News & Features

7th District so big, candidates use planes like cars
By Associated Press

October 14, 2002

ST. PAUL (AP) - The 7th Congressional District is bigger than some states, running from the Canadian border nearly to Iowa along the western side of Minnesota.

That size could be an obstacle, but the two candidates running there have gotten creative. DFL congressman Collin Peterson and Republican state Sen. Dan Stevens are both pilots and cover the district from a couple of thousand feet up.

Peterson pilots his single-engine Beech Bonanza to small towns, Main Street parades and county fairs.

"You've got to go to all these towns," Peterson said, glancing down at the largely flat expanse of the 7th District he's represented for 12 years. "If you don't go, well, then you haven't been there. It's all about showing up."

That simple fact wasn't lost on Stevens, who is conducting his own one-man barnstorming tour in his single-engine Cessna 172.

"It's not a gimmick at all - with a district this size, it really cuts your travel time," said Stevens, a student pilot.

The district, enlarged to reflect population changes in the 2000 census, stretches more than 400 miles, taking in 35 counties and hundreds of shrinking farm towns - like Bird Island, where Peterson recently dropped in at Athmann's Inn for coffee and handshaking.

"Hi, I'm congressman Collin Peterson," he told a group of men chatting over breakfast. "You're in the new 7th District - whether you like it or not."

On another recent day, Stevens stood on a sidewalk on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus, amid College Republicans who were handing out free hot dogs and pop.

"How are you doing - Dan Stevens running for Congress," he told dozens of lunch-bound students. One, junior psychology major Martin Malmberg, grilled Stevens on abortion.

"I'm completely pro-life," Stevens replied.

Satisfied with the answer, Malmberg headed across campus. "I'm totally pro-life, but I can't say I know much about him. I've never heard of him, actually," he said.

No independent opinion polls have been conducted to gauge the closeness of the race, but by most accounts, Peterson is the favorite. Even though he's a Democrat and the district tends to vote Republican in statewide races, Peterson fares well because he opposes abortion, hunts and fishes, and gets top ratings from the National Rifle Association.

A founding member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, Peterson voted for part of President Bush's tax cut, backed farm subsidies, opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and voted against permanent trade relations with China.

He sided with Republicans on prescription drug and HMO legislation, but against them on post-Sept. 11 measures to dramatically increase the investigative powers of the federal government.

Peterson champions fish and wildlife conservation, but says excessive environmental regulation is one of the biggest problems facing farmers.

Through the years, his eclectic voting record has won him praise from business groups and organized labor.

"I'm a Democrat, but I don't agree with them on everything," Peterson said during a visit with voters in rural Lyon County. "I'm kind of an independent guy, and I'm working hard to convince you folks that I'm all right."

Aware of Peterson's cross-party appeal, Stevens offers voters this: If you like Republican positions, vote for a real Republican.

Probably the biggest policy difference between Peterson and Stevens is on trade. In contrast to Peterson's protectionist instincts on NAFTA, Stevens champions free trade as a way to expand export markets for farmers. He even gingerly supports trade with Cuba.

A country rock singer and guitar player, Peterson regularly cavorts with Republicans on and off stage.

During the 2000 presidential election standoff, Peterson - 58 and divorced - called to comfort Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, whom he used to date.

Stevens, 52, and his wife, Barb, have four children, and his family background is solidly agricultural. He grew up on a dairy farm near Pine City. During the farm crisis in the mid-1970s, he quit farming to start a business specializing in cattle artificial insemination.

First elected to the state Senate in 1992, Stevens' legislative specialties have included long-term care, welfare reform and the ethanol industry. He moved into the district in May from his longtime home in Mora to challenge Peterson.

"That's not the way people do things in the 7th District," Peterson said.

Stevens said he served members of the old 7th when he was in the state Senate and that "I serve people - not territory."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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