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A battle between experience and changing politics in District 12A
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Don Samuelson tours an automotive shop at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. The retired bricklayer has 30 years of legislative experience. He lost his State Senate seat in 2000, and is now running for House District 12A. He says his experience would help him "hit the ground running" in St. Paul. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
House District 12A encompasses the rapidly growing Brainerd lakes area. It's a part of Minnesota that's seen plenty of changes over the last couple of decades. This year's election pits a DFL candidate with 30 years experience against two political newcomers.

Baxter, Minn. — The House seat in District 12A is up for grabs. Paul Gazelka, a Baxter area insurance agent, is running as a Republican. Gazelka has never held public office.

This part of the state has leaned Democratic in the past, because big industries like the area's paper mill provided plenty of labor friendly voters.

Now, Republican leaders think they've got a good chance at winning this seat. A new generation of residents is moving into the lake country north of Brainerd and Baxter -- wealthy retirees. They're more conservative and they tend to vote Republican.

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Image Gov. Pawlenty and Paul Gazelka

During a summer Republican fundraiser in Baxter, Gov. Tim Pawlenty urged supporters to donate their time and money to see that Gazelka represents the changing region.

"We need leaders who see the change, and position the Brainerd-Baxter area for the future, and take advantage of it while resting on solid principle. But we can't go backwards," Pawlenty said.

Going backwards is a subtle jab at Gazelka's well-known DFL opponent, Don Samuelson. Samuelson, 72, was first elected to the house in 1968, where he served 12 years. Then he moved to the Senate where he stayed 18 years. He was defeated by a Republican in 2000.

Republican Paul Gazelka sees his own lack of political experience as a healthy contrast between himself and Samuelson.

"It's this young guy, 44 years old, that -- as far as the political realm doesn't have the experience, but has the energy and the fresh vision. Versus somebody that's been seasoned and that's been around awhile, and still wants to stay in there," Gazelka said.

You won't get an apology from Don Samuelson for wanting to stay in there. He says his passion for the Legislature drew him into this race.

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Image Larry Anderson

"It's the love of my life. I just love working on legislative issues. I've been fairly successful on my legislative career and have done a lot of things for our community and the state. And just like many people, I'm just not ready to cash it in," Samuelson said.

Samuelson admits the Brainerd lakes region has become more conservative over the years, but he says he reflects the views of his constituents. He considers himself a moderate. Others say he's conservative, especially in light of his opposition to abortion.

Joining Samuelson and Gazelka in the race for 12A is Independence Party candidate Larry Anderson.

Anderson, a retired former Hennepin County District Court manager, says he chose to run after watching the two major parties bicker over the budget last session. He agrees the influx of retirees to the district has made the area more conservative.

"I think what people want has changed, along with the changing of the composition. You have more retirees like myself who are coming home to roost, who are on a fixed income and don't want to see their taxes go up," said Anderson. "But I think by the same token they want to make sure education is funded, so that we have a group of people to take over and help us make it through the tough times that are probably coming."

Anderson says as a recent retiree himself, he wants to make sure residents' tax money is used responsibly.

In the end, political watchers say this election will be a close contest between Paul Gazelka and Don Samuelson. As a long time DFL lawmaker, Samuelson has experience and lots of name recognition. But Gazelka's Republican politics are expected to do well in an area that's becoming more conservative.

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