Rep. Collin Peterson (D)
Minnesota 7th District
Mark Twain’s fabled Mississippi River begins modestly in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park, 2,552 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. At that point, it can be crossed by foot on stepping-stones. The lake-strewn country in which the river begins has made its own contributions to American literature. More than a century ago, Sinclair Lewis grew up in the town of Sauk Centre, which provided grist for his critical but affectionate portrayals of small-town America in Main Street and Babbitt. In those years, this seemingly placid country was seething with rage, as WASP nationalists banned German from schools, renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” and boycotted German-American businesses. This fed the bitter isolationism of the 1930s and 1940s, led by Charles Lindbergh, who grew up in Little Falls as the son of an isolationist congressman who voted against declaring war on Germany in 1917. This part of Minnesota is probably also the home of the fictional Lake Wobegon. Public radio host Garrison Keillor says he was inspired by small towns in Stearns County that were evenly divided between German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans.
2008 Presidential Vote
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Farther south, where the plains rise above the river-cut gorges, is great farming country, settled more than 100 years ago by Yankees, Germans, and Scandinavians. Even today, farmers toil against the elements to make a profitable living, so productively that their lands are slowly but surely depopulating; 100,000 acres of farmland in the Minnesota River watershed has been taken out of production by the federal Conservation Reserve Program. This area is the nation’s leading producer of sugar beets and a leading supplier of turkeys. It also produces wheat, soybeans, and oilseeds. On the shores of Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove, is where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family came on the way west to the Little House on the Prairie in South Dakota. After all of their struggles, Wilder’s family left the farm for town as soon as they could. Their pain would be all too familiar to contemporary residents along the Red River of the North, which overflowed its banks in April 1997, inundating Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., and dislocating 50,000 people—America’s largest mass evacuation between the Civil War and Hurricane Katrina.
The 7th Congressional District of Minnesota covers almost all of the western part of the state. Its southeastern end is just 30 miles from Minneapolis, just beyond the zone of rapid exurban growth. Its population barely changed from 2000 to 2007, and many of its counties lost population. It takes in the wheat-farming plains adjoining North Dakota as well as the German Catholic areas, with their farm villages named for saints. Farmers have been increasingly turning to corn and soybeans, which have a greater variety of markets and uses. Many political traditions coexist here. Some of the wheat counties are heavily Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, while heavily Norwegian Otter Tail County leans Republican. The 7th’s political history reads like something out of Lake Wobegon Days. Back in 1958, DFL Rep. Coya Knutson was defeated for re-election when her husband, Andy, issued a plaintive statement urging her to come home from Washington and make his breakfast again. She was the only incumbent Democrat to lose in that heavily Democratic year. For the next three decades, this was one of America’s prime marginal districts. In 2000, the unpopularity of Clinton administration environmental and gun control policies produced a 54%-40% victory for George W. Bush, his best showing in a Minnesota district. In 2004, Bush’s won the district 55%-43%. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain won this district by only 50%-47%, as ancestral DFL loyalties resurfaced.
Rep. Collin Peterson (D)
Elected: 1990, 10th term.
Born: June 29, 1944, Fargo, ND .
Home: Detroit Lakes.
Education: Moorhead St. U., B.A. 1966.
Family: Divorced; 3 children.
Military career: Army Natl. Guard, 1963–69.
Elected office: MN Senate, 1976–86.
Professional Career: Accountant, 1966–90.
The congressman from the 7th District is Collin Peterson, a Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson was born in Fargo, N.D., and grew up across the Red River of the North on a farm in Baker. He went to Moorhead State College, and then started a certified public accounting business in Detroit Lakes. All are within 50 miles of each other. In 1976, he was elected to the state Senate. In 1982, he lost a DFL caucus to run for the U.S. House, and then set out to prove that he’s nothing if not persistent. Peterson tried three more times, losing to Republican Arlan Stangeland in 1984 and 1986 (by only 121 votes the second time), and losing the DFL primary in 1988. But in 1990, when the St. Cloud Times reported that Stangeland made 341 credit card calls to a woman who was not his wife, Peterson won with a robust 54%.
|Collin Peterson (DFL)||227,187||(72%)||($1,036,463)|
|Glen Menze (R)||87,062||(28%)||($13,401)|
|Collin Peterson (DFL)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (70%), 2004 (66%), 2002 (65%), 2000 (69%), 1998 (72%), 1996 (68%), 1994 (51%), 1992 (51%), 1990 (54%)
In office, he has been known as a free spirit, wearing cowboy boots and playing guitar in a band called the Second Amendments (the other four members are Republicans). He acted as his own campaign consultant and pilot on flights within the district. He has a small staff, with community economic development professionals rather than Washington policy wonks. He opposes abortion rights and gun control. He backs farm subsidies and labor unions, voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, for the Republicans’ border-security bill, and for extending the Bush tax cuts. In October 2006, he called his vote on Iraq “a mistake.” But he said withdrawal “would be more dangerous than anything we could do,” and voted against war spending bills that carried with them timetables to withdraw from Iraq.
