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Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann announces Saturday he will run for the Minnesota House 4A seat as a Republican. He has served 10 years as mayor. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Lehmann to seek 4A seat as Republican

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Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann said Saturday he will seek the Minnesota House 4A seat held by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.

He formally announced his Republican bid to Cass County GOP delegates at their convention in Walker.

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"Right now, I don't know if we're being represented as well as we can because the people we have representing us in St. Paul from District 4 and District 4A have never been in a local elected position before, representing any of the constituents," Lehmann said in an interview.

Persell has been a town board and soil and water conservation district supervisor; Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, has not served in elected office prior to her election to the Senate.

"Having been mayor for 10 years and on the council six years before that, and seeing things that are going on, I just feel that we need to get down there and be a voice that has been in the trenches and has been working for the constituency for Bemidji and for our area," Lehmann, 52, said.

Lehmann said he wants to work on compromises, seeing the current Legislature embroiled with GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is not seeking a third term.

"When you see them battling it out down there, I don't know if people talk to one another," he said. "I'm pretty good about that, reaching out across both sides" of the political aisle. "I'm a good listener. I can listen to people and help them work through things.

"Frankly, with LGA cut the way it has been, and I know we have a Republican governor, I want to go down there and fight for that as well," Lehmann said.

Lehmann and Pawlenty have publicly sparred over LGA after the governor first used Bemidji as an example of raising property taxes nearly 20 percent when lost LGA didn't approach that level, accusing the city of overspending.

Lehmann will meet with Pawlenty Tuesday morning to discuss LGA, prior to the start of Bemidji Day at the Capitol. The city has been frugal, he said, while the city's non-taxable base has grown with city and county infrastructure improvements.

"With the tiff with the governor, I'm doing my job as mayor," Lehmann said. "He chose to use Bemidji as an example in his radio program, and I have a meeting with him Tuesday morning to talk about this, but I'm doing my job as mayor. That's what people elected me for, whether he's a Republican governor or a Democrat governor, it doesn't make any difference."

He says his job as mayor has no party boundaries, which should be a positive impact, "showing that I am going to fight for my constituency."

He did a research paper for a class at Bemidji State University on Local Government Aid, finding that it doesn't make any difference between Republicans or Democrats on who is likely to cut it.

"The economy drives how LGA is going to be looked at," he said. "I think we can develop a formula. 1971 had the Minnesota Miracle when they did funding for schools and created LGA. When you look back at that, it's still out there, we still have LGA but it's been adjusted how many different times over the last 10 years."

LGA has been a frequent target of Republican Pawlenty for unallotment to balance the state budget. Pawlenty, however, has taken a "no new taxes" stance over his eight years in office.

"I'm not going to make any commitment to 'no new taxes' or anything as part of my campaign, because we have to look at things in a logical way," Lehmann said. "We have to determine what is really the best way to do things down there in St. Paul. I'm not going to make any grand promises that I'm not going to do this or I'm not going to do that.

"I can tell you this - I will work very, very hard for my constituency in St. Paul," he added. "There are some issues I stand pat on, and one of them is the abortion issue."

Lehmann made it clear that he is anti-abortion, although he would allow abortion under extreme conditions, such as when the health of the mother is at risk.

"But I don't think abortion at all should ever be funded by government," he said.

He will run on his record as mayor of the city of Bemidji, of which he's quite proud of adding the Bemidji Regional Event Center as an economic development tool.

"I'm very proud of the fact that we got the event center going up," he said. "That's going to be a wonderful addition to our community. There will be a lot of people who will disagree with me, and time will tell. But I still believe that is going to spur a lot of economic development in the city of Bemidji as a result of it. That is the springboard onto our next real evolution in our community.

"I'm real proud of that," he added. "We worked hard in St. Paul while that was materializing. I was down there quite a bit, lobbying on the city's behalf to get the half-cent sales tax and the bonding bill."

Doing so, Lehmann said he's learned the intricacies of the work in St. Paul, "and I feel that I can go down there and do a good job, knowing the area and being involved in local government as I have been."

He labeled jobs and economic development as his campaign's key issue.

"The issues are obviously the economy and how to get a jumpstart," he said. "Private businesses are what can stimulate the economy much better than the government can stimulate the economy. Government needs to be brought back to the people.

"The people need to say this is what we really want," Lehmann added. "Government has gotten too big. When times have been very good, it's been easy to fund a lot of programs because there was money there to fund them."

Now, the money isn't there and programs have to be cut, he said. Government is to provide public safety, education and good roads, he said.

That means cutting back on education spending to provide the basics. It also means reprioritizing state spending.

"In many cases, we've gone way beyond that," he said. "We have parks and recreation by the city of Bemidji, and the health and wellbeing of your citizens works best a the local level."

Moving away from basic services, "it's a lot tougher to justify government involvement," he said. "The cultural things perhaps are not bad things, but should government be out there supporting those things? I'm not sure that's where the best money is best spent."

The state needs to support education to create a skilled workforce that then pays taxes, he said. "We need to focus heavily on creating a job environment in the state that is going to produce jobs, long-term jobs, good-paying jobs, and encourage people to complete their education."

Everybody has the opportunity for education, he said, but focus needs to be on the traditional reading, writing and math.

"Students and parents also need to invest in their education - not monetarily, but time-wise," Lehmann said.

State health care should go to the most vulnerable, he said, and welfare-to-work programs strengthened. "People who are physically able to work should be required to work."

Lehmann said the House 4A district is huge, from the eastern Iron Range to Bemidji.

"It's a very diverse district," he said. "Tourism is important to the entire area of the district. Environment is very important to the district. ... As far as reaching out to those who are disenchanted with either the Democrats or the Republicans, I'm going to be honest with them, I'm going to be straight-forward -- I am who I am and I work hard for my constituency as mayor and I will work hard for my constituency as representative."

Lehmann, a native of International Falls, and his wife, Bernie, have a grown son and daughter. Once a state Department of Transportation employee, Lehmann is now office manager for Northwest Technical College's Customized Services division.

He is a graduate of BSU in political science, and also a NW Tech graduate in auto service technology.

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