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Bagley native Melva Larson seeks 7th District U.S. House seat

Melva Larson of Bagley, a former Beltrami County commissioner, is seeking the Republican endorsement to run against U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District. She will be among three others seeking that nod at next weekend's GOP 7th Congressional District Convention at Moorhead. Pioneer Photo/ Brad Swenson

Rising federal deficits and a federal bureaucracy that stifles small business growth bothers Melva Larson, so she wants to do something about it.

The Bagley native -- and former Beltrami County commissioner -- is running for the 7th Congressional District seat now held by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Detroit Lakes.

"I care tremendously about my country," Larson said Saturday in an interview. While never serving in the military, Larson's dad is a World War II veteran, her brother spent a career in the U.S. Navy and her daughter and son-in-law served in Iraq.

"I haven't served in the military, but it certainly has been a part of my family history," she says. "For me, this is a way I can serve my country, to go to Washington and do what I can as a citizen to make a difference."

Larson is seeking the Republican endorsement to run against 20-year veteran Peterson, who is chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. Seventh District Republicans will issue their endorsement Saturday at their Moorhead convention in a field that includes Larson, Lee Byberg of Willmar, Dr. Karen Nelson of Spicer and Glen Menze of Starbuck.

Menze is the veteran, having faced Peterson in 2000 and 2008. In the latter election, Peterson won a 10th term with 72.2 percent of the vote.

"Collin represents himself as a conservative Democrat, and that's one of the reasons he's been able to retain his seat," said Larson, the former Melva Weir. "And on some issues, yes, he is. And I don't disagree with that - he's 'pro-life,' he supports Second Amendment rights, certainly he voted against the health care reform bill.

"But he still is a part of a group of people whose overall policies are not conservative," Larson added. "And his voting in the past year ... is 93 percent with the party that's not a conservative party."

Over a 20-year career, Peterson rose to chair the Agriculture Committee and supports farmers, she said. "But some of the subsidies that are in place do not allow some of the family farmers to qualify for. The people who are utilizing them are some of the larger agri-businesses. And if you look at his support base, that's a lot of it."

A broader question, she said, is why should the farm bill mostly include nutrition programs. Some 67 percent of farm bill spending goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps.

"Why does that sit in the agriculture bill?" she asks, adding that as an entitlement, it should be a matter for health and human services bills. "When people look at what we call welfare spending, there's a huge piece that's not even looked at because it's over in the Department of Agriculture. That's not the best place for that to be."

It would take a huge effort to make that change, she admits, but would be an issue if she served on the Agriculture Committee.

"Given the economy, subsidies are really not the path," Larson said., "We've become so regulatory in nature."

Small businesses must go through many hoops to get established and rules on governing workplace issues that many don't get off the ground, she said. "Those are things that we can change that aren't necessarily budget items for the government but will lighten up the load for businesses and farms -- and farms are businesses -- that will make it easier for them to spend time on things that are productive."

While agriculture is important to the sprawling 7th District, Larson said so is taxes as all district residents pay taxes. She'd like to work on tax code reform.

Tax system reform "would have a greater impact on the country as a whole," she said, adding that she's studied both fair tax and flat tax proposals but hasn't settled on a reform package. "If you have a tax that's consistent, it's easier to handle. It's easier to administrate; it's easier to deal with as far as reducing the bureaucracy needed to manage it."

The Internal Revenue Service is a huge bureaucracy, she said, fearing its role under the new health care reform packaged signed into law by President Barack Obama. It provides that all citizens have health insurance, with penalties enforced by the IRS for those who don't purchase insurance.

"Bureaucracies don't administer things very well," she said. "Now we've created a health care system that is enforced by the IRS. I don't want the IRS auditing my health care plan."

Larson works full-time in the jewelry and women's accessory department at J.C. Penney's in Bemidji, but will resign in late May should she win the GOP endorsement and would campaign full time. For now, she's got a couple of people working on her campaign, sending out brochures.

Larson tried to make as many Republican county conventions as she could, but the district lies between Baudette to just 40 miles north of the border with Iowa. She did send letters to all 7th District GOP delegates and alternates.

"What I really want to do is get out there and meet people and talk with them and hear from them," Larson said. "The government closest to the people is the best."

A Bagley native, Larson worked for the Beltrami County Sheriff's Department and was a county commissioner from 1987-90 before being tapped by GOP Gov. Arne Carlson as legislative relations director in St. Paul. Later, Carlson started a Minnesota office in Washington, D.C., and she moved there.

But with 50 states' governor's offices in D.C., she didn't feel she was making headway, so she joined a lobbying firm for American-Israeli relations. After a short stint, she spent 90 days in Israel to explore the country.

Returning home to Bagley for a time, she later returned to D.C. to work for the private retail sector as operations manager with Lord & Taylor, an upscale-luxury, specialty retail department store, in D.C. and in Virginia.

She later joined the non-profit Smithsonian Business Ventures, the revenue-raising arm of the Smithsonian Institution, for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum as operations manager and area store manager. She worked there for about six years.

Enjoying her short stay in Israel, she returned again, this time for a year in which she just "lived." "There are things you want to do in your life, and going back to Israel was mine." She lived in a tiny apartment in downtown Jerusalem.

She spent most of 2007 there before returning to Bagley to spend time with family. Single, Larson has three children and nine grandchildren. "It was time to come home, and I did."

Politics interested her, even when she wasn't involved in it, she said.

"As I watched what was going on out in Washington, I thought this is a point in my life where I would really like to be able to make a difference," Larson said. "I saw this (a congressional run) as an opportunity to step forward and, even understanding that Collin Peterson has been there for 20 years and he won last time with 72 percent, I decided I was going to move forward to do that."

All four candidates for endorsement said they would abide by Saturday's endorsement.