Veteran legislators ready, willing to serve new Senate District 9
Democrat Al Doty and Republican Paul Gazelka are not new to the legislative arena; both have served in the former Senate District 12.
Doty served as two-term state representative from 2007 – 2010 in House District 12B, and Gazelka is the current state senator for District 12. Gazelka also served as a state representative for the Brainerd area, from 2005 – 2006.
After redistricting, Morrison County, once part of Senate District 12, finds itself part of the new Senate District 9, which is made up of just more than 79,000 people and includes Todd County and parts of Cass and Wadena counties.
Doty is a 40-year resident of Morrison County, and for the last 20 years, has lived in Royalton, with his wife, Donna.
In April, Gazelka moved to Fairview Township in Cass County, where he lives with his wife, Maralee, and the youngest of their five children.
Both men know first-hand the sacrifices an outstate legislator makes when being elected to work for constituents in St. Paul.
“If you don’t have a loving wife at home who also has concerns for these people, you better not be doing this,” said Doty.
“It’s an important part of the decision (to run),” he said.
Doty, a teacher who retired after 30 years in the Pierz School District, said it’s a good time in his life to serve District 9.
“This in-between time after the kids are gone and before 30 years from now, if I ever get old and feeble. It’s a good time to serve the people I live with here,” he said.
Gazelka said he and his family understand the sacrifices that go with winning the election as well.
“My wife and I have an 11-year-old at home,” said Gazelka. “We actually rent a place in the cities, so we can stay together. That, frankly, is a sacrifice for my daughter, who has to adjust to two schools.”
For his wife, he said, “In choosing to be together, she’s away from friends and everything people like about being up here.”
He also juggles his insurance business in Baxter with being the kind of legislator he wants to be.
At the same time, legislators feel as though it is a privilege to serve in that capacity.
“I know that I can help the area and help our state, so I consider it a great honor,” he said.
Doty said his desire to serve comes from watching friends and neighbors feel the brunt of decisions at the state level.
“I am a small-town, middle class, Minnesota boy and I have watched small towns and the middle class get beaten up for two years, and that should not be happening,” he said.
“I worked very hard when I was in office to go the other direction from that; my friends and my neighbors deserve better,” he said.
On the road during the campaign, Gazelka heard concerns centered on getting more jobs into the area and social values, such as his pro-life stance and his views on the marriage amendment.
Even though he is the current senator of District 12, in many portions of the new District 9, he had to introduce himself and since mid-summer put on 20,000 miles.
“I’ve met a ton of great people. Each town has their own community pride and wants to make their town the best it can be. I saw that from town to town,” he said. “People are very passionate about living outstate and brag about their communities. And rightly so.”
Doty found, too, that people were concerned with property taxes because it is a primarily rural district, as well as the school shift and paying that back, he said.
“And the fact that the politics are so partisan now — the shutdown, the whole last two years,” he said had people concerned. “The bitterness and unwillingness to compromise has been the hallmark of this past session.”
Doty knows the areas of the district well, he said, because as a senior advocate, he covered most of Todd County and did some speaking into Wadena County in that position as well.
“My mom grew up in Perham; my great-grandfather came to Todd County after the Civil War and settled there. We know that area and have for a long time,” he said.
It’s been a memorable campaign for both candidates; some experiences and conversations stood out.
One incident sticks out for Doty instantly.
While door-knocking in Staples, a member of Doty’s team brought him over to talk to an older couple.
“They were literally making that choice that people talk about in campaign ads — being able to pay for prescription drugs or their food,” he said.
Because of his past experience as a senior advocate and as a legislator, Doty knew of some programs that were available to help them.
“I was able to give them some good news,” he said. “We sometimes, those of us in the business, think that it’s terrible that people don’t understand the system, but really, if the system is working right, it should be doing things kind of in the background.”
Until something goes wrong, people don’t wonder about the system, he said. “Government is always there, but you don’t pay attention to it until you need it,” he said.
Door-knocking in Wadena, where a tornado devastated the area in 2010, had an impact on Gazelka.
“Just seeing, not even just a few years later, many, many lots that once had a house, still had no house; totally gone,” he said.
“Talking with the neighbors about, ‘There was a house here, here, here,’ stories about being in the tornado. Being right there, that’s where you recognize a major role of government to help a community get back on its feet,” said Gazelka.
“So even though I wasn’t their senator last year, I was still working on issues to help them get through that,” he said.
“When you see a tragedy and walk the land, that probably left the deepest impression about where government has a role,” said Gazelka.
“The feeling about what can happen to a community and how communities pull together, and how state government can help,” he said.
Unlike the House District 9B campaign, this campaign has had its share of attacks from both sides.
Given an opportunity to dispel half-truths or negative attacks, Gazelka said the attack on his pro-life rating was the worst.
“Probably because I’m so passionate about it,” he said. “That I’m somehow not pro-life, even though I’ve been endorsed by MCCL. It hurts because it has a high value for me.”
One year, Gazelka did receive a 93 percent rating on votes from MCCL, instead of a 100 percent rating.
He explained that pro-life legislators who had 100 percent voting records for MCCL, voted for a “plane Jane” higher education bill, with no pro-life legislation included.
“The governor had vetoed all of our pro-life initiatives — seven in a two-year period, and he made it very plain that he would not accept anything. People who had never gotten a pro-life vote, somehow were pro-life,” said Gazelka.
“But if they had thought negatively of it, MCCL wouldn’t have asked me to carry their pro-life legislation this year, or endorsed me,” he said.
Gazelka said he also received a 100 percent rating from the Minnesota Family Council, which also ranks life, marriage and family issues.
As for Doty, “There are the old favorites,” he said, like his vote on the gas tax.
“This area, in fact, all of rural Minnesota, gets a tremendous amount more from the gas tax, than we are paying out in the gas tax,” he said. “In addition, I only agreed to vote for the gas tax, if we rebated to low income families, the amount that an average person drives and what they would be paying for the gas tax.”
At a time when it was found that Minnesota had 1,100 bridges that needed repair, including the I-35 bridge, that collapsed in 2007. “I did what we needed for Minnesota,” said Doty. “You listen to that testimony (I-35 victims), you know we have to do something; it’s too bad we have to have 13 people die before the political will is there. Sometimes taxes are good, they pay for things,” he said.
“I voted to raise taxes on incomes over a quarter million dollars and I also voted to put that money toward lowering property taxes especially in rural Minnesota,” he said. “We passed it and Pawlenty vetoed it.”
In campaign literature, that vote was called “job-killing tax increases” he said. “I’m favoring the tax on personal incomes and I have a pretty narrow definition of people I’m willing to raise taxes for. People in this district will be fine.”
Both candidates have a long list of experience, involvement and accomplishments to their credit and each is eager to serve District 9 residents in St. Paul.