Ballot set for Senate District 54 special election


Candidates focus on infrastructure, health care costs and education


Voters in Senate District 54 have a chance to vote early this year in a Feb. 12 special election. 

Gov. Mark Dayton called for the special election after Dan Schoen, a Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 2016 to a four-year term, resigned late last year due to allegations of sexual harassment. 

There are three candidates on the ballot: DFLer Karla Bigham, Republican Denny McNamara and Libertarian Emily Mellingen. 

McNamara won the Jan. 29 Republian primary against James Brunsgaard III with almost 85 percent of the vote. 

The Review asked the candidates via email what skills and experiences they would bring to the office, what they believe to be the top challenges the district faces and what issues or projects they would prioritize if elected.

Mellingen did not respond to the questionnaire by deadline.


Bigham, 38, lives in Cottage Grove with her husband John. She has served as a Washington County commissioner since 2015. Bigham has her master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Minnesota.

Bigham said that as a Washington County commissioner, former state representative and Cottage Grove City Council member, she is "the only candidate in the race with state and local experience to bring the necessary change to the Capitol that will restore the public’s trust in government.”

She added she has a record of taking tough votes that get the community what it needs. In the Senate, she said she would fight to get a comprehensive transportation plan and the district’s fair share of transportation funding. 

A challenge facing the district, she said, is healthcare.

“When you’re sick you need a doctor, not a headache. Last session, Republicans gave insurance companies $900 million with no strings attached — instead of fixing the real problems in healthcare. That’s a ‘plan’ we can’t afford. We need to get our arms around the cost-drivers and make sure all of us have affordable health insurance,” Bigham said.

If elected, Bigham said she would prioritize making sure the state’s funding for schools and roads keeps up with growth.


McNamara, 65, lives in Hastings with his wife Lynne. He said he works part time and has a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business Administration. 

McNamara represented District 54B for seven terms as a state representative. He said as a successful small business owner of 30 years, an active member of the community and a former state lawmaker, he has learned there needs to be more leaders who understand the impact laws have on everyday citizens.

If elected, McNamara said he would bring his skills as a trustworthy, experienced, independent leader, “that has lived in this area my entire life and understands the needs of our communities.”

“We need to start using some common sense in addressing our top priorities,” McNamara said, adding kids deserve to receive a world-class education.

Challenges facing the district include improving road and bridge infrastructure, creating job opportunities for the workforce and continuing to find ways to lower the cost of healthcare. 

“We need to allow hardworking families to keep more of what they earn, force state government to live within its means and eliminate the wasteful government spending that occurs at the state level. All of this starts by prioritizing spending, and ultimately, the needs of local residents in the state Senate,” McNamara said.

He said there are a number of issues that need to be prioritized like good schools and good roads. He added that healthcare costs have skyrocketed and that more ways to reduce those prices, while increasing access to affordable healthcare and improving patient choice, need to be found.

Tax relief is also important as McNamara said residents tell him they don’t want their next state senator prioritizing tax increases.

Most importantly, McNamara said he wants to restore people’s trust.

“People are tired of being embarrassed, they want a senator with experience and integrity. I am that kind of leader, and I ask for your support,” he said.


Senate District 54 includes part of South St. Paul. To find a polling site, visit


– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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