Suburban swing district in south metro could determine House majority

Former Rep. Roz Peterson, seen here campaigning before the pandemic, lost her seat in 2018 in the suburban blue wave. Courtesy photo.

In 2018, then-Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, was a well-known realtor who had served two terms in the House majority and had her name on some high-profile legislation. 

But suburban District 56B had become disgusted with President Donald Trump. “I didn’t see it coming until two weeks before the election and then it was like, ‘We gotta stop Trump,’” Peterson recalled.

Peterson is back on the ballot in a bid to reclaim the seat, while newcomer Kaela Berg of Burnsville hopes to keep it in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor column after Rep. Alice Mann declined to seek reelection after a single term.

Trump is on the ballot now, too, and Peterson is circumspect when asked how she thinks he’ll affect her race. She says a Democrat usually wins the top of the ticket in her district, and she doesn’t expect that to change.

“People have opinions,” she said, but she tries to talk more about state issues because they affect people more than what happens in D.C. 

She’s often right about that. Next year lawmakers will tackle a $4.7 billion budget deficit. 

And that’s just the beginning of the tough issues the Legislature will take up, including responding to the pandemic, helping the ailing economy and ensuring Minnesota’s most vulnerable students don’t fall farther behind.

The Legislature will also have to redraw legislative and congressional districts after receiving the results of the 2020 census, which is of particular interest to this district, situated in southern and east-central Burnsville and part of northern Lakeville, and tends to swing back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.

Berg said in the past two or three years, the district has changed, with an influx of East African and Latino immigrants that have added a “beautiful tapestry” and deserve more representation, she said.

Berg is a single mother of two sons who has worked multiple part-time jobs. She has worked as a flight attendant for 17 years, although her hours have been cut by the pandemic. She’s also been active in local Association of Flight Attendants and United Steelworkers unions and has worked for groups like the Sierra Club, Blue-Green Alliance and Minnesota Trade Coalition.

Kaela Berg, seen here campaigning, is a single mom with two sons. The DFL nominee for a suburban legislative seat, she has been an airline pilot and labor activist. Courtesy photo.

In recent years, Berg has often gone without health insurance, and she said affordable health care is a top priority. 

“My story is not particularly dire because I’m fairly healthy, but I do know that’s not the case for many working families,” Berg said.

Her sister is a double organ transplant and breast cancer survivor. “It’s only because she had access to reliable insurance that she’s even with us,” Berg said. 

Americans shouldn’t die because they’re poor and can’t afford health insurance, she said.

Peterson — who worked in the drug store business for 20 years and has been a real estate broker for the past 13 — also has been affected by a family medical crisis. 

In 2018 her brother-in-law died by suicide, and then his widow — Peterson’s sister — went into a mental hospital for seven months. Peterson said she learned firsthand about the court system, mental health system and MNSure, Minnesota’s health insurance marketplace.

Her sister was hospitalized in Hibbing because there were no beds near Lakeville. Eventually her sister stabilized.

Despite that experience, Peterson favors spending cuts instead of tax increases to close the budget deficit. People don’t have extra cash during a pandemic, she said.

Peterson is also concerned about how crime has increased in her district. A woman told her she’s afraid to walk in her own neighborhood because someone threw rocks at her. 

While talking to voters and door knocking, parents tell her that kids need to get back in school, Peterson said. “Hybrid learning is not working,” she said. She served on the Lakeville School Board for eight years before running for the Legislature.

She said her experience as a small business owner will help the Legislature navigate how to recover from the pandemic, and her priorities are getting the economy right, protecting people’s pocketbooks and safety.

Peterson also has a record of social conservatism. She sponsored bills in 2018 that would collect information on the connection between pornography and sex trafficking; require physicians to inform a patient of the opportunity to see an ultrasound before an abortion; and mandate that  the national motto to be displayed in school buildings. None of them passed.

In the heavily targeted race, mailers have accused Berg — or more specifically, Democrats — of wanting to defund police. Berg said she doesn’t support defunding police but thinks it’s time to reimagine public safety and invest more in community programs for addiction, youth engagement and domestic abuse. She would also like to see more training in de-escalation, and more police officers living in the communities they police.

Peterson, meanwhile, wrote on her blog that “Democrat (sic) leadership let our cities burn for days before taking action to curb the violence” after George Floyd’s death. She is endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.

Berg said when she talks to voters, they’re tired of division and negativity. And Trump.

“I just think that the country is ready for something different, and something that brings hope, with the world sort of being upside-down and on fire,” she said.

Pressed for her take on Trump, Peterson allowed he can “rub people the wrong way.” Prior to the pandemic, she said, the economy was doing well, he made trade agreements and was negotiating for peace in the Middle East.

“This is a swing district,” Peterson said. “It tends to follow the wave.”

The question is, what color is that wave?