by CHRIS ROGERS
St. Charles farmer, solar developer, and Democrat Ralph Kaehler is challenging incumbent Republican and Red Wing nuclear power electrical engineer Mike Goggin for a Minnesota Senate seat representing Goodview, St. Charles, Altura, Elba, Wabasha, Red Wing, and most of Goodhue and Wabasha counties.
Goggin won his seat in 2016, ousting incumbent Matt Schmit by nine points in a campaign that painted the Red Wing Democrat as pandering to the metro area. Now Kaehler, a fourth-generation farmer with deep roots in rural Winona County, is taking on Goggin. The two candidates made their cases at a League of Women Voters (LWV) forum late last month.
A Red Wing native, Goggin pointed to his parents as his inspiration to enter public service. “My mom and dad always said use your God-given skills and talent to help better the community, help people out, and that’s why I’m doing this,” Goggin said. He added, “I got into this because we were not being represented by common-sense people at the capitol. They were doing things at the capitol like raising taxes.”
Kaehler used his opening remarks to both highlight his experience as a farmer and business owner, raise the issue of health care, and criticize Goggin. “I know what it’s like to buy my own health insurance, and I also understand the cost to a business of buying insurance for employees,” Kaehler stated. “Like you, my career, my family, my retirement, and quality of life depend on Minnesota being prosperous,” he continued. “I am not OK with kicking the can down the road on major decisions. My opponent will be fine. He’s got a corporate job and health care is provided. It’s not urgent for them to fix this.”
Goggin named Social Security tax breaks, rural broadband internet expansion, and jobs as his top priorities. With the pandemic, he said, “Nothing is more important right now than Social Security income for so many people.” Minnesota taxes Social Security income, and Goggin pointed to Social Security tax cuts he helped secure. “As long as I’m there [at the capitol], I will continue to go at that until we get rid of the income tax on that,” he stated.
Health care affordability, mitigating climate change, and boosting rural economies with broadband internet and other investments were Kaehler’s top priorities. “We need to broaden the accessibility and the affordability of heath care. Many people are only one major event away from homelessness or bankruptcy,” he stated. If Minnesota can make health care affordable, it would relieve tons of stress on small businesses and working people in small towns, Kaehler argued. On rural broadband, he added, “We’ve had our elected officials talking about it for years and years with little being done.”
A LWV moderator asked, what can the state do to help businesses hurt by the pandemic?
“We need to get them opened up,” Goggin responded. “We need to give them the resources they need to be able to do that. Right now, the governor has complete and total control of that and the voice of the people is not being heard through the legislature, their elected officials.” He added, “At the end of the day, you know, we have the ability to understand what’s going on with this COVID and how to mitigate it through masks, physical distancing, cleaning — things like that. So we need to start letting our small businesses open up and get a fair shake in this because we’ve kept the big box stores like Walmart and Target open, but we’ve shuttered our small businesses and we need to give them the same opportunity, as well.” This spring’s stay-at-home orders closed local businesses while leaving large retailers open, but since then, Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-safe orders have allowed businesses of all kinds to reopen with capacity restrictions for social distancing.
The state needs to invest in jobs and infrastructure to bolster the economy, Kaehler said, responding to the same question. “We also need to make sure we fix the health care [system] so that that’s covered and people aren’t worried what they’re going to do,” he stated. Alluding to the fact that Goggin joined a lawsuit challenging Walz’s pandemic-era executive orders as unconstitutional, Kaehler continued, “We have a candidate who tried to sue the governor because he likes the efficiency of how the Senate and House works. In a pandemic situation, that doesn’t make sense. So businesses need to pivot and find new ways of doing business to stay open, they need leadership from the top, and we need to have consistent leadership with that.”
The moderator also quizzed the candidates on their stance on local governments setting minimum wage laws. In 2017, Goggin supported a bill that would have blocked cities and counties from setting their own minimum wages.
The largest businesses have the capacity to deal with a patchwork of different minimum wage laws from place to place, but small businesses do not, Goggin stated. “It’s very, very costly, it’s very difficult for them,” he stated. Ultimately, inconsistent wage laws across the state would lead to fewer jobs, he argued.
“I think people need to be able to earn a living wage when they’re working full time,” Kaehler said. He added, “… For some local entities, if they want to raise that and they have the buy-in from their communities, I believe we should have that local control,” he stated.
In the forum’s closing arguments, Goggin turned the attacks around on Kaehler by pointing out that Kaehler was involved in Winona County’s 2014 solar scandal. That scandal had more to do with the county administrator than Kaehler or his company. That year, then county administrator Duane Hebert initially failed to disclose that his wife worked for Kaehler’s solar company at the same time the company was vying for a county contract. The County Board fired Hebert for, in its view, not being forthcoming about a potential conflict of interest, but the move backfired for the County Board, which wound up paying $312,000 to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit with Hebert. Goggin said Kaehler was involved in a scandal that cost taxpayers money. “It cost the county money because the administrator received a payout award for wrongful termination,” Kaehler responded.