BRAINERD — Steve Wenzel won’t need directions in the Minnesota Capitol if he’s elected to represent Senate District 10 — after all, he spent nearly three decades as a state representative for the region.
This time, however, Wenzel would sit in a different chamber and have an R behind his name instead of DFL. The 75-year-old Little Falls resident and Central Lakes College instructor aligns strongly with the Republican Party these days after he said he gradually became disenchanted with the direction of the Democratic Party.
“I started to question the party’s liberal position on the abortion issue,” Wenzel said during a July 11 interview in his classroom at CLC. “ … I felt my caucus was going one way and I was going the other way, philosophically. And I was losing interest in attending caucus meetings.”
Following the 2022 redistricting, Minnesota Senate District 10 includes portions of Aitkin, Benton, Crow Wing, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Morrison counties.
Wenzel said after his preferred candidate for Senate District 10 — former Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren — dropped out of the race, he believed someone with experience and deep ties to the community needed to step up and provide a counterpoint to the two remaining candidates, Jim Newberger and Nathan Wesenberg, in the Aug. 9 primary election.
“I consider myself the most experienced of the three candidates running,” Wenzel said. “And more important than that … is the fact that I’m the only one of the three candidates that was born and raised in the district on a family farm. I have a farm background.
“ … I feel strongly about solving the problems that we have in this country and hopefully making another difference. I’m sort of fiercely determined to push legislation that will make for some changes.”
Wenzel was always interested in politics and joined the Minnesota Legislature in his 20s as a strong supporter of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. As he evolved politically and later began voting for Republican presidents, the Minnesota Republican Party asked Wenzel whether he would be interested in a presidential appointment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although that meant leaving the Legislature, Wenzel said he was proud to become Minnesota state director of USDA Rural Development, a position he filled for eight years. In that role, he traveled the state and met with local community leaders to discuss funding for water and sewer projects, hospitals and health care clinics, wastewater treatment and other rural development priorities.
He shares that love of U.S. government with his students at CLC, where he’s been an instructor for more than 20 years. A change in requirements at the community college meant Wenzel would need to earn a master’s degree to continue teaching. In his mid-60s, Wenzel didn’t shy away from the challenge, earning the honor in 2012 from St. Cloud State University while traveling back and forth to Brainerd to teach. He’s now a full-time tenured instructor as a result.
That same determination is reflected in Wenzel’s accomplishments during his previous legislative run, he said. Two projects of which he is most proud took about a decade to accomplish with much persistence: expanding Highway 371 from two lanes to four between Little Falls and Brainerd — an already 35-year-old problem of traffic and dangerous conditions at the time — and creating the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery at Camp Ripley.
“I was probably exaggerating at the time, but I predicted it would be Minnesota’s Arlington,” Wenzel said of the cemetery. “Well, as it turned out, it sort of has turned out that way. That cemetery was voted the best cemetery of the 88 state veterans cemeteries in the United States.”
He’s also proud of his efforts to pump up penalties for homicide and other violent crimes in the state, which resulted in an increase in the mandatory minimum for first-degree murder from 17 years to 30 years, among other changes.
On this issue, Wenzel said he would like to pick up where he left off if he returns to the Legislature. One of his priorities would be seeking harsher penalties for people who’ve committed gun-related crimes such as carjackings.
“That’s an act of terrorism,” Wenzel said. “And we’ve got to start looking at judges and county attorneys and prosecutors, as to, are they following the law in charging? And are they following the law on sentencing? … So I’m going to look into authoring a law that’s going to focus on prosecutors and judges being held accountable for their work.”
Other top issues include restricting abortion access in the state, supporting legislation favorable to the agriculture industry and reducing taxes in a number of ways for Minnesotans.
Wenzel said he would support legislation to restrict abortion in the state, even though he knows it would be an uphill battle if any of the branches of government remain in DFL hands. He suggested pursuing a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to eliminate abortion’s protection in the Minnesota Constitution.
Wenzel said he would support an exception for saving the life of the pregnant person, but not one for a pregnancy that’s the result of rape or incest.
“I think in that case, it would be a situation that would require counseling for the person who was forced to take her pregnancy to term,” Wenzel said. “I think that the right to life of an unborn person should not be compromised or cannot be compromised.”
Wenzel said given agriculture is the main industry for much of the district, strong support of family farmers is key to being the best senator for his constituents.
“I want to make sure that the laws we pass encourage a prosperous agricultural industry and that we minimize extreme regulations against farmers from the (Minnesota) Pollution Control Agency, from the DNR, and from other regulatory agencies,” he said. “And most importantly, over anything else, the tax issue, the property tax issue, we need to reduce the classification ratio and the valuation as it applies to property taxes for farmers and small businesses.”
Farmers and small business owners aren’t the only ones who Wenzel would seek to help by reducing taxes. He said Minnesota’s status as one of the most highly taxed states needs to change. He would seek to reduce the state’s corporate tax and said on his first or second day in the Legislature, he would introduce a bill to eliminate the tax on Social Security benefits. Wenzel also supports an increase in the homestead market value exclusion, which would lead to a reduction in property taxes for many residential properties.
Wenzel said he agrees with the idea that parents should have the opportunity to be more involved in their children’s public education and criticized the idea of critical race theory and “inappropriate sex education” introducing transgender concepts in the classroom.
“I think the curriculums have to focus on basics: a return to reading, writing, math, science, history, civics,” he said. “ … I have students that come in, they don’t know who Harry Truman is. They’ve never heard of him. It’s hard to believe.”
Wenzel said he strongly supports requiring voter ID and believes mail ballots have the potential to allow for fraud if not regulated well.
“I think people have to have the feeling in this country, if we are going to hold our democracy together, to have the feeling that the elections are fair and that the results are accurate,” he said.
It’s a big to-do list, but Wenzel said he’s up for the challenge.
“Sometimes it takes a lot of work, takes a lot of sessions, but persistence always pays off. And you learn how to compromise and get things done.”