Peterson ready for another challenge

MARSHALL – The National Republican Congressional Committee in January 2013 released a list of the top seven Democratic-held House seats it has in its sights this November.

The targeted districts are Republican-leaning at the presidential level but represented in the House by Democrats, and one of them is Minnesota’s Congressional District 7 – the state’s largest district and one represented by Collin Peterson since 1991.

But despite the Republican slant in the district, Peterson has enjoyed a tremendous amount of November success, and he’s confident he can ride momentum of a passed farm bill to gain a 13th term.

“Everywhere I go I have somebody come up to me and say, ‘I’m a Republican, but I always vote for you,'” Peterson said earlier this week during a visit to the Independent. “It’s been like that for a long time.”

Peterson, who on Monday was endorsed by the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said he hasn’t felt the pressure of being an incumbent – a longtime congressman in an environment of what could be unprecedented voter discontent.

“I haven’t, and I’ve been looking for it,” he said. “People know that I’m on the ag committee, and we actually got our work done. People know that, so I don’t see them lumping me in with everybody else.”

The latest Republican to attempt to dethrone Peterson is state Sen. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake, who has called challenging Peterson “a big task.” Indeed, he has his work cut out for him. Besides name recognition, Peterson, who doesn’t know Westrom too well but called him a “nice guy,” has developed a reputation for working with members on both of the aisle. In 2012, he was one of nine Democrats in the House to represent a district carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Peterson has built a loyal voter base blind of party affiliation. It’s his work on the ag committee – one of the few groups in Washington to get things done, he said – that has earned him election win after election win.

“I think people appreciate the fact that there are some things in Congress that actually work,” he said. “I don’t think anyone sees me as the one causing this gridlock.

Peterson has represented the 7th District – which covers the western half of the state and runs from Murray County, all the way up to the Canadian border – since 1991. The conservative Democrat is the state’s longest serving member of Congress and one of 54 members of the Blue Dog Caucus. He was the architect of the 2008 farm bill and as ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee was deeply involved in the drafting of the 2014 version. In February, Congress finally gave final approval of a new, $956.4 million bill, which included an overhaul of federal farm and nutrition polices. The bill touches on everything from product labeling, to agricultural subsidies, to conservation, by forcing farmers to abide by certain land practices if they want to cash in on subsidies.

“We got the farm bill done, and thank God we did given the problems we’re having with the prices and so forth,” he said.

Peterson said it’s now on to Phase 2 of the farm bill: implementation. He said getting a bill passed is just a start.

“It’s not just a six-month deal; it’s gonna be a two-year deal to make sure this stays on track,” he said. “I’ve been through this before with the ’08 bill.”

Peterson said the elimination of earmarks in Washington is responsible for the funding roadblock facing the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System – a massive water project designed to bring clean water to areas of Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa. This year, the state of Minnesota pitched in $22 million to keep the project moving along, with the federal funding well apparently dry for the project.

“The way we got Lewis & Clark to the place where it’s at is through earmarks,” he said. “They banned earmarks, which I opposed. I’m for earmarks. There’s really no pot of money they can go to.”

He said the Bureau of Reclamation does have money to allocate, but other projects have priority over Lewis & Clark, and not having earmarks has “really hurt us. (House Speaker John) Boehner, bless his heart, never did an earmark. That’s one of his things.”

Peterson said no earmarks means a transfer of power right to Obama administration, which then decides where the money is spent.

On the controversial Keystone Pipeline that has pitted oil supporters against environmentalists, Peterson said he is for the project, but is more focused on the development of pipelines coming into Minnesota from North Dakota. He said getting those pipelines built will take pressure off the railroads and alleviate problems with grain cars.

“We need more pipelines, because that’s the safest way to move oil – the cheapest, most sensible,” he said. “

Peterson wouldn’t say if this would be his last campaign. He’s holding true to form with his personal policty of not letting anyone know his plans until February of an election year.

“It might be (my last),” he said. “When I get to the point of making a decision, I’m gonna look at, is it something I want to do, am I fired up? Number two, is it in the best interest of the district, to have me there.”

He admits he was burned out after the farm bill marathon and may have tipped his hat a little about his future plans when he said he’s running again this year against the wishes of his 94-year-old father.

“It took me about a month to get my energy back,” he said. “My staff laid out all the problems we might have if I wasn’t there, with implementation of the farm bill and other things I’ve been working on. The sugar guys put the heat on me to run again.”

Peterson hasn’t decided if he will hit the broadcast airwaves leading up the election. He said, for now, most of the $800,000 his campaign has will be spent on print and radio advertising, as well as signage and the Internet. He said he will likely debate with Westrom two or three times on public TV after Labor Day.