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Senate District 48: Steve Cwodzinski

Senate GOP Minority Leader David Hann is in the toughest re-election fight of his 14-year legislative career for two good reasons. One: Hann’s positions on issues — particularly on Southwest light rail — are out of sync with those of many residents in his Eden Prairie district. And two: He has an uncommonly appealing opponent in DFLer Steve Cwodzinski.

Our nod goes to challenger Cwodzinski, a recently retired government teacher at Eden Prairie High School. Hann’s dedication to public service and his willingness to shoulder leadership responsibilities for his caucus in the past four years are admirable. But Eden Prairie would be well-served by the passion for public problem-solving that Cwodzinski would bring to the Legislature.

Cwodzinski reminded us of another educator who took on an entrenched Republican incumbent. Like the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, Cwodzinski, 58, exudes infectious enthusiasm for democracy and optimism about its potential to make lives better.

Raised in Superior, Wis., by immigrant grandparents and on his own by his teens, he hitchhiked to Minneapolis, got a job at the Leamington Hotel, put himself through the University of Minnesota and landed what he called his “dream job” teaching American government in Eden Prairie in 1985. His favorite classroom exercise has legislative relevance. It involved splitting students into liberal and conservative camps, then coaching them to compromise.

Unlike Hann, Cwodzinski backs Southwest light rail. He opposed — as did a majority of District 48 voters — the 2012 attempt to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota that Hann helped push through the Senate. Cwodzinski is eager to seek ways to improve gun safety, expand the use of renewable energy, extend the benefits of preschool to more children, drive down college student debt loads, and make health insurance affordable.

Long a resident of Chanhassen a few blocks from the District 48 boundary, Cwodzinski moved into the district after retiring with the intention of running against Hann. That move would raise red flags for us were it not for his three decades of involvement in Eden Prairie life.

Hann, 64, is a former school board member and retired businessman whose conservative views may have matched his district’s a few decades ago. But President Obama carried the district in 2012, signaling a change. Hann has demonstrated little inclination to bend with his district’s changing political wind.

Senate District 53: Susan Kent

DFLer Susan Kent had the kind of first term in the state Senate that deserves a second. She demonstrated independence on tax matters, persistence in educational betterment, and courage in backing increased transportation funding. Voters in Woodbury-dominated District 53 should send her back for more.

Kent, 52, exhibits the communication skill of the marketing professional that she was for 20 years. A native of New Orleans, she worked in both the public and private sectors in Texas and New York before her husband’s career brought her to Minnesota in 2003. Advocacy on behalf of her children’s school district led her to the Legislature, where she played a leading role in creating a grant program to put more counselors and mental-health professionals in schools.

Challenging Kent is Republican Sharna Wahlgren, 49, an attorney specializing in intellectual property law and the GOP’s unsuccessful 2014 candidate for the U.S. House from the Fourth District. Wahlgren’s interest in elective office is commendable. But she would face a steep learning curve in the Senate, and offers no compelling reason to replace an incumbent who is performing well.

Senate District 58: Matt Little

It takes an exceptional DFLer to be a contender in south-exurban District 58, where Republican state Sen. Dave Thompson is not seeking re-election and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won handily in 2012. To his credit, Lakeville Mayor Matt Little is an exceptional DFLer. He gets our nod over Republican Tim Pitcher, a Farmington City Council member.

Though only 31 years old, Little has six years of public service behind him and, we suspect, many more ahead. He enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School while still a member of the Lakeville City Council, and graduated with honors while serving as mayor. In that post, he developed an incentive package to encourage employers to locate in his city and to speed the city’s business permit approval process.

Little also became adept at working with a Republican-dominated City Council and knowledgeable about a host of state issues. He’s well-prepared to advocate for better roads and transit in his district and to strike the compromises that will be needed to achieve that goal. His former employment in a residence for senior citizens has also alerted him to the state’s need to address a worsening shortage of elder caregivers.

Pitcher, soon to be 56, is a recently retired medical technology engineer who is completing his first term in local government. He vows to be a budget hawk and says he’s committed to learning on the job. While we don’t doubt that Pitcher has that capacity, Little is better prepared for Senate service now.