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Senate Q&A: Karla Bigham and Denny McNamara

Voters will choose between two candidates in a special election for Minnesota Senate District 54, which covers Washington and Dakota county communities. Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham, a former member of the House of Representatives, with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, will appear on the Feb. 12 ballot against Republican opponent Denny McNamara, also a former long-time member of the House of Representatives for District 54B. Bigham was a representative from 2006 to 2010 and has been on the county board since 2014. She was also formerly a Cottage Grove City Council member.

McNamara was in the House for 14 years, beginning in 2002. He retired last year and was also the chairman of the House environment and natural resources committee.

Hastings Libertarian candidate Emily Mellingen did not respond to requests to fill out the questionnaire.

Karla Bigham

Age: 38

Address: P.O. Box 18, Cottage Grove, MN 55016

Occupation: Washington County commissioner

Education: Master's in public affairs from the University of Minnesota, bachelor's as a paralegal from Winona State University, and a Park High diploma

Family: Born and raised in south Washington County, my home includes my wonderful husband, John, and our two rescue dogs, Schatize and Rizzo.

Civic involvement: Former state representative, Cottage Grove City Council member, Cottage Grove Public Safety Health and Welfare Commission member, Environmental Commission member and Charter Commission member. John and I attend All Saints Lutheran Church.

Can you do anything to reduce the partisan nature of state government? Why or why not?

We need to establish shared values, and then approach the problems facing us with civility, respect, and transparency. I have a proven track record of working across the aisle on important issues facing our communities. In fact, I've worked with my opponent on several issues over the years. Just like anyone else, when political leaders come together, talk about our differences, and are truly committed to finding common ground, we can achieve great things together. I know it's possible because I've done it.

Since transportation is one of the suburbs' most important issues, what changes are needed in spending and policy related to that?

Against long odds 10 years ago, Democrats and Republicans overrode former Governor (Tim) Pawlenty's veto of the transportation funding bill after the 35W Bridge collapsed. That legislation contained funding to replace the old Hastings Bridge, which was structurally worse off than the 35W Bridge. I voted for the legislation, and my opponent voted against the legislation. He chose loyalty to the Republican Party over the community of Hastings.

I frequently ponder that vote these days on the Washington County Board, particularly because the legislature most recently passed just a short-term transportation funding bill that would resurface only seven of Washington County's 274 miles of roads. Roads don't fix themselves. It takes money, foresight, and careful budgeting to prevent history from repeating itself. On the Washington County Board, we got creative and came together to keep our long-term road problems from degrading further, with the limited resources we were given. I'm ready to get creative again, this time in the Senate, to build a comprehensive, long-term plan to address Minnesota's transportation needs—that doesn't take funding away from our care for seniors, our schools, or veterans services.

The eastern suburbs' transportation needs are chronically overlooked compared to our counterparts to the west. Access to the same reliable transportation options as the rest of the metro will keep our roads and bridges from degrading more quickly. I will fight for our fair share of funding and work to get us bidirectional bus service (including Metro Mobility service). Our employers in the east metro are asking for reliable bus service for their employees to get to and from work.

How would you approach the ongoing perfluorochemical contamination issues from the Senate? Do you believe the state should seek more money from 3M to deal with pollution?

Our residents deserve answers to this issue. As your state representative, I passed legislation to establish a health base value for PFC and legislation to establish a biomonitoring program related to health effects of PFC containments. The state should hold the known polluter responsible, because our residents should not be saddled with the bill to clean up the contamination in our water and soil.

Should there be changes at the Capitol to mitigate future sexual misconduct?

It is incumbent upon all of us to be part of the solution. I want to be part of the changing of the culture at the Capitol. We need to hold our elected officials to a higher standard. I support a public task force to review and develop recommendations to protect the public, staff, lobbyists, and Legislators. The changes to the process need to be transparent, allow for due process, outline real repercussions for inappropriate behavior, and develop protections for victims bravely coming forward. Everyone has a right to be respected in their workplace. I will not let sexual harassment go unchallenged.

What changes should be made to Minnesota's healthcare programs?

In the most affluent time in our country's history, affordable and accessible healthcare should not be a privilege — it should be a right. Last year, $900 million of the surplus taxpayer money was paid out to insurance companies to try to drive down healthcare costs without a guarantee of lowering insurance premiums. Administration officials and Republican legislators described it as a temporary fix.

A bipartisan group of leaders created MinnesotaCare to offer affordable health insurance to working Minnesotans. I support the MinnesotaCare Buy-In proposal, without additional subsidy, that would keep the program solvent while creating marketplace competition and offering affordable comprehensive insurance. We just don't have another $900 million to throw at insurance companies in two years.

