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After 29 years, a political opening
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
October 26, 2001
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On November 6, there's only one election for state office. Voters in Morrison and southern Crow Wing counties will replace veteran DFL legislator Steve Wenzel, who resigned this spring for a job with the U.S. Agriculture Department. Republican Greg Blaine and DFLer Helen McLennan, both of Little Falls, want to represent people in state house District 12B, a region rediscovering its political identity.

The morning coffee crew at the Black and White Hamburger Shop in downtown Little Falls.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

The regulars show up for coffee about seven o'clock at the Black and White Hamburger Shop in downtown Little Falls. A teacher, a corrections officer, a dentist, and the owners of an auto parts store and a printing company; they don't mind talking politics for a while. But Kathy Engholm, who works for the Morrison County Corrections Department, says it's been nearly three decades since people here had to have the conversation.

"There was never much to talk about before, because you always just knew Steve was going to win," she said. "And because he had the right views on the right issues."

"The right issues," as Steve Wenzel came to define them during his 29-year legislative career, include opposition to legalized abortion, uncompromising support for farmers and a famously dogged drive to bring dollars to the district.

Voters here might have kept Wenzel in office another 30 years if Mother Nature would allow it. But high school teacher Dwight Nelson says new forces are now at work. Nelson has noticed that Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum has made a number of trips to the area lately.

A photo of Steve Wenzel, from a campaign flyer in the early 80s. (View the full flyer.) Wenzel is now the state director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Listen to an extended interview with Wenzel about his 29-year legislative career, his district, and the work he's doing now. Listen

(Flyer courtesy of Steve Wenzel)

"The Republicans have started to move south," he said. "They've moved into the Brainerd area. They really want to change this to Republican control now, and that's one more Republican vote for them in the Legislature."

Steve Wenzel says somebody recently told him that as long as he was in office, "the lid was on the kettle." Wenzel grew up on a farm in the Little Falls area, near Randall, and really never left.

Some things haven't changed much. Wenzel says the number of dairy cows is about the same, even though there are fewer farms in the area. Candidates here still need to be pro-life and pro-gun. And the constituents are as demanding as ever.

"The good people I've had the fortune of representing are very politically conscious," he said. "They're very involved. You would not believe the mail and the telephone was humanly impossible to respond to everybody who wanted your attention."

But Wenzel remembers a time when 500 delegates packed local halls for Republican and DFL conventions. This summer, Republicans mustered a few dozen onlookers; the DFL held no nominating convention at all.

In 1972, when Wenzel was first elected, Democrat Hubert Humphrey carried this area by a huge margin. Last year George W. Bush was an easy victor.

The military operations at Camp Ripley are now a major part of life in the area. That makes support for the military a new test for candidates.

And then there's what Wenzel calls "The Baxter Factor." The boundary line of District 12B cuts between Baxter and Brainerd, two cities so close that their boundary runs through the middle of a shopping mall.

"For 29 years, Steve (Wenzel) represented us, and those of us on the other side of the aisle, at times, you couldn't find a candidate to even go against Steve. And in the end, why would you want to? Because you knew that he was just going to be hard to beat. Now it's an open field."

- Bob Verkeuhlen, Little Falls resident

"What's happened in Baxter in the last 20 years is that the population and the industries moving into it have just exploded in growth," he said. "In 1982, when I inherited Baxter in my new legislative district (following redistricting), the population was 1,800 people. The population 20 years later in the year 2000 was 7,000 people."

Baxter seems set to overtake the more agricultural Little Falls, an hour to the south, as the population center of the district. In Baxter heavy traffic whizzes past Wal-Mart, Target, and Paul Bunyan Land.

Steve Rosenow, a Baxter resident meeting as he does every Thursday with a group of disabled veterans at a retro diner on the north edge of the strip, says Baxter and Little Falls just might find plenty of common ground in coming years.

"We're a tourism industry, they're an agricultural industry, but we both like to have some manufacturing industries to bring people in, keep people here, and enjoy the area," Rosenow said.

Because this is a special election, whoever wins this seat will have to fight for it all over again in a year. And in the meantime legislative redistricting could render the very concept of District 12B obsolete. In any case, these counties are in for more politics than they've seen in quite some time.