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Stauber ready for his close-up in 8th District race

Under the eye of a life-size cutout of Ronald Reagan, Pete Stauber, who's running for the 8th Congressional District seat as a Republican, talks about where he stands on issues of immigration, the economy and health care during an interview at his campaign headquarters in Hermantown recently. Stauber said he got to meet Reagan and admired his values. Bob King / 1 / 2
On the wall at Pete Stauber's campaign headquarters in Hermantown are hundreds of photos featuring his campaign events, speaking engagements and supporters. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Pete Stauber bounced from one thing to the next at his 8th Congressional District campaign headquarters in Hermantown earlier this month. It was the same morning Congressman Rick Nolan announced his retirement to come at the end of his term. The news crashed like a wave on both major political parties. It set some familiar names to envision themselves in the seat. And it sent Stauber into a closed-door sidebar with a GOP strategist in town from Washington, D.C.

Suddenly, wealthy Republican Stewart Mills said he might be in play again after originally deciding to stay out of the 2018 midterm race following a pair of narrow losses to Nolan previously. Mills' name could be heard coming through the door behind which Stauber had momentarily disappeared.

Upheaval on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor side in the wake of Nolan's news included a trio of new candidates joining the race this past week.

When at last the 51-year-old Stauber took a seat that morning, he sounded like a person happy to have had a seven-month head start.

"Right now, we are laser-focused on what the 8th District needs and where we're going with the campaign — the grassroots strategy that we put forth," said Stauber, who launched his campaign last summer. "The team we're assembling and have assembled, it's going very well."

In praise of Nolan's service, the candidate thanked the congressman for, of all things, his support of mining. It was a deft thrust for someone new to the bigger political arena — making it seem as if Nolan had come along to Stauber's side of the street on a critical issue.

In a way, some have come around. Voters in the 8th District prevailed for Donald Trump in 2016, giving the Republican Party hope it can turn the congressional seat red during the November election.

"This district is changing and it's changing because Iron Range folks realize Republicans support mining and jobs much more than Democrats do," said Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt. "They have done a lot to block off projects from happening and people probably vote with their jobs."

Daudt lives in the southern portion of the 8th. He was in Aurora recently to express his support for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine during a public input session. He was mentioned as a possible entrant in the race for the 8th's open seat, but nothing has come of it or likely will. Last week Stauber earned an endorsement from Daudt's counterpart in the Minnesota Senate, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

Pete Stauber discusses his stance on issues in the 8th Congressional District race during a recent interview. Bob King / DNT

'Perpetual learner'

To date, Stauber still has the Republican side to himself. But his favorable nods to all things mining and the Trump tax cuts were about all that were known publicly of his campaign message. Stauber's campaign website doesn't feature any position papers, which can be popular on candidate sites.

By the time Stauber addressed wholesale campaign issues for this story, he had already attained more than 1,000 followers on Facebook and his campaign donations soared toward $300,000. A spokeswoman, campaign manager and the aforementioned strategist were all on hand as Stauber explained how he's building toward his possible place as a national legislator.

"I am a perpetual learner," he said. "I read a lot."

In little more than a half-hour with the News Tribune, the retired Duluth police lieutenant launched into his argument against "single-payer, socialized, European-style health care," and explained why he's for gun owners' rights all the way despite identifying himself as a two-time victim of violent gun encounters. He also agreed with a Nolan staple — that Social Security and Medicare "are earned benefits."

"We made a promise. Promises made, promises kept. Period," Stauber said.

When reminded that those programs are being scrutinized by Republican House leadership as part of entitlement reform discussions, Stauber said, "I'm not going to Washington to be a robot. I'm going to Washington to represent the citizens of the 8th Congressional District. I will always stand up for the people that I'm supposed to represent in a principled way."

Stauber unfurled sure campaign trail slogans — "our commonalities far outweigh our differences," and the promotion of himself as "a common-sense conservative."

"It's like running your own household," he said. "You live within your means. You do the right thing always and you take responsibility with your own decisions."

Challenged that the right thing can be more complicated and clouded by shades of grey, Stauber admitted "sometimes."

"It's dysfunctional — there's people in Washington that couldn't find Main Street Minnesota, or Main Street North Dakota," he said. "They don't know what it smells like, looks like, feels like or tastes like. That's why our Founding Fathers wanted citizen legislators — not professional politicians. When you've been in Washington 25-30 years, you have no idea what Main Street Minnesota looks like — zero."

Congressional candidate Pete Stauber talks about how he'll fight for better veteran health care. Bob King / News Tribune

Stauber called "jobs and the economy" the top election issues. The candidate then struck a hard line on heroin and opioids.

"It's costing us our youth — the time, talents and treasures that our youth have," he said.

He described going on a police call he'll never forget and finding a husband/father strung out on heroin. The man had lost his job to the addiction. His wife and daughters were crying in the kitchen.

"It was a nice house," Stauber recalled.

