WORTHINGTON — Greater Minnesota farmer Ralph Kaehler visited Worthington Tuesday as part of his campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives seat currently held by Jim Hagedorn.
Kaehler owns a beef cattle operation on his 138-year family farm in St. Charles and a solar energy company in St. Paul. Although he's running as a Democrat, Kaehler considers himself politically moderate.
"It’s important that we have a rep who's invested in the district, who's got time, their career, their labor (here) ... it makes a big difference how you represent a district when you're invested here," he said.
As Kaehler's businesses transition into the care of his sons, he feels he now has the time to dedicate to public service.
“It’s been decades since we’ve had the chance to vote for a farmer and business owner is this district,” Kaehler said. "I've got one foot in the history of Minnesota with the farm, and one foot in the future of Minnesota as a solar developer.”
Kaehler added that his sense of urgency about policy changes is different from his opponents'.
"Everything I have — present and future — is invested in Minnesota and District 1," Kaehler said. "That makes me unique among the candidates. I’m from Minnesota and for Minnesota — the only one who can say that."
Kaehler is also taking a unique campaign strategy. Instead of making promises about what he will do, he said he's letting his record of what he has done and is doing speak for itself. He sees himself as an ideal candidate because of his background and experience.
"People had to ask which party I was running for. I think that’s a plus," Kaehler said. "I’m a moderate. Common sense goes a long way."
If elected, Kaehler believes he will be a valuable asset on both sides of the political aisle.
"I’m one vote out of 435, but because of my unique background, I can influence many more votes," he said.
Farmers, renewable energy advocates and small business owners are in short supply in Congress, he explained. Both Democrats and Republicans will want to work with him.
"There is no value on polarization," Kaehler noted. "That makes headlines, but it doesn’t result in much accomplishment."
He promised that as a U.S. representative, "I will wake up in the morning and I know I have a job to do. If I don’t accomplish my work, I don’t get to keep the job. I stepped forward — I was not recruited."
Kaehler's moderation shines through in his policy positions.
Kaehler has experienced problems with the U.S. health insurance system both as a user and as a provider.
His wife, Mena, is a cancer survivor. At the time of her diagnosis, Kaehler's position at his off-the-farm job had just been eliminated. If this had happened before the Affordable Care Act was enacted, the Kaehlers may have been kicked off of their insurance due to the pre-existing condition.
"We would have been at risk of losing our farm," Kaehler said.
At the solar business, Kaehler provides health insurance for his employees.
"It’s a major cost and expense. I understand the impact on a business," Kaehler said. "While we need affordable, accessible, quality health care, we have to deal with the cost."
It matters to Kaehler's family and business that health care and insurance problems are fixed. For him, it's personal.
In 2002, Kaehler accompanied then-Gov. Jesse Ventura to Cuba to negotiate with Fidel Castro to open up trade.
"We've been promoting trade for decades," Kaehler said.
Kaehler noted that war don't begin between trade partners.
"If you work with your neighbors," he said, "you get a lot more done than if you’re fighting with them. It’s the same way with governments."
Finding a solution to the human impact on climate change is a major policy priority for Kaehler. As a solar energy developer, he has created 100 MW of renewable energy in southern Minnesota — "which is the equivalent of planting 18 million trees," he noted. His efforts have also created more than 80 jobs.
"(Climate change) is like the earth being round or flat," Kaehler said. "It’s not a question of which one it is; it’s just how we’re going to deal with (it).
"The world will be fine for me. I’m working for my grandkids. That’s what we have to worry about."
Kaehler is also invested in fixing the broken immigration system.
"We need to have some compassion in immigration, but we also have to fix … things so that people have the opportunity and the option to become citizens," he said.
He shared the story of a man he knows who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. He has raised four kids here, the oldest of whom is in college. He is active and contributes to society. And, he's undocumented.
"At some point in time, he gets a pass," Kaehler said. "What would be gained if we shipped him out of the U.S.? We would now have a single mom with three kids and a girl who would have to drop out of college. Who wins? We’ve got to fix it."
In order for Kaehler to win the Democratic ticket in the August 2020 primary election — he's going up against Dan Feehan for the DFL nod — he will need greater voter participation and citizen engagement.
He pointed out that earlier generations of Americans spent more time canvassing and attending political events.
"We got too busy to go, then we got too frustrated to go," he said. "Now we’re being served as lunch.
"I need Middle America, I need regular people coming out of the woodwork to get involved again, or I won’t make it," he said. "If we sit on the sidelines and complain, we’re not going to change the game."
Networking will be key to his success.
"I need the people who believe in me to tell others that they believe in me," he said. "We will need their time and their financial support."