GOP roundtable: Southwest House candidates make their cases

Less government is a constant, but some differences emerge

Heart nurse Amy Vrudny of Armatage said she is running for the state House of Representatives because she wants to work on healthcare issues.

For Nokomis East's Susie Valentine, an intake worker at St. Joseph's Home for Children, her motivation to run includes working for tougher penalties for sexual predators and domestic abusers.

Loring Park resident Tom Gromacki, a former College Republican leader now an insurance adjuster, said he wants to press for a state override of the recently passed Minneapolis smoking ban and support key party planks, such as right-to-life issues, his political starting point.

East Calhoun resident Jeremy Estenson, who works for the Minnesota House Republican staff, said he wants to push to lower taxes -- but a significant motivation in his race "is to prevent [Rep.] Frank Hornstein from going out and spreading resources across other tight races."

Vrudny (District 63A), Valentine (District 62B), Gromacki (District 60A) and Estenson (District 60B) are running uphill battles, trying to unseat strongly favored Democratic incumbents in districts that include all or parts of Southwest. The Southwest Journal invited them to a roundtable discussion at Dulono's Pizza, 607 W. Lake St., to talk about their backgrounds, motivations and ideas.

Unlike their Democratic opponents who know each other and collaborate on issues at the House, the four Republican candidates had to introduce themselves to each other.

Andy Lindbergh, District 61B, who advocates less government intrusion into people's lives, was a no-show. Asked prior to the roundtable if he could win, he said, "Hell no -- I have done this before," having previously run against Rep. Neva Walker.

He simply wanted "nanny state" opponents to be able to vote for someone else, he said.

Those who attended the roundtable were generally upbeat about their election prospects (though the question: "Do you think you can win?" drew a few laughs).

Estenson said he "hoped to win." Gromacki (slogan: "I'm Whacky for Gromacki") said he absolutely believes he can win. He is running against Rep. Margaret Kelliher, who won in 2002 by 53 percentage points.

"You never go into a campaign without at least convincing yourself you can win, somehow," Gromacki said.

Learning the ropes

Challengers not only have to doorknock and build name recognition, they have to bone up on the intricacies of healthcare and education policy and other issues constituents care about.

Estenson has the advantage of working at the House and getting firsthand knowledge of current issues.

Vrudny, who is challenging Rep. Paul Thissen, said she talks to Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, who attends her church and encouraged her to run. She also has talked to other Republican legislators.

Valentine, who is challenging Rep. Jean Wagenius, credits her Senate District Chair Kelly Bailey, a former Senate District candidate, with helping her campaign organization, and said the House GOP caucus provided helpful information.

Gromacki said chairing the College Republicans at the University of Minnesota and working on campaigns gave him background on the issues.

"A large part of it is understanding the overall philosophy of the party you are with and knowing that when you go the Legislature, if you get elected, you are not going in alone," he said.

Inside the GOP caucus

Some could argue that Minneapolis would benefit by having a city representative in the Republican caucus, someone to advocate Minneapolis issues.

Not surprisingly, Vrudny, Valentine, Gromacki and Estenson, agree.

Vrudny, for instance, said she would work on airport noise mitigation, and having a city Republican "would hopefully bridge the gap between the Met Council."

Minneapolis took a major Local Government Aid (LGA) hit last biennium, $33 million, according to the city's Web site. It was one of the big city issues for the 2003-2004 session, and it drew protests from city leaders, who said it contributed to local tax hikes and service cuts.

How would Vrudny, Valentine, Gromacki and Estenson have voted? They all said they would have supported the LGA cuts to help balance the state budget.

Estenson works for Rep. Morrie Lanning, the former Moorhead mayor, he said. Moorhead and Minneapolis had similar percentage cuts, and Lanning supported them.

Estenson said local governments could best decide how to fund local services, such as street work and garbage pickup. The others at the table agreed.

Valentine said she expected to vote opposite the Republican caucus at times. "When I first started running, the first piece of advice I got from Speaker [Steve] Sviggum was, 'You are going to differ with the caucus sooner or later. That's OK. Be an individual first and a candidate/party person second.'"

Winning issues

How does a Republican make a case in heavily Democratic areas?

Estenson said he is running on small government, lower taxes. "I feel strongly about social issues, but they don't play very well in my district," he said.

