Preston, Minn. — Driving into town visitors to Preston see a giant trout proclaiming the city's upcoming sesquicentennial. Just across the way is the B&B Olympic Bowling Alley. Neon beer signs decorate the windows. On this particular morning the bowling lanes are quiet, but the restaurant is humming with breakfast time activity.
Neil Haugerud sits at the bar sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. He's spent his entire life in the area and now at retirement age continues to live on a farm just outside of Preston. Haugerud says he's been paying attention to the tight race for House seat 31B and the big fight over the tire burner.
"There are all kinds of people that are coming to rallies and many, many, more people are going to vote on this issue," says Haugerud, looking up from his paper. "This issue is really bringing out a tremendous amount of people."
The issue breaks down this way: two years ago developer Bob Maust proposed building a $50-million power plant designed to burn scrap tires as fuel. The facility would sit on the outskirts of Preston. It was billed as solid economic development, and a way to bring jobs into the area.
But some Preston residents say burning tires isn't safe either for those living near the plant or the larger environment. The Heartland Energy proposal quickly attracted protests and lawsuits. The matter is now tied up at the state Pollution Control Agency.
Many constituents in District 31B say the race for the house seat is almost a referendum on the issue. Greg Davids is the seven term incumbent. He's a Republican with long ties to Preston. But his father in law is the man behind the tire proposal. Davids has been accused of unfairly wielding his influence at the State Capital to advance the project. He denies those charges.
Davids says he's remained neutral on the tire plant.
"Those issues are in the courts. They're in the agencies," says Davids. "I think it would be very inappropriate to be trying to deal with those now cause they're not legislative issues. I believe in local control and local officials need to make some of those decisions."
Davids says the tire plant controversy is being overblown. He says he continues to share the same core values as his constituents and has worked hard on their behalf during the past 14 years. Among other things he's chaired the House Commerce, Jobs, and Economic Development Committee and recently he helped to lead an effort to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
District 31B is recognized as being as socially and fiscally conservative. Davids has always enjoyed a comfortable majority. However Democratic challenger Peggy Hanson believes the burner issue might change that.
She's running for the first time for state office. She currently serves on the Lanesboro City Council. Hanson's a lawyer by trade and runs a bed and breakfast out her restored Victorian home. Hanson says she's opposed to the plant and she takes issue with how Davids has handled the situation.
"I have not been neutral. I have worked for the public interest," Hanson explains. "My opponent has protected his father in laws interest but I don't believe he has been working for the public's interest. He has not been neutral. He has been AWOL."
Hanson says she's knocked on doors all over the district. She says people from as a far away as LaCrescent at the opposite end of the district are concerned about the plant. There are other big matters facing the voters of District 31B --- things like education, the economy and health care. But Hanson says the tire plant's the kind of issue that could prompt voters to cross party lines.