We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd 2020 elections. We recently talked with Rita Albrecht (DFL) running for MN Senate in District 5 against incumbent Senator Justin Eichorn (R) as well as Dennis Barsness from the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis party and Robyn Smith from the Legalize Cannabis Now party. Ballotpedia reports that Robyn Smith has suspended her campaign.
Senator Eichorn has not responded to our request for an interview. Check the bottom of this page for their Lakeland Public Television Debate Night video.
MinnPost has reported on how Marijuana parties are affecting state races. See our conversation with Peter Callaghan here.
It is our goal to give you information so you can go to the polls ready to vote.
ARE YOU REGISTERED TO VOTE? Find out who will be on your ballot at mnvotes.org.
*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: Rita Albrecht is currently the mayor of Bemidji. She's also a Democrat running for Senate District 5 in Minnesota. It's a seat currently held by Republican Justin Eichorn. District 5 includes cities like Bemidji and Grand Rapids, and it covers Itasca, Cass, and Beltrami counties. Mayor Albrecht, thanks for being with us today. So why are you running for this Senate seat?
(Rita Albrecht) A: Thanks for having me. I am running because I know that as a mayor of a small town or a rural community, what happens at the State Capitol affects our communities, our businesses and our workers, our families. And honestly, I think we need to have a strong voice for Senate District 5 and all of Northern Minnesota down at the capitol. We have had, for some time now, gridlock. A lot of important things have not been moving forward. So it makes sense that we should try and find common ground and move forward for the State of Minnesota. I want to be a strong voice that is representing the folks up here in northern Minnesota.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about the gridlock that has been happening. There's been special sessions each month. The intent has been for bonding or the supplemental budget, and also the governor extending the peacetime emergency. And it seems like it's gotten very political. So your thoughts on how you would be if you were there right now, and then how the state has handled this pandemic.
A: Well, as far as that bonding bill and infrastructure bill, we had the session in 2019 and 2020, plus two special sessions...three now, maybe even, or is it four? Of course, there's been no bonding bill passed. I think, as Minnesotans, we pride ourselves on putting people to work to build and maintain our roads and infrastructure, and make sure that communities have the utility infrastructure they need. And we have projects that drive economic development in our region. So all of those, it makes sense to pass those. But I think maybe we've lost sight of some priorities. We've got a huge backlog of bonding projects across the state, not just northern Minnesota, but in particular, community infrastructure projects like water and wastewater treatment facilities. And the more we delay those projects, the more it costs every year. I think bonding is really a nonpartisan issue, and we need to come together to support that bonding bill and make sure we're maintaining Minnesota's assets, which are our assets. And also provide good jobs that come along with those bonding projects.
As far as COVID, that's been a challenging situation for our entire state and for our leadership as well. In the face of a pandemic we all feel vulnerable, but I think we need to recall our strengths and our connectedness and our determination as Minnesotans. When we take care of one another we can persevere through any crisis. Now's the time to pull together. I don't want to take the foot off the gas here, with trying to tamp down the virus. We just got our schools open, and kids are happy to back to school, and we want to make sure our businesses can stay open. So I hope that we can continue to follow guidance.
I'm in a group of mayors, about 15 of us from across the state: northern Minnesota, rural Minnesota, and metro. Every two weeks, we have [DEED] Commissioner Grove on, and he kind of gets the pulse from community mayors. We get a little insight from him, and I get the sense that the governor is ready to open that dial up again because, as you know, the hospitality industry has taken kind of a hit because they had to be closed. Then we got them open 50% inside, plus outside. But, as our weather changes, people are not going to want to be outside as much, or not comfortable doing that. And so I expect that we might have some changes to the capacity issues for restaurants. I do think that restaurants can get opened up a bit more, and I support that. We have to just continue to remember that as Minnesotans we take care of our neighbors, and I want to make sure our schools and businesses stay open, so everybody needs to continue to follow guidance.
Q: That is Rita Albright. She is running for Senate District 5 in this November's elections. What are two of the priorities that stand out to you in this senate district?
A: It's tough to narrow it down to two, but I'll just share that as I'm calling voters across the district - and we're not door knocking, so we're doing our best to reach voters by giving them a call and talking with them - I hear a couple of things in particular that folks are concerned about. And maybe it's because our schools have been sort of that ground zero with dealing with having to adjust to the pandemic, but folks really want to make sure our schools are funded equitably. So that schools in northern Minnesota have the same advantages - and our kids have the same great world-class education - that every other school district in the state has. So, equitably funding schools, and making sure our educators have the resources they need to provide good education for our students in our public schools.
