We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd 2020 elections. We recently talked with Michelle Lee (DFL) running for MN Senate in District 11 against incumbent Senator Jason Rarick (R). You can hear our interview with Senator Rarick here.
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*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Michelle Lee. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: Michelle Lee is a Democrat running for Senate District 11. This district includes Carlton and Pine counties, and towns like Cloquet, Willow River, Moose Lake, Sandstone, and Hinckley. Michelle Lee is back with us on KAXE/KBXE. Is there another county in there? I was checking out the map.
(Michelle Lee) A: Let's see. Did you mention the little bit of St. Louis County?
Q: Oh no, I did not. It was difficult to see, but it is a very interesting district. We're glad to have you back and talk with you today about your campaign for office.
A: Right. And I'll tell you what...in the last year and a half I've traveled a lot of miles in this district, 2,700 square miles. It's a huge district. When you start comparing the size of the districts like, say, in the seven-county metro area, to those of greater Minnesota, the candidates who are running for senate and house beyond [the metro area], we have a lot of miles to cover. But it's okay. It's a lot of fun. And as long as our cars continue to run, we will make those miles.
Q: So why are you running for Senate District 11?
A: Well, my husband, Gary, and I have been married for 39 years. We built a home and raised a family in Moose Lake township, just outside Moose Lake. And our two paychecks allowed us to live that life. We had healthcare [facilities] very close. We had good quality public education for our child, and my concern is, nowadays, I don't think the next generation will have those opportunities unless we all come to the table and figure out what our priorities are, as far as our small towns and our rural communities. I have a saying that our towns in Senate District 11 - they're more than a pit-stop and a superhighway to something better. We deserve better. And that is going to take everyone to work toward that same common goal.
And what do I mean when I say we have to do better? That means fully funded schools. That means to make sure that our healthcare is accessible and affordable to all of the people in our rural district. And that means expansion of rural broadband to attract those people who have left our communities to get jobs in the seven-county metro who are now coming back home to set up their businesses in their living rooms, their bedrooms, and their basements. But if they don't have the tool of broadband, we're not going to help move the economy and grow the economy in our district. So I think it's really critical that we continue with the expansion of broadband. And the COVID pandemic has shown us how difficult it is to get our children online - and let alone our businesses online - with distance learning. So there are a lot of weak spots, not just in my district, but throughout greater Minnesota. A lot of people are at a disadvantage for the lack of broadband and high speed internet.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about the pandemic. That has become a political issue, especially in the state of Minnesota. Even with 49 governors across the nation still having executive powers, the president still has executive powers. What are your thoughts on how the state has handled the pandemic? And if you go to St. Paul as the next senator in District 11, how will you handle this discord that's happening?
A: COVID is not fake news. It's real. We have lost here in Minnesota - I just checked the numbers today - 1,927 people have died. We're losing lives and livelihoods as a result of this pandemic. I support our governor and the health departments and the scientists that are helping him make those decisions. I'm a journalist; I'm a former journalist. I'm not a scientist. I'm not a doctor. I have to rely on the experts, and I appreciate our governor and the people who help support him in that position to come up with smart ways of tackling a serious pandemic. And if that means that we wear masks, that we socially distance, and that we have to make sure our kids are safe in school, whether it's a hybrid learning situation or in classroom, then these are the things that we can do.
There's knowns and unknowns about COVID-19. But I do know if we don't get serious about preventing the spread, this is going to continue to grow and claim lives until a safe and effective vaccine is made available to everyone. So, this is the hand we're dealt. We have to be the adults in the room, and we have to do what we can not only to protect our families, but our friends and our neighbors. And if that means wearing a mask, so be it. I mean, that's my stance. I support our governor and believe that he deserves those emergency powers, because frankly we have seen what has happened with the state House and the state Senate, having split rule. We haven't even gotten a bonding bill passed. If there's going to have to be a split decision, a quick decision made in relationship to COVID-19, can that quick decision be made if the governor's emergency powers are taken away? I don't think so.
