Republican Rep. John Kline, a powerful committee chairman in Washington who is running for a seventh term, faces a changing district that was won by President Obama in 2012.
Democrats would like to exploit that paradox with challenger Mike Obermueller, a former Minnesota House legislator who came within eight percentage points of defeating Kline in 2012 in the sprawling Second Congressional District, which now stretches from south of Wabasha into the tip of St. Paul’s outer suburbs.
Kline’s voting record is as conservative as partisan brawlers like fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann, which suited the district when it was mostly southern Minnesota. But redistricting in 2010 pushed the district north and west, making it more urban and more diverse. Kline, who nearly always votes with his party, hasn’t changed his views, but in a recent interview he made a point of noting that he was with the president on a recent student loan bill.
At a Shakopee Fire Department open house last weekend, where hundreds of eager kids waited for a fire truck ride, Kline chatted amiably with firefighters but mostly hung back, not wanting to interrupt the family fun with politics. “If they have a forkful of waffle, I don’t want to bother them,” he said.
But Kline is finding it hard to maintain his usual low-key approach. He is being pushed front and center into the national spotlight — and not by Obermueller. Instead, HBO comedian and political satirist Bill Maher has singled out Kline for what he calls “Flip a District,” a contest to target a Republican congressman for defeat, flipping the seat to a Democrat.
Maher says that Kline’s under-the-radar approach is typical of many representatives who cruise to re-election year after year on name recognition and a huge cash advantage. Maher was scheduled to host a panel discussion on student debt Tuesday in Kline’s district, which is home to Carleton and St. Olaf colleges.
If Maher’s attention has had any effect on the race, it wasn’t evident in Shakopee, where several voters at the firehouse and public library were reticent about the upcoming election — familiar with Kline when reminded of him, but not with his opponent.
Kline, 67, entered the Marine Corps in 1969. He went on to fly Marine One, the president’s helicopter, served as military aide to Presidents Carter and Reagan, and carried the so-called nuclear football. He said his Marine Corps service taught him commitment: “You have to do what you say you’re going to do,” Kline said. “Your word has to mean something. If you don’t, people die. I find that useful in all aspects of life, certainly in Congress.”
While Kline sits on the Armed Services Committee, his most prominent role in Congress has been as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. That’s where he has found himself at the center of contentious debates about education, for-profit universities and the minimum wage.
For instance, Kline defends for-profit universities as an important part of the higher education mix, even as a backlash against them has gained momentum. In Minnesota the state attorney general has sued two of those schools, accusing them of using high-pressure tactics and misleading students about post-graduation job prospects.
A report by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin showed that nationally, for-profit colleges enroll about 10 percent of college students but account for nearly half of student-loan defaults; another report noted for-profit universities’ 32 percent graduation rate, compared with 57 percent at public universities.
Kline said for-profit institutions should be held accountable but said that “in some cases, this is the right choice for a student,” citing low-income and minority students in particular. A good chunk of Kline’s campaign funding comes from for-profit university donations. During the second quarter of last year, he received $116,000 — nearly one-fourth of his total — from political action committees operated by for-profit universities or top executives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In July 2013, Kline introduced a measure — the Supporting Academic Freedom Through Regulatory Relief Act — widely seen as favorable to the industry. Kline said that industry people support him because they recognize that he believes the for-profit universities have a legitimate role in the higher education system.
For all his work on education issues, Kline said his constituents’ biggest concern remains the economy. Kline thinks the government — in the form of a burdensome corporate tax code and cumbersome regulations — can be blamed for sluggish economic growth.
No federal minimum wage
Kline said he would cut corporate tax rates (Obermueller agrees), stem the flow of new federal regulations and allow projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline to proceed. He opposes raising the federal minimum wage. In fact, Kline said that because regional economies differ so much, there should be no federal minimum. Kline would leave each state to determine its own minimum.
Obermueller said his views better fit a changing district. After the 2010 redistricting, the Second lost conservative Carver County, while picking up precincts in the more urban and Democratic orbit of St. Paul. More than 90,000 of its residents are minorities, and 37 percent have completed college.
He thinks rising income inequality has delivered the benefits of economic growth to only the richest Americans, leaving everyone else behind.
“We’ve got an income disparity that is causing harm,” he said, with stagnant wages that stifle consumer spending. Wages must rise, Obermueller said, and student debt fall.
“The real job creators are the middle-class people with money in their pocket,” he said. “If there were 50 more people in this coffee shop in West St. Paul, they would have to hire a few more people,” he said. To close the gap, he recommends a higher federal minimum wage of $10.10.
Unlike Kline, who has led the fight to repeal Obamacare, Obermueller defends it. After acknowledging problems with the rollout, Obermueller said the program is becoming a success: “I’ve talked to literally dozens and dozens of people who have had a positive Affordable Care Act experience, who would be in a real challenge getting coverage without it,” he said.
Obermueller, 41, has a gregarious, Midwestern friendliness, accessorized by a prominent gap between two front teeth. A corporate litigator, he says he is always looking to cut a deal and wants to be a bipartisan bridge among swing-district legislators.
Growing up on a small dairy farm, he married and started a family while working his way through Loras College in Iowa. He said programs such as federal student loans and Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance were an important lifeline, and he wants to make sure others have the same opportunities.
“That community around us that cared about our success was crucial to our success,” he said.
Obermueller, Kline and Paula Overby of the Independence Party will debate once, on Oct. 31.
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042