BAXTER — Ample evidence that hometown folks are paying attention to what state lawmakers are doing in St. Paul was apparent to motorists on Highway 371 Thursday afternoon as supporters and detractors of Sen. Paul Gazelka spoke out on state issues.
The rally apparently started as a gathering at Gazelka’s insurance agency office in Baxter by union members and supporters. When supporters of Gazelka got wind of the event they organized their own counter-rally, supporting the first-term Republican senator.
Deb Breneman, who works in faculty support at Central Lakes College and is a member of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, said before the rally she and others object to Gazelka’s legislative efforts to freeze state employee wages and his opposition to increasing any taxes, including those who are among the top 2 percent earners in the state. She said Gazelka’s legislative positions on the budget may lead to a state shutdown.
“What will the Brainerd lakes area be like in July with no parks open and a government shutdown?” she asked at the rally.
She said state employees’ wages have been frozen and those issues have always been negotiated rather than legislated.
“His stances are whatever the party tells him to do,” Breneman said.
Michael Hopps, a Central Lakes College instructor, said Gazelka was out to change his hard-fought union benefits and to take away the rights of his friends to marry the person they choose. He said Gazelka’s efforts to obtain a statewide vote on the definition of marriage and Republican bills for a Voter ID bill were “smelly red herrings” designed to distract attention from more serious budget issues.
“I just oppose everything Paul Gazelka is in favor of,” Hopps said.
When supporters of Gazelka learned of the planned protest, Doug Kern, chair of the Crow Wing County Republican Party, urged supporters of the rural Brainerd lawmaker to show up with their own signs.
Kern objected that Breneman used a CLC email distribution list to spread word about the Gazelka protest and the targeting of his business office.
“It’s wrong to be protesting at a private business,” he said.
Earlier, in an email Kern sent to Breneman, Kern said that protesting at the business site amounted to bullying.
Among the messages Kern and his group shared on their signs was one that read “Government live on a budget.”
Breneman said she was in error when she used the state computer system to invite people to a protest at the office and said she apologized to the college.
Tom Grogg of Brainerd, a financial coordinator with Financial Peace University, said Gazelka has been leading in the right direction. He said he’s had to cut back spending in the current economy.
“If we don’t come to grips with how we spend our money ... we’re not going to be successful,” Grogg said.
The two groups co-existed peacefully near Gazelka’s office during the first hour of what was planned as a two-hour rally. Protesters on both sides lined the highway for awhile, trying to attract the attention of motorists. The union members brought a grill and prepared hot dogs and brats for the event.
Employees inside Gazelka’s office said business was being conducted as usual despite the people who were congregated outside.
Absent from the rally was Sen. Gazelka, who was working at the state Capitol. Contacted by phone shortly before the rally he said he thought the primary motivation of the protest was his authoring of legislation for a state worker pay freeze, that was rolled into S.F.1047, a large state government omnibus bill. What state workers have experienced recently, he said, was not a true wage freeze. Gazelka called for no step increases, lane changes or cost of living adjustments.
“Government is growing at a pace we cannot keep up with,” he said. “We’re trying to limit it to a $4 billion increase rather than a $9 billion increase,” Gazelka said.
He said he had visited with AFSCME representatives three times in his office and attended one of their meetings at their invitation. He said those meetings were more appropriate than a protest at a private business.
“That is very frustrating,” he said. “It feels like I’m being bullied.”
He also said the promotion of the protest through government email was inappropriate.
In an email forwarded to the Brainerd Dispatch by Kern, Michael Amick, dean of academic and technolgy services at CLC, told Kern that he contacted the employee and informed her this was a violation of acceptable use of state technology/email MnSCU Board Policy.
MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.