He repeatedly throws out the statistic that the typical family of four in his district -- making $88,500 a year -- pays more than $20,000 a year in taxes, which he calls shocking.

(The Minnesota Department of Revenue provided the following estimate for a married, two-wage-earning couple earning $88,500, filing jointly and itemizing: Federal income tax; $6,075, Social Security tax, $5,425; state income tax, $3,900; property tax, $2,600; sales tax, $2,600; and other, $1,400 -- a catchall for everything from business taxes passed on to households to cigarette tax and vehicle registration. That adds up to $22,000.)

Valentine agreed lowering taxes is a winning issue. Yet she spoke most passionately about her work at St. Joseph's Home for Children, 1121 E. 46th St., and how it shaped her get-tougher-on-crime agenda. "We see 1,800-2,000 children a year in Hennepin County alone dealing with issues of abuse and neglect," she said. "Stiffer crime penalties? I have to say, 'Yes, of course.'"

Gromacki said the state could do more on crime prevention, too, such as supporting the conceal-and-carry gun law. "You don't have to carry a gun," he said. "The fact that a criminal thinks you might be carrying a gun. I think that has an effect on things."

Gromacki said property owners' rights and renters' rights are also Republican winning issues. For instance, he supported overturning city carriage-house laws that prohibit renting out rooms, he said.

"To be restricted from that right reduces the amount of affordable housing," he said, adding the homeowner "paid for the property, he should have that right."

Vrudny said working as a nurse shaped her political ideas, but added she is still forming her positions. "If we would allow more for-profit insurance into the state, it would increase competition for the healthcare dollar," she said, lowering premiums.

(State law requires health maintenance organizations to be nonprofits, a state Health Department official said. For-profit insurance companies may offer traditional indemnity policies.)

Vrudny also raised concerns about: The 2 percent provider tax the state imposes to help fund Minnesota Care, (a health insurance subsidy program); insurance companies getting paid more than healthcare providers; and state insurance coverage mandates that increase premium costs.

Smoking bans, gay marriage

All four candidates spoke of growing up in loving, Christian homes. Of the four, Gromacki made the strongest rips on the Democratic Party, saying it appealed to people's covetous nature and created fear that people could not support themselves without government programs.

Gromacki juxtaposed two hot-button issues, one Minneapolis-specific.

"The government is pretty intrusive in people's lives in the inner city," Gromacki said. "You can go all the way across the board -- telling people it is OK -- dictating it's OK -- for gays to marry, but it is not OK to smoke a cigarette in a bar."

Gromacki said as a state representative, he would work to repeal the Minneapolis smoking ban because it impedes business owners' rights. He stopped short of calling smoking in bars a civil rights issue, but he made a civil rights analogy, making reference to Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from eating in certain restaurants.

Estenson, Valentine and Vrudny both said they opposed the city's smoking ban, but because they believe in local control, they would not work to overturn it if elected.

Vrudny said she also supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage. Estenson and Valentine said they would oppose changing the constitution.

Valentine said she has gay and lesbian friends and neighbors and " I would be a hypocrite if I said something different."

Estenson said he personally wanted marriage defined as a union between a man and a woman, but a constitutional amendment is "getting carried away" and could trigger multiple amendment proposals.

Coates contest

Frederick Coates, the GOP challenger to Rep. Karen Clark, could not attend the discussion because of a work conflict. His district includes Stevens Square/Loring Heights and most of Whittier.

The race is not an issue of credentials, said Coates, a supervisor at Minnesota Teen Challenge, 1619 Portland Ave. He said he approached the race "as a citizen who is interested in putting forth what I consider to be a healthy set of beliefs and ideals."

He said his key issues are supporting pro-life issues, a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman and reining in the courts when they try to create laws.

Coates also said it was taking too long for new immigrants to become citizens (a federal, not a state issue).

"It will have an effect on their [immigrants'] ability to vote and make their voice heard," he said. "The state and federal government needs to be very, very mindful of the huge increase of the Hispanic population in this state and in this country."

Coates had no specific plans on how to improve the system, other than to say the citizenship process was too laborious.

Next issue: a DFL roundtable, and a profile of Southwest's lone Independence Party House candidate.