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Senate District 5: Utke says legislative experience will benefit district

With the retirement of state Sen. Paul Gazelka this year, Utke is the only incumbent in the newly redrawn district headed toward the Aug. 9 primary and faces two Republican challengers.

State Sen. Paul Utke speaks at a table during an interview
State Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, speaks about his experience and plans in the Minnesota Legislature as a candidate for Senate District 5 during a July 8, 2022, interview.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — State Sen. Paul Utke hopes to bring his varied business background and six years of legislative experience back to St. Paul.

The Republican from Park Rapids said his ability to develop relationships with people of all political stripes helps him be an effective legislator.

“The Legislature is a relationship business and I like to work with people, I treat everybody fairly and I think that’s why a lot of my stuff gets through,” Utke said during a July 8 interview. “ … I come from a common sense background and I just treat everybody with respect. No matter if we totally disagree on policy, we can still have a respectful conversation.”

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With the retirement of state Sen. Paul Gazelka this year, Utke is the only incumbent in the newly redrawn Senate District 5 headed toward the Aug. 9 primary and faces two Republican challengers.

“I know I've represented all the citizens of Minnesota very well, and I've represented my district extremely well, you know. I never have to think about a vote because I'm part of the district and the people and I have always been on the same page. And I would be the same way with Senate District 5,” Utke said.

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State Sen. Paul Utke headshot
State Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Utke grew up in North Dakota and moved to Minnesota in 1980. The 65-year-old married father of two and his family relocated to Park Rapids in 1993. He spent 15 years working with Mack Truck dealers and 16 years operating a hardware and equipment rental store. He’s a certified legal videographer and a licensed insurance agent.

Before pursuing a legislative seat, Utke served seven years on the Park Rapids City Council and was a board member for the Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center, which provides specialized services to people with developmental disabilities and mental illness. He also filled multiple leadership positions within the Republican Party, including as the local county chair, senate district chair and as a member of the executive committee of the 8th Congressional District.

His committee assignments reflect some of his life experiences, he said, including those on Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy, Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy, Human Services Reform Finance and Policy, and Health and Human Services Finance and Policy, the last of which Utke serves as chair. He also is a member of the National Council of Insurance Legislators.

He said in his time at the state Capitol, he’s carried a large number of bills to help the elderly, people with disabilities and children, many of which ended up in omnibus health and human services bills. He also pointed to a bill he carried that successfully became law this year, which added safeguards to prevent structured settlement purchasers from taking advantage of the people selling them. The previous statute did not adequately protect people from losing out on large sums of money, Utke said.

And although it did not become law, Utke said his work on a bill to impose stiffer penalties on protesters who destroy property or disrupt critical infrastructure, such as pipelines, brought more attention to an issue he hopes will gain momentum.

Overall, however, the senator said it’s difficult to take individual credit for much of anything in the Legislature because shaping bills and developing policy is a collaborative effort.

“We don't do things individually, we do things as a team,” Utke said. “So these people that want to come in and be individuals are going to fail. As an individual, you’re useless.”

If reelected, Utke said one of his legislative priorities would center on addressing mental health. He said there’s a need for larger facilities to accommodate some of the more severe cases until they’re healthy enough to return home.

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A map of Minnesota Senate District 5 after 2022 redistricting
A map of Minnesota Senate District 5 after 2022 redistricting.
Contributed

Another priority for Utke is health care, which he said needs to be more affordable while providing greater cost transparency. He said the problems are complex, but one place to start would be changes to MNsure, the state’s health insurance marketplace. State statute disincentivizes new ideas, he said, because of guaranteed renewability. If a new insurance plan attracts only a handful of people, the state must maintain it despite its unpopularity, leading to wasteful spending.

Utke said when it comes to elections, he supports the ideas of introducing provisional ballots, requiring voter ID and eliminating same-day registration, the latter of which he characterized as “an open door for fraud.” To support this claim, Utke pointed to postal verification cards returned by the thousands to county auditor offices, whether for bad addresses or other reasons.

The Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State publishes a report on this issue each year. In the case of same-day registrants, state law requires county auditors to attempt to determine a reason for the returned postcard, such as a typo or if the voter moved since Election Day. They must also obtain proof the person was eligible to vote. If they’re unable to verify this information, they must turn the matter over to the county attorney’s office for further investigation and potential prosecution.

According to the report for the 2020 election, 9,025 postcards were returned across the state. Of those, auditors found no satisfactory proof of eligibility for 69, or less than 1% of the voters whose cards were returned. A total of 259,742 Minnesota voters registered the same day they voted in the 2020 general election.

On the abortion issue, Utke said he’s “as pro-life as they come” and the only exception he supports is to save the life of the person carrying the baby. Because the state of Minnesota protects the right to an abortion in its constitution, however, Utke said the Legislature can’t go around the ruling unilaterally.

“We’ve had bills in every year that are strong pro-life bills, and we will continue to have those, but you’ve got to work within the system,” he said.

Utke said he’s unbothered by criticism from his opponent Bret Bussman, who’s characterized Utke’s voting record as not conservative and said Utke going along with 67-0 votes on bills is not representing the people. Utke said he’s one of the most conservative members of the Senate Republican caucus and the criticism is based on a complete lack of understanding of how the Legislature works.

“In the Senate, we happen to be in the majority, but we're only one leg of the three-legged stool,” Utke said. “We’ve got a Democrat-controlled House, we’ve got a Democrat governor. We have to negotiate those budget bills, we can't just roll up our — close our folder and go home. We’ve got to get the job done. And we got a really good job done. We did a lot of good work. We stopped a lot of what we consider bad stuff.”

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Utke said primary challenges from the right across the state this year could result in candidates incapable of winning in their districts.

“It’s a smaller group, and they’ve got some ideals. And, you know, if they are true Republicans, why are they running against Republicans and not helping us beat the other guys, you know? That's the way I look at it.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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