Pharmaceutical companies are responsible for a great deal of our healthcare costs. They are also responsible for the escalating opioid epidemic. Opioid overdoses continue to increase in our communities. As Washington County Commissioner, I proudly supported commencing a lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers to hold them accountable for their contribution to this crisis, and supported expanding our pharmaceutical drugs recycling program. Additionally, we need more access to mental health and chemical health programing for Minnesotans. As your next State Senator, I will make healthcare a top priority for our residents.

Denny McNamara

Age: 65

Address: 1368 Featherstone Court, Hastings

Occupation: Represented the district for seven terms as State Representative. Ran a successful small landscape contracting business in Hastings with my business partner for 30 years.

Education: Bachelor of Science from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Business.

Family: Lifelong Hastings resident. Married to my wife Lynne for 42 years and we are proud parents of two adult married boys and five grandchildren, all living in Hastings.

Civic involvement: Past president of the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce, served for 12 years on the Hastings Natural Resources and Recreation Commission, and past president of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association. Youth baseball coach for 12 years.

Can you do anything to reduce the partisan nature of state government? Why or why not?

While serving in the Minnesota House, I actually did reduce the partisan nature of state government. I was appointed to serve on more joint House-Senate conference committees by a Democratic Speaker of the House than any other caucus colleague. That speaks to my ability to work well with others and secure bipartisan solutions.

As former chairman of the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, I sat down with Governor Dayton and his administration and reached consensus on funding initiatives that better protect our land, air and waterways. I'm proud of my independent leadership and ability to get things done for our district, and am ready to do it again.

I also think we'd see less partisanship if more elected officials stopped accepting campaign contributions from powerful interest groups, something I've never done.

My opponent has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from lobbyists, PACs, and special interests over the years, so I know this is an area where we disagree. I have never taken one nickel from these folks because I don't want to owe them something. I just want to represent you in the Minnesota Senate to the best of my ability.

Since transportation is one of the suburbs' most important issues, what changes are needed in spending and policy related to that?

The Legislature approved a law last year that represents the largest investment in roads and bridges in a decade, putting billions toward the state's transportation needs over the next ten years. It proved that lawmakers can prioritize transportation without raising gas taxes or other fees.

Another way to allocate more funds to roads would be to fully (rather than partially) dedicate already-collected auto part sales tax revenue. Doing so would increase road funding by more than $400 million over the next three years alone. To me, that would make more sense than raising taxes by billions of dollars.

I also supported a move by Dakota and Washington counties that keeps more of our transportation dollars at home. They dissolved the Counties Transit Improvement Board — included in the 2008 transportation bill — which took more than $120 million from us and sent it to Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

My opponent is proud of her vote for this legislation and has criticized me for not supporting it. I knew this bill was a loser for our district, not only because of the billions in tax and fee increases, but in the lost funding at the county level. We now know that with that $122 million we could have paid for the Hastings Bridge and had $30 million left over for local road projects.

It took nearly a decade, but our counties finally cleaned up the mess created by the state lawmakers who supported this legislation, and our money is finally being used locally — as it should be.

How would you approach the ongoing perfluorochemical contamination issues from the Senate? Do you believe the state should seek more money from 3M to deal with pollution?

There is no doubt 3M needs to pay more, and we should support our state's efforts to make sure 3M pays for any and all costs that it is responsible for.

In 2007 when I served in the House, I was the one who grilled 3M officials on this very topic in committee, asked the tough questions, and finally forced them to say on the record that they would pay more. Now it's time to hold them accountable.

Our residents have the right to expect drinkable water, and they should not have to hesitate before putting their glass underneath the faucet. 3M needs to right its wrong, and that starts with the company opening its checkbook.

Should there be changes at the Capitol to mitigate future sexual misconduct?

Absolutely. A task force on sexual harassment is a good first step.

We must treat all our fellow employees and colleagues with the utmost respect. There is no place for sexual harassment at the Capitol or at any workplace. People should not fear going to work, and we need to make it easier for folks to anonymously report wrongdoings so they feel more safe and protected.

What changes should be made to Minnesota's healthcare programs?

While good steps were taken last session, more needs to be done because health care remains unaffordable for too many families. We need solutions that boost competition and increase choices for consumers which will in turn drive down costs and improve access to clinics and doctors. We also need more transparency about prices and quality of care so consumers can make more informed decisions about their health care.

It's been my honor to meet with so many of you over the past few weeks to hear your concerns. I humbly ask you to vote Denny McNamara for State Senate on McNamara Monday, Feb. 12.

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