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A case study in party contrasts
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Republican Rep. Sondra Erickson mingles with Rice Lake area sportsman Herman Gangle at a candidate forum. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
Education and health care figure prominently in the state legislative race in District 16A in the Mille Lacs County area. Republican Sondra Erickson has held that House seat for nearly seven years. Democrat Gail Kulick Jackson, a lawyer, is the DFL candidate. The key issues of this race make it a good case study for some state and national political trends.

Milaca and Rice, Minn. — A few blocks from her law office in Milaca, Democrat Gail Kulick Jackson is outdoors knocking for votes. At this particular house, a woman in denim cut-offs holds the screen door ajar, and cigarette smoke rolls out. Kulick Jackson stands smiling in her blue turtleneck and blazer. She's run her own law firm for nearly 20 years and is a mother of three.

She commiserates with the potential voter at the door over fees for school activities.

"I think it may be higher for high school than intermediate," Kulick Jackson points out.

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Image Gail Kulick Jackson door-knocking

"Probably. There goes my pocketbook!" the woman responds.

"I think that's one of the problems," Kulick Jackson says, leaning in towards the woman. "Underfunding of schools is resulting in kids paying higher fees. In Princeton, they're paying $100 per sport per kid."

"That's unreal," the woman says, shaking her head.

Education underfunding is one of Kulick Jackson's campaign centerpieces. Her solution to the problem is consistent with a lot of DFLers. She says income taxes should be tapped for better school funding.

At a candidate forum held by Rice Lake area sportsmen, Republican Sondra Erickson has just elaborated on some of her views. The old village hall is crowded with men in camouflage caps and muddy boots.

Erickson stands out in her fitted denim jacket and gold jewelry. She's a retired high school English teacher. As is the case with her opponent, Erickson ranks education as a top campaign issue. She says she's concerned about the way educational funding formulas seem to favor certain communities.

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Image Political scientist Kay Wolsborn

"Because those formulas have so many variables and are so complicated, they can greatly affect what a district gets as its base funding," Erickson says. "And we need to take a look at those formulas and maybe get rid of those formulas."

Erickson sees herself allied with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty on education issues. She wants education funding improved -- but not at the cost of additional taxes.

Erickson and Kulick Jackson reflect pretty standard positions in their parties and standard concerns. In addition to education, they both name health care as a key issue. Both candidates support the idea of health savings accounts. But Kulick Jackson thinks those accounts alone aren't enough. She wants to improve funding to Minnesota Care, which provides health insurance to poor Minnesotans.

Overall, the two candidates' particular focus on health care and education put them in the company of scores of candidates in Minnesota and beyond.

"Both of them take positions similar to the national parties and the parties in Congress," says Kay Wolsborn, professor of political science at the College of St. Benedict.

Wolsborn says local and presidential candidates alike are emphasizing their views on education and health care. She argues that local House races could have the greatest policy impact for those issues.

"What's especially distinctive about a state legislative race is that both in health care and in education, the state really has much more to say and much more to do with public policy in both those areas," she asserts.

In spite of this point, Wolsborn says voters probably won't choose candidates based on issues like health care and education alone. Many people vote simply along party lines.

Wolsborn adds that in a case like house District 16A, where the candidates do seem to hue to their party colors, voters probably won't be too surprised by what they get.

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