And then healthcare continues to be an issue for small business owners. I have a friend here in Bemidji who keeps calling me once a month, saying, "You have to talk about healthcare," because the cost of healthcare for a small business owner is really tough, as well as families and individuals. Especially if their healthcare was coupled with their employment and they've lost employment or had reduced hours, they might've been negatively impacted. But I think, as Minnesotans, we know that healthcare is important to make sure we take care of our families. And we want to make sure that everybody has the ability to care for their family. So I'll be focusing on healthcare as well.
Q: There is a pipeline that runs through Senate District 5. This can be a really politically charged issue. How will you serve constituents? How are you handling this issue?
A: Well, thanks for that question. I'm someone who believes that we're not done using oil, and we continue to use oil for road building, and transportation, and national defense. And even though my priority in the Senate will be to help us move to a clean-energy future, I realize that right now the Line 3 that's in the ground needs to be replaced because it's old and it has some places where it's not functioning as well. And we want to make sure that we get that old Line 3 out of the ground. So, I support putting the pipeline in, Line 3, and I do that in part because, as I just mentioned, that oil...we're still using. And also Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the reservation are fully within Senate District 5. Leech Lake wants to have Line 3 taken out of the reservation land. I support that. They testified in favor of removing Line 3 at the PUC. I also agree that it is an old pipeline that needs to be decommissioned. I don't really believe Enbridge will decommission it without putting new pipeline in. So, that's why I support having a new pipeline.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. What are some of the priorities you are hearing when it comes to tribal government, and how you will work with them in the future?
A: I think all of us in Minnesota need to remember treaty rights and tribal rights and tribal sovereignty. I certainly understand that and support that because I worked at Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe for three years in their planning and development office, and I have made a lot of long time friends there. The band is supporting our campaign, and I appreciate that. So I know that what the band wants is good relationship with government, whether that's local government, county government, state government, or federal government. I think they want to be listened to. They want to be heard. They want to have their opinions respected. And and that's the kind of senator I'll be for Leech Lake.
Q: Before we go, this race for Senate District 5 is a little unique. There are some other races around the state that have other parties that are in them. So in this district, it's Democrat and Republican, but also a Legalize Cannabis Now candidate and a Grassroots Legalize Cannabis [candidate]. Some journalists have reported that they see this as a really important district, and that this kind of breaks up the voting, which splits up the voting, which could benefit Republicans. What's your take on that issue, and then also the bigger issue of marijuana in Minnesota?
A: I think that the opposition probably has concern because they know I'm a serious candidate with a good leadership background and experience and lots of connections across the district. And so they recognize they have to do everything they can to try and disrupt my campaign. So they're sending negative mailers and that kind of thing as well. As far as the cannabis candidates, I agree there was at least one who was recruited by the opposition. And another one that is somewhat like them. We talked on the phone and had a good conversation, but a perennial candidate, you might say in some ways.
But as far as marijuana and cannabis, no one wants anyone to suffer. If there's a way to relieve pain, cannabis can be that solution for some. So right now our medical cannabis laws, for example, they don't provide access to veterans who can't access medical cannabis through the VA. But I've talked to lots of vets who say that is something that could help them. Also I think statistics show that disproportionately a higher number of infractions for cannabis and small possessions are of those among minorities. So I think Minnesotans want that freedom and respect to make responsible decisions about cannabis use themselves. So I'm wanting to create a responsible regulatory framework. Especially as a mayor, we've talked about this at the city because we do provide permits or licenses to sell tobacco products, for example. So we want to make sure that we understand what's the role of city and county government, and how does that affect our licensing. Also, employers want to know what is it that we have to know about anybody who is driving a vehicle for us, for example. And that's true for city and county too, because we have garbage truck haulers and street guys and gals. And we want to make sure that the framework that we have in place works for employers for our communities and also for law enforcement, because we want to make sure that they're able to do their jobs if this is something that we approve in Minnesota.
Q: That's Bemidji mayor Rita Albrecht. She is a Democrat running for Senate District 5. You can find more information at ritaforsenate.com. Thanks so much for your time.
A: Thank you for having me.