FAIRMONT - State Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, faces a challenger on Nov. 6 in District 23A.
Kevin Labenz, a 2000 graduate of Martin County West, is running as a Democrat, hoping to unseat an opponent who has served nine terms over the past 17 years.
Labenz says the time is right for a change in leadership, evidenced by gridlock that spurred the nation's longest state government shutdown last year.
Calling himself moderate, Labenz believes his experience living abroad in Japan, growing up on a pork farm and graduating from Hamline University with a degree in political science allows him to see the issues from a fresh perspective - regardless of political affiliation.
"As a representative, if you don't anger people in both parties, you aren't doing your job," he said. "Neither party has all the answers."
Labenz believes the big issues are economic development, education - particularly early childhood - and export markets.
"Economic development is a big thing," he said. "It goes hand in hand with strong community."
By advocating for southern Minnesota in St. Paul, Labenz believes he can inspire companies to consider moving here - or staying here - and thereby increase tax revenue from businesses.
"The government is not going to solve all our problems, nor should it," he said. "But having people up there talking to people about how great it is here ... why they should move their business here, that is part of being an advocate."
He also believes early childhood education - specifically all-day kindergarten - should be a priority for the state.
Since the state only funds half-day kindergarten, schools that offer full days are putting up the other half of the funding - something Labenz doesn't think is fair to lower-income and rural schools.
As far as exports of soybeans and pork, Labenz believes his experience in Asia - having lived in Japan for five years and traveled extensively in the region - will help him sell southern Minnesota products on a global scale.
"We need to look at the rise of Asia not as competitors, but as customers," he said.
In his campaign, the biggest challenge Labenz said he has encountered does not involve issues at all: It has to do with his age.
"I look younger than I am," he said, emphasizing that he is 30 years old and has been working in politics since high school.
As for the incumbent:?Gunther says he is looking for another term simply because he likes what he does, and believes he does it well.
"I enjoy the job," he said. "I like serving people, helping people navigate their way through state government."
The issues he is hearing about when he talks with his constituents are mainly jobs and school funding. He believes the Legislature is making progress on both.
He said he unemployment in outstate Minnesota is all over the board, with some areas - such as Jackson - having a lot of job openings.
He is working on legislation, called PROFIT, that would make it easier for local governments to encourage businesses in their communities.
He said PROFIT would provide tax abatement to companies looking to expand and thereby put more Minnesotans to work.
Under the program, in exchange for receiving a refund of property, sales and motor vehicle taxes, a company must create at least 10 new full-time jobs, paying at least $35,000 in the metro area or $27,000 in rural Minnesota.
A business also would have to invest at least $500,000 in a construction project that includes a new, expanded or remodeled facility within two years of signing an agreement.
Gunther said there was not enough money last session to fund the program, but he sees it passing this time.
It is an example of how he wants to reinvigorate rural Minnesota to inspire young people to stay and make a home here.
He said that during the past year he has seen the state go from a $5.4 billion deficit to a $1.4 billion surplus, as well as enjoy a 1.7 percent drop in unemployment.
He says criticism that the surplus is an accounting trick because the state still owes money to the schools is unfounded, because schools are getting $50 per pupil to pay interest on the funding shift while it costs them only $8 to $10 per student. In addition, any money the state gets in surplus is required to be used to pay back what it owes.
Looking forward, Gunther is excited about non-ferrous mining on school trust lands in northern Minnesota, something he said could mean more funding for schools if it pans out.
"Someday, schools will get that money," he said, "and it will be substantial."
Gunther was an owner of the former Gunther's Foods of Fairmont, a business he and his siblings purchased from their father.