in government, Schwanke said once students see that progress is being made for them as opposed to solely those in the workforce, they will pay attention.
Separate from his fellow candidates, Schwanke argued that the special election in early January is at a time when the University is not in session and when many students will not be on campus to vote. He proposed the special election be moved.
Apart from higher education, the Republican made the point that in the upcoming session he would be the only candidate serving in the majority.
“The reality is I’m the only one who can get [ideas] passed right now.” Schwanke said.
Schwanke challenged candidate Kari Dziedzic about the Legislature’s need for a balanced budget.
He was the only candidate to directly address another on the panel.
Mohamud Noor immigrated to Minneapolis 12 years ago. He recently resigned as a systems administrator for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
As an employee for the state, Noor explained how he saw firsthand the effects of the shutdown this summer, as well the 10-day shutdown in 2005.
Because of his critical role, Noor said he continued to work during the shutdown, but saw many of his coworkers lose pay.
“The shutdown was embarrassing to our state.”
Addressing the issue of student employment after graduation, Noor suggested working with major companies in the Twin Cities, a plan similarly supported by University President Eric Kaler.
“We have more than 20 Fortune 500 companies,” Noor said. “We must invest with them.”
As a potential senator that would represent a diverse district, Noor, who said he speaks three languages, stated that an elected official must be honest and trusted by his electorate.
“We have to hear new concepts and ideas, even if I don’t agree. We have to represent the voices of the community.”
Noor also stressed that “we must pay attention to underrepresented people in the district.”
Peter Wagenius grew up in Minneapolis and is a “proud product” of Minneapolis public schools. Wagenius graduated with a degree in political science and then worked as a teacher to students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Most notably, Wagenius currently serves as policy director for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and has worked with Rybak since his election in 2001. He also served the State Senate Democrats for 5 years.
In the immediate future, Wagenius said he will push for the largest possible bonding bill for the state to kick start the economy with more jobs. That money, he said, would trickle down to the University and save students money.
Drawing on party lines, Wagenius said in the long term he wants to see current Republicans out of office.
Wagenius said that new taxes are also an option for raising revenues. He said that avoiding raising taxes only increases other issues like property taxes and rids legislatures from the blame.
“We have to dismantle the mythology of no new taxes,” he said.
Wagenius said that students are part of politics in Minneapolis, noting that students are involved in his campaign.
However, Wagenius hopes to work to further increase student participation.
“I can’t stand seeing people have power and not using it,” Wagenius said.
With a theatrical presence and enthusiasm, Jacob Frey answered questions with little aid from his notes.
“I am that generational shift,” Frey said at the start of discussions.
Frey said his campaign is largely based on the University of Minnesota and student votes.
Frey tries to engage students by talking directly with them. He said he has spoken with thousands of students in Dinkytown, visited several sororities and fraternities, and will continue his dialogue students if elected to office.
On one of the most talked about points, Frey agreed with other candidates that he would push to raise taxes on the rich.
“If you give a rich person $1 in tax breaks… that $1 goes on top of a pile with about a million other dollars,” Frey said.
Frey said that he has already taken action on decreasing the minority gap.
Frey worked in the Somali community in Cedar-Riverside to start a women’s health and empowerment group.
On the same sex marriage issue, Frey is an outspoken supporter.
Frey and his wife organized the Big Gay Race in Northeast Minneapolis that raised 40,000 dollars for Minnesotans United for All Families.
Kari Dziedzic grew up in District 59, and went to the University when “it was a little more affordable.”
Dziedzic’s experience stems from her work as the executive assistant to Paul Wellstone and her experience working as the communications director for Hennepin County attorney’s office.
Dziedzic said she has worked to increased student voter turnout at the University and at Augsburg.
“In Hennepin County, we have more registered cars than registered voters,” she said, noting that the problem was widespread across age demographics.
Dziedzic supports funding a $1 million bonding bill in order to increase jobs like construction workers.
Increasing taxes for the top 1 percent is an emphasis for Dziedzic who said the rich should “pay their fair share.”
She emphasized that cutting from the budget is not the solution to fiscal issues.
“The Tea Party Republicans think they can cut their way out, “ she said, “We’ve cut, we need to raise revenues but we also need to be creative.”
Dziedzic emphasized that in her work she has collaborated with others and come up with creative solutions to issues. With the Hennepin County attorney’s office, Dziedzic said she helped organize a program called Sick Leave without Pay which saved the county $4 million.
Dziedzic said the program also helped employees save jobs.
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