In the House, Peterson is a populist, with conservative leanings on social issues. His political fortune was bolstered by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, which made him a visibly different kind of Democrat. While voting for parts of the GOP’s Contract With America agenda, he founded with California Democrat Gary Condit the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats for “common sense legislation that embraces the ideas and values of mainstream America.” He was one of 16 Democrats to vote for the Republicans’ Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003. When Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland complained about his vote, Peterson said that the vote meant “life or death” for rural doctors and hospitals in his district. He opposed giving the president broad powers to negotiate free-trade agreements, and said that local farmers were furious about the Bush administration’s trade deals. However, Peterson has supported lifting trade restrictions on Cuba, a move favored by farmers in Minnesota and elsewhere. Peterson is the opposite of many middle-of-the-House Republicans, who favor environmental restrictions. He takes the view of his constituents, who hunt and fish as a way of life and often see environmentalists’ policies as hindrances.
When Democrat Charles Stenholm of Texas was defeated for re-election in 2004, Peterson was next in line to be the ranking minority member on the Agriculture Committee. But the Democratic leadership demanded that he pay $70,000 in back dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats in House elections. He agreed to be more of a team player and to raise money for other Democrats, although he said: “We have a lot of very liberal people in our caucus. They’re misguided, in my opinion, in a lot of areas.” But he supported Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the theory, he said, that only a liberal can tell liberals what to do. Pelosi accepted Peterson’s invitation to attend Farm Fest in Redwood County in August 2006, where she wore cowboy boots and ate pork chops on a stick and got a warm reception. He supported her platform of raising the minimum wage, supporting increased ethanol production, and reinstituting pay-go rules requiring tax cuts be offset with spending decreases. After the Democrats won a House majority in 2006, there was no question about his becoming chairman. “She gets it,” Peterson said of Pelosi. “She’s going to govern from the center, and she will work with Republicans. There will be no getting even.”
Peterson brought to the chairmanship several firm principles, which mostly reflected the views of his constituents. He had expressed reservations that the Republicans’ 1996 Freedom to Farm Act would cause low prices and joined the bipartisan majority on the committee in restoring market controls when the farm program was renewed in 2002. In 2005 and 2006, Peterson worked unsuccessfully to advance supplemental disaster aid and to promote the party’s ethanol agenda. He also called for extending the Conservation Reserve Program to keep millions of additional acres of farmland idle to produce switchgrass and plant waste that could be used to make ethanol. With a ready supply of raw material, Peterson predicted that cellulosic ethanol plants would prove to be profitable. He was skeptical about limiting farm subsidies to $200,000, a limit strongly opposed by Southern cotton and rice farmers. “Lots of people want to clamp down on payment limits, but if we do that, we are not going to pass a bill,” he said.
In 2007 and 2008, Peterson worked with ranking Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia to achieve many of his goals on the farm bill enacted in May 2008. It was not easy. It took six short-term extensions of the bill and two votes to override Bush’s veto of the legislation. He sought an income limit of $900,000 for subsidy payments, and the final deal set a ceiling of $750,000 for farmers receiving direct payments. It also barred payments to persons with more than $500,000 in nonfarm income. He finally got his permanent disaster fund so that farmers could get their aid more quickly following a drought or flood. He boosted the subsidy for cellulosic ethanol to $1 per gallon, while reducing the subsidy for corn ethanol from 51 cents to 45 cents per gallon.
With demands for new acreage, especially from the large fruit and vegetable states of Florida and California, the committee reduced the Conservation Reserve Program from 39 million acres to 32 million acres. Peterson, the former accountant, proved adept at figuring the costs of various commodity programs, and he established a solid working relationship with budget hawk Kent Conrad, a Democratic senator from North Dakota who was the chief Senate negotiator on the bill. Peterson accommodated lawmakers from urban areas by directing to the food stamp program an additional $10 billion over five years. “We have a bill that covers all of the interests in the country,” Peterson said.
After Democrat Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Peterson said that he wanted to focus on an overhaul of the Agriculture Department, which he said was “still in the 20th century as an organization.” He also focused on improving food inspections by the Food and Drug Administration. But his maverick ways were not earning him friends in the new White House. Peterson was one of only seven House Democrats who voted against Obama’s economic stimulus bill in February 2009.
A lasting contribution by Peterson was the change in the Democratic House rule prohibiting flying in private planes, which prevented Peterson from claiming reimbursement for flights in his Beechcraft Bonanza. He said he had to charter aircraft at nearly 10 times the cost of flying his own plane, and naturally he protested. “I threatened to put in a bill to make it illegal for any member to drive their own car until we got this fixed. And I told Nancy Pelosi that if she didn’t get this fixed, I was going to quit and there was going to be a Republican in my place, that if I couldn’t fly I wasn’t going to do this anymore. She just kind of looked at me—she said it’ll be fixed,” Peterson recounted. In May 2007, the rule was changed to accommodate Peterson and other members who fly their own planes.
Peterson’s politics have been a hit with 7th District voters and an irritant to local DFL activists. But he has not had a close contest since 1994. House Democrats did away with six-year term limits for chairmen, effective in 2009, which means Peterson could remain the chief farm policy maker in the House for many years.