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In Rochester, national talking points edge closer to local elections

ROCHESTER – A military Humvee displaying mayoral candidate signs. Fears of globalism. Accusations that Rochester Library somehow promotes pedophilia.

National political talking points and rancor have made their way to Minnesota’s third-largest city as residents prepare to vote in the upcoming election. Some of the city’s local races are steeped in the kind of polarization typically seen in federal countryside.

“I’ve been in public service long enough to know that there are people who take advantage of a political climate,” Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said. “It goes with the territory. I will also say that I served eight years on the school board, 10 years in the Legislative Assembly and I have never seen anything so horrific as the treatment in recent years.”

In the past, Rochester largely mirrored southern Minnesota — a politically purple market town in the southeastern part of the state that blended rural and urban outlooks.

But the region has grown rapidly over the past decade and has voted more progressive with each election cycle. Rochester represents three-quarters of the population of Olmsted County, which President Joe Biden won in 2020 by 11 points. Former President Barack Obama won the county by 3 percentage points in 2012.

Rochester has sent Democrats and Republicans to the Minnesota House and Senate in recent years, but this year’s redistricting maps heavily favor DFL candidates, meaning there’s a good chance a Tory is not representing Rochester in the Legislative Assembly next year.

“Rochester is bluer than it used to be, and the new lines are probably going to be positives because they’ve shrunk the districts,” said Jim Hepworth, former DFL 1st Congressional District Caucus Chairman.

Change of values

For some candidates, changes to Rochester in recent years — from the infusion of money from Destination Medical Center to an influx of new apartment buildings to large-scale policy changes to Rochester’s public schools — have produced more negative results than benefits for the community.

“We believe in free speech, but we don’t believe in indoctrination,” John Whelan, who is running for one of four vacant seats on the Rochester Public Schools Board, told a forum of the candidates on September 29 during a question about a recent push to ban LGBTQ books in schools.

Whelan, Rae Parker, Elena Niehoff and Kimberly Rishav are running as a conservative slate that would form a majority on the board if elected. They face three incumbents – Julie Workman, Cathy Nathan and Jean Marvin – as well as newcomer Justin Cook, who has been endorsed by outgoing board member Melissa Amundsen.

The four candidates calling themselves 4 Your Children have been endorsed by the conservative Minnesota Parent Alliance. They hope to address school issues by introducing tougher consequences and discipline for students and moving away from diversity efforts.

They have repeatedly publicly opposed diversity and equity efforts in the district. Whelan said in the same forum that the board’s 2021 diversity statement was a “horrendous statement” that required students “to think a certain way and believe a certain way.”

All four candidates declined interview requests.

Cook, who is running against Parker, said the district’s efforts to welcome students from all backgrounds is a necessary part of improving classroom learning.

“They need to be validated for who they authentically are,” he said. “And that’s true for all students. Messages that go against that idea are totally unproductive and often come from some sort of national campaign. They just don’t belong in Rochester.”

Cook, who ran for the school board in 2018, said he wants to focus on improving reading skills in the district and hopes to let residents know about a possible referendum on the levies the district plans to take. continue in 2023. He is considered a progressive candidate in the race, although he said he does not identify with a political party.

“To the extent that there is a political orientation that people attach to me, that says a lot more about my opposition than about me,” he said.

What’s in store

In the nonpartisan mayoral race, Norton is seeking a second term against first-time Conservative challenger Britt Noser, a city landlord. Rochester has a weak and strong council system, which means its mayor can champion policies but ultimately doesn’t vote on them.

Yet his critics — often conservative — take issue with Norton on everything from city spending and its push for renewable energy to the city’s involvement with Bloomberg Philanthropies, which awarded Rochester $1 million earlier this year to spur efforts to attract more women of color to construction work.

They also question a lack of transparency about the trips she has made in her official capacity as mayor to other cities to meet with civic and political figures such as billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage recently reminded people speaking at a Rochester City Council meeting to follow guidelines during public comment periods after repeated meetings where people criticized opinions mayor’s policies – and a meeting after commentators claimed signage at the Rochester Public Library contained symbols used to encourage pedophiles to groom children.

Noser said he hears from residents who are concerned that Norton is infusing Rochester with very progressive policies to turn the community into another large-scale metropolitan area.

“I think this inflection point is losing our sovereignty, losing our identity,” Noser said. “Do we want to become just another cookie-cutter town?”

If elected, Noser said he would push for more public safety resources and step up police actions and investigations. He also plans to eliminate what he calls partisan agendas, including equity measures that use race as a metric.

Norton said she plans to focus on sustainability and housing if re-elected, as well as improving economic development in the future.

While the two agree on core issues — the city should spend taxpayers’ money cautiously and housing issues should be a priority over the next few years — Noser hopes voters see the election as a chance. to prevent Rochester from drastically changing and losing its sense of community.

“People are faced with a real choice here,” he said.

While Norton acknowledges how politicized the mayoral race has become, she dismissed the idea that Rochester is facing some sort of turning point. She pointed out that she and other incumbents won their primary elections by wide margins, which could happen again on Nov. 8.

“I don’t agree that there is a headwind,” she said. “I think the primary showed us that’s not the case, that this community wants to stay on the path of common sense, pragmatism, doing what’s best for the people that it’s committed to.”

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