As a St. Louis County commissioner, Stauber has been a part of developing a multi-disciplinary team of experts to address the heroin problem locally, he said. He would encourage more of that type of local programming if he could — with an emphasis on rehabilitation and getting people back to work, he said.

"We don't need to wait for St. Paul or Washington to fix it," he said.

'Protect the people in this country'

Stauber backs military funding all the way, and said as a reminder that his wife, Jodi Stauber, is an Iraq war veteran.

"We live in a dangerous world; we're seeing it right now," he said. "The No. 1 priority for government is to protect the people in this country."

The transition from defense into health care isn't an obvious one, but Stauber made it a point. Why would anyone want single-payer health care, he wondered aloud, given the inconsistent and sometimes immoral treatment of veterans in the Veterans Health Administration? Excepting the Twin Ports VA Clinic in Superior which treats his wife well, he said, there is reason for concern.

"We have some VA clinics that are pretty good and they do a really good job; we have some that are marginal and some that we should shut down," he said. "Some of those employees that have performed poorly should not have a job."

Adding another 300 million people (Stauber's number) to government-funded socialized medicine doesn't make sense, he said. He tossed out a popular cost figure often seized by the GOP, $32 trillion, which has been widely unpacked in the mainstream media as being an unstudied, placeholder figure in a popular but dormant Democratic bill to implement single-payer health care.

Supporters greet Pete Stauber, accompanied by wife Jodi, at his campaign kickoff in July. Steve Kuchera / DNT

Socialized medicine in Canada results in patients being persuaded into drug therapies over corrective procedures, Stauber said, and prolonged waits for things such as MRIs. Stauber, a one-time professional hockey player, said he is aware of friends north of the border who prefer to receive timelier care in nearby U.S. cities such as Detroit or the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He said he believes in privatized, "patient-driven and physician-guided" care.

He also spoke in support of gun ownership and conceal-and-carry laws. Several days after the interview he would tweet his thoughts and prayers to the victims of the school shooting in Florida. Preceding that shooting, which killed 17 and wounded 15 more, Stauber engaged in a discussion about guns.

"The gun is safe as it is," he said. "... We have to work on not allowing people that have mental health issues or are in crisis to have the firearm."

He added there is room for discussion on the topic, and that he can bring his law enforcement background to the table.

"You're speaking to an individual who has been a victim of two violent gun crimes," he said. "Dec. 16, 1995, while off duty, and then while on duty at 1820 London Road where a perpetrator got the drop on me — came around the corner, put the gun up, pulled the trigger and, by the grace of God, the gun malfunctioned. I am still an ardent supporter of our Second Amendment. ... I want to make it crystal clear that in my 23 years of law enforcement I was never afraid or concerned of a law-abiding citizen with a firearm."

Stauber explained the first situation, when he was struck in the forehead by a round fired from a .22-caliber handgun by a suspect in a burglary ring. Stauber and his then-fiancee Jodi had stopped at a convenience store at Sixth Avenue East and Fourth Street. He was settling back into his truck when the bullet crashed through the windshield and ricocheted off his forehead to the ceiling before lodging in the floorboard. He and his wife ducked into the store and called 911, not knowing if they were the target of what was later determined to be a random discharge which led to the perpetrator's imprisonment.

"My head was down and I heard a big pop — the loudest I ever heard," he said. "I looked up and saw a bullet hole through the front windshield and thought somebody threw a rock or a snowball. I felt a warm sensation in my face and looked in the mirror. There was blood running down my face and I told Jodi, 'Let's go; somebody just shot me.' "

The wound was later described in news stories as superficial, but Stauber said it tore open his forehead. By the grace of God, he said, it didn't penetrate his skull.

'My entire life has really prepared me for this'

When the topic was turned to immigration, Stauber noted that the new spokeswoman for his campaign was first generation in the United States from Poland. He said the immigration debate included more than a couple viewpoints and that it required compassion be brought to any debate or policy.

"People that want to come to this country legally, the proper way, and assimilate and live the American dream," he said, "we are open arms; I am open arms."

Challenged on the word "assimilate," and how it could be construed as threatening, he was asked about a random example of a Spanish-speaking person moving into a metropolitan borough. Would that person need to "assimilate" by learning to speak English? No, Stauber said.

"When I say assimilate what I think I'm meaning is obey our laws, follow our rules," he said.

He concluded with a draft of what could be an elevator speech for his candidate biography.

"My entire life has really prepared me for this," he said. "Playing hockey on a team winning national championships — meeting President Reagan. Getting my college degree. Working in law enforcement. A former paramedic. A victim of violent gun crime. Married with four children, one with special needs. I love to hunt and fish. Small-business owner. This has prepared me. I spent eight years on Hermantown City Council. It was wonderful and at that time we were the fastest-growing community north of the Twin Cities suburbs. Lots of production. Then when I ran for County Board the issues were broader. You have to work at it. You have to work hard."