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Sixth district race heats up
Minnesota's 6th Congressional district looks very little like it did one year ago. For the past five elections, the 6th has consisted of Anoka, Washington and Dakota counties. But redistricting this year took Dakota County out of the district and expanded it north to Stearns County. In fact, the largest city in the district is not in the Twin Cities metro. It's St. Cloud.

The Independence Party candidate calls St. Cloud home, and the Democrat and Republican candidates say they're glad to be getting to know the new northern part of the district. But some local pundits say the 6th District race is lacking both interest and substance in central Minnesota.

On a recent night DFL candidate Janet Robert makes the rounds in the musty village hall in Rice, before a forum put on by the local sportsmen's association. The small town north of St. Cloud is on the far northern edge of the 6th District. Robert is a lawyer in private practice in Stillwater, in the far southern corner of the 6th.

The newspaper up here, the St. Cloud Times, gives readers a running tally of how many times each candidate has come to the area for public events like this. At the moment, Robert has the lead.

"It shows that I'm really committed to the entire district," Robert said, "and that means I'm up here in St. Cloud at least one day a week. There are six counties, why not spend on of those seven days up here in Stearns and Benton counties getting to know the area better?"

Robert's opponents are 2nd District incumbent Republican Mark Kennedy and the Independence Party's Dan Becker. Because of this year's redrawing of the political boundaries, Kennedy, who currently represents the 2nd district, now lives in the 6th.

Robert thinks the frequent trips are helping her in this new part of the district.

"My name recognition is very high," she said. "When I leave a message now, people call and they say, 'is this THE Janet Robert?' When I go in places, they say 'Hi, Janet,' and I'm thinking, did they know I was coming? And the wonderful thing is, more people are excited about coming up to me and talking about their concerns."

A barrage of television ads also deserves some of the credit for Robert's increased profile. So far Robert and Kennedy have spent much of their money pummeling each other over the airwaves for alleged corporate indiscretions. Robert accuses Kennedy of shady bookkeeping during his days as an executive with Eden Prairie-based Department 56; Kennedy claims Robert's family company cheated employee shareholders.

Randy Krebs is tracking the race as the opinion page editor for the St. Cloud Times. While the single-minded ads may be awakening people to the race, Krebs says the net result for voters here may be negative. "I haven't seen a whole lot of broad efforts that target central Minnesota issues specifically, from any of the candidates," Krebs said. "(Topics like) transportation, traffic, growth."

St. Cloud State University political science professor Stephen Frank agrees. Considering both the district and the candidates are brand new to voters here, Frank is worried the ads make a bad first impression. "If I'm somebody who doesn't know them, and I'm seeing slam ad after slam ad, I'm getting turned off real quick," Frank said.

Frank says there are interesting local and statewide races this year . But the 6th District is not emerging as one of them.

"I'm in a political science department of 12 people, and I don't hear a lot of people talking," he said. "When I hear political scientists, political junkies, talking about Coleman versus Wellstone, and Pawlenty versus Moe versus Penny, and not talking about this race, I'm saying, 'When junkies aren't talking about this, what's going on here?'"

The candidates will attempt to capture the public imagination when they meet this month for their first debates. Mark Kennedy looks forward to the chance.

"We have a scheduling conflict in that we're in Washington quite often and have very little time to be with the voters," Kennedy said. "But whenever we can have those on our schedule we always look forward to the opportunity to talk about issues."

Kennedy spoke from his office in Washington. With Congress in session, he has not been able to visit as often as the other candidates. But he points out he grew up in central Minnesota and went to school at St. John's University, just west of St. Cloud. He says since redistricting he has tried to get to the area every weekend.

Transportation and traffic are big issues here; like his opponents Kennedy pledges his support for better roads and the Northstar Commuter Rail Line from St. Cloud to Minneapolis. But Kennedy says a term in Congress gives him the experience to bring the money home.

"If a transit project is approved at the state level, for me the decision is, do I want to let the money from the transit bucket of money go to Mississippi or Minnesota?" Kennedy said. "I have supported the Northstar corridor in the past and will in the future."

Janet Robert and Dan Becker also say they know what matters here, and they're ready to talk about it: Managing growth and sprawl, money to expand the airport, bringing jobs that actually draw workers from the Twin Cities. Candidates say they're worried about the dwindling number of small farms. The area is also home to a major hospital and the state's second largest university, making health care and education important issues here.

When talking about the St. Cloud area, all three candidates point out they are pro-life and pro-gun rights. Political Science Professor Stephen Frank thinks this emphasis is unsurprising, but it might actually be turning many voters off.

"Most politicians and a lot of media play into the stereotypes of the St. Cloud area," Frank said. "The stereotype, and I'm exaggerating here just a bit, is that we're all Catholic, we're all anti-abortion, we're all Republican, we're all conservative. And that's not true. You can just look when you see a McDonald's popping up, this is a growing area...and we're becoming much more diverse in terms of religion and people and what have you."

For the Independence Party candidate, the debates this month will be his first chance to stand on equal footing with his two competitors. For now Dan Becker's campaign funds have bought him some radio ads. He does his best to hit meetings around the district while still working his day job as a high school drug and alcohol counselor.

Governor Ventura had a good showing in St. Cloud and other parts of the 6th District when he ran as a third party candidate in 1998. Talking before he heads into a St. Cloud transportation forum, Becker says for voters here there should be little doubt who is most in touch with the area.

"I would be the best advocate for the needs, the federal needs, for the St. Cloud area, just because I've lived here all my life and I know what they are," Becker said. "I know who the people are, and people know who I am. My dad's from around here, and I was born at the St. Cloud hospital."

As a drug counselor, Becker emphasizes his first-hand knowledge of the methamphetamine problem in central Minnesota. When it comes to transportation, he brings a passion that could only come from years spent fighting St. Cloud traffic.

"I think I know a lot more about the congestion in the St. Cloud area and what are the needs in terms of transportation," Becker said. "I think the other candidates probably just have read a few article about it and are kind of knowledgeable about it. But I really know."

The candidates are all hoping they'll find the formula to reach voters in this suburban-outstate district. Professor Stephen Frank thinks they'll still be searching long after election day. Frank's prediction: It may take two full election cycles before anyone really understands what makes the new 6th District tick.

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