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Classic party issues define race for Minnesota House 2A seat
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Jim Ellefson says he has experience in business and government. He says that's a good combination of expertise for a state legislator. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)
In House district 2A, a first term representative faces a challenge from a popular mayor. DFLer Kent Eken won the race for an open seat two years ago. Ada Mayor Jim Ellefson is hoping to put the northwestern Minnesota House seat in the Republican column.

Moorhead, Minn. — Minnesota House District 2A is mostly rural, but home to diverse interests. On its western end is rich Red River Valley farmland, on the eastern side are lake homes and resorts.

Jim Ellefson, the Republican challenger, is also mayor of Ada, the largest town in the district. It's a friendly place for him to campaign for the legislative seat.

Ellefson is a low-key campaigner. He spends a lot of time dropping off flyers and talking to voters.

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Image "We're pulling for Eken"

Besides being mayor of Ada, Ellefson runs a nursery business. He says he brings political and business experience to the legislative race.

"Anytime you have to cut a service or raise taxes -- nobody likes to make those types of decisions. But I feel you need to run government like a business," says Ellefson. "If there's a financial crisis you need to address the tough issues and make some cuts."

Ellefson says budget and tax issues are at the heart of this race. DFL incumbent Kent Eken agrees, but his style is decidedly different. Eken sometimes campaigns with a donkey named Bertha, and likes to take on what he sees as powerful special interests in St. Paul.

His father, Willis Eken, served in the Minnesota House in the 1970s and '80s. Kent Eken still lives on the family farm near Twin Valley.

Eken, who's served one term in the House, says the House Republican majority failed to address the state's budget problems. He says legislators should have raised taxes or cut spending.

"The tough decisions, in my view, were not being made in St. Paul. They were just being shifted out onto the backs of local school districts, colleges and universities, local cities and counties," says Eken. "They're the ones who are going to have to deal with the cuts being made by the state. To me that's not making tough decisions -- to simply shift it onto the back of somebody else and say, 'You deal with it.'"

Eken is also upset with new fees approved by the Legislature. He calls them taxes in disguise. Eken says across the board tax increases are much more fair.

Republican challenger Jim Ellefson isn't bothered by fees. He says user fees are a much fairer way to fund things like state parks.

Both candidates agree access to affordable health care is a critical issue in a rural district like 2A. Both want improved funding for education. And both want the state to fund flood control projects for Ada and other Red River Valley communities. They disagree on the issue of a perceived rural-urban divide in the Legislature.

Eken says legislative power has shifted to the Twin Cities suburbs. He says that puts more pressure on rural lawmakers.

"I think that means those of us representing rural Minnesota need to be much more vocal, and speak out much more effectively than we have in the past, in order to be heard and to ensure our communities are not ignored," says Eken. "I'm willing to do that, and I take the responsibility very seriously to stand up for our rural communities out here."

While Eken feels very strongly that rural Minnesota doesn't always get a fair shake at the Legislature, Republican challenger Jim Ellefson isn't so sure. Ellefson says as a small town mayor, he's testified before legislative committees. He's seen Twin Cities lawmakers take an interest in issues important to Ada.

He thinks he would be a more effective legislator for District 2A.

"I think it would be a benefit to have representation on the majority party and be able to get things done. I think that's one of the pluses I could bring to this area," says Ellefson.

As a successful small businessman, Ellefson says he would bring a fiscally responsible approach to the state Legislature. Incumbent Kent Eken says he's proud of his DFL heritage, and will continue to fight for fair treatment for rural Minnesota.

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