Q: We're talking with Michelle Lee today. She is running for Minnesota Senate, District 11. You talked about broadband and businesses and kind of the economics that are we are seeing right now as we live through this pandemic. One of the big issues that I'm hearing from most of the candidates has to do with childcare in our region. Why is this important and how can we work towards getting childcare?
A: Oh, daycare is critical. And, it has been since I gave birth 34 years ago in a rural area. I had to go back to work three weeks after giving birth. I had to literally go to a family daycare setting, and beg the woman to take in one more baby, because she was getting out of the baby business. She didn't want any babies. I sat on her front porch and in tears [said], "Please take my son." I had no other options because both my husband and I were working to keep a roof over our heads. So daycare was critical and we ended up having a wonderful daycare situation for our son, and we paid for it. It was very expensive, but that's what you do. You pay for daycare, so your child is in a safe environment. It's interesting.
During the pandemic, I toured the Little Bees daycare here in Barnum, and they had reduced hours and reduced staff, but they have provided daycare for the families who work in the prisons and the local hospitals. And we were chatting. And I said, "By the way, how much does it cost for daycare now, for a child for a week." And I believe she said something around $150, or $175. That was almost the same amount that we were paying 34 years ago. And we ask our daycare providers to be educated, [with] continuing education. They have to be very involved in safety. They have to have a safe environment for our children. And I think that we, as communities, have to do what we can to support those people who are watching our babies and watching our toddlers to ensure that they're going to be safe, they're going to be educated. And that when we go to work, we're not fearful that something's going to happen to our child. So I think supporting daycare is critical.
Now, as a new grandmother...my granddaughter is 16 months old. My son and daughter-in-law both work, and they really struggled to find a daycare situation up in the Duluth area during the pandemic. They have managed to find one, but they're traveling all the way to Hermantown from Duluth for daycare. When we talk about economic tools, and I always say a healthy and educated workforce is our most critical economic tool. But add in daycare. It's essential. Especially if we're asking moms and dads to leave their homes to support their families, we have to make sure our children are safe and they're cared for. And that's why it behooves all of us to ensure that our daycare program throughout the state of Minnesota is strong and well-funded
Q: Before we go..is the the Willow River, Minnesota Correctional Facility in your district?
A: Yes it is.
Q: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. You mentioned the backlog at the legislature with bonding. There's also a supplemental budget that wasn't passed, and there is the threat that Willow River and Togo [Correctional Facilities] will close. What does a place like that mean to your district, in terms of employment
A: It means a lot. That is 51 workers, just here in the Willow River area. Then we also have those jobs up in Togo. That's over a hundred families that are twisting in the wind right now, trying to figure out if they're going to have employment, if they're going to have to uproot their families. And when we first heard about the decision, and the supplemental bill was not taken up, it died in committee. It was not taken up, and that was a $17 million stop gap measure to keep these two camps open. This camp - I can speak about this camp and Willow River - it reduces the recidivism rate. Not only that, but those boots that stay at that camp have really been tremendous in their assistance to a variety of nonprofit groups in our area. They're learning skills. They're being re-educated. They go on to be productive people in our society. And the recidivism rate is reduced significantly. When we first heard the news - the threat of the closure - I worked with a group of local people here in Moose Lake and Willow River. And we came up with the idea of having a rally in Moose Lake, and we had the corrections commissioner come up, and we had a very COVID-careful program. Everyone distanced, wore masks, and we just showed our support for that camp. And I don't know if that's going to make a difference. I think that there should be some state and federal COVID fund the state can pry loose to help keep these camps open, because I think that they're essential programs. I don't think that they can be woven back into our prison system. I think freestanding camps - the CIP program, where they're not necessarily woven into the general population in our prison systems - I think that it would lose its magic, and it would lose its effectiveness. So I will do what I can, regardless of whether I become the next state senator of Senate District 11 or not. I'm going to be fighting that fight because I think it's critical we keep these camps open.
Q: That is Michelle Lee. She is running for Senate District 11. She's a Democrat. You can find more information at michellelee.org. Thanks for your time today.
A: Thank you.