In what’s already been a political era of smashed expectations and vanishing precedents, 2020 still finds a way to upend preconceived notions for Americans across the country. There are few, if any moments in American history where so many “once-in-a-generation” crises unfolded during the same calendar year: An economy in a tailspin. Millions thrust into poverty and homelessness. Social unrest and riots across the globe. Natural catastrophes blotting out the sun. A worldwide plague that killed hundreds of thousands. Wars and rumors of wars — just to name a few.
And so, with Nov. 3 looming on the calendar, is it surprising that both major parties have described Election Day in biblical terms of success or failure — preserving the American way of life or a calamitous fall into ruin? Only the future can be the judge if this political dogfight is portents of what’s to come, or just self-serving hyperbole by politicians, but there’s little doubt that 2020 represents a year of reckoning for powerful forces in American life that have been mounting for decades.
In the 8th Congressional District, voters will decide between incumbent Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, or DFL challenger Quinn Nystrom, whose rise to prominence is directly tied to her nationally-acclaimed advocacy for diabetics and stints in local government as a council member for the city of Baxter.
Much like her opponent was in 2018, Quinn Nystrom is entering this race as something of a political novice.
Sure, she sports experience as a member of the Baxter City Council and has been a public advocate for years, rubbing shoulders with Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. But, just as Rep. Pete Stauber didn’t sport any experience at the federal level, Nystrom is also new to this echelon of public service.
However, Nystrom is no stranger to the public sphere. As a recognizable and prominent diabetes advocate in the nation, Nystrom’s candidacy for the 8th Congressional District is firmly grounded in health care and prescription drug reform. Despite being 34 years old, Nystrom has been an advocate for decades, though her public profile has skyrocketed in recent years. This is due, in no small part, to what she sees as widespread dysfunction in the American health care system, which has seen ballooning deductibles, exorbitant prescription prices, shrinking access and failing services across the nation.
Unlike her predecessor Joe Radinovich, Nystrom garnered the DFL nomination for the 8th Congressional District with only token opposition. It’s a far cry from 2018, when the crowded DFL field was fractured over the issue of mining and environmental concerns interwoven into that issue. In 2020, Nystrom’s tone has been much more in line with Stauber, who strongly promoted mining operations with the caveat that environmental regulations should be upheld to protect local ecosystems and communities.
This is one area where Nystrom has proven to be more moderate in her positions. While she’s aligned herself with the youth wing of the Democratic Party in her support of repealing Citizens United and rejecting the support of political action committees — or PAC money — Nystrom is a self-described incrementalist who practices a gospel of pragmatism to ensure the perfect doesn’t stifle the possible. She’s pointed to her years as a diabetes advocate and city council member, where she said she’s worked with conservative colleagues to find common ground.
This year, with the elevation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and a definitive 6-3 conservative majority in the nation’s highest judicial body, the issue of Roe v. Wade and abortion rights has again come to the fore.
This is one area where Nystrom has shown some contradicting statements. For the record, Nystrom has been endorsed by Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL Pro-Choice America this election cycle. When she ran against Republican state Rep. Josh Heintzeman in 2016, Nystrom described herself as pro-life.
“I’ve always been pro-life,” Nystrom said during a debate with Heintzeman. “I have not moved my stance on that. … I don’t believe that I answer to the Democratic party at the end of the day.”
In talks with the Dispatch, Nystrom said she would not choose to have an abortion herself and could be described as anti-abortion in her personal choices, but doesn’t believe public officials should force those beliefs on other people. Supporting abortion rights, she said, means allowing people to decide that for themselves.
“When we’re talking about policy,” Nystrom said, “I don’t believe it’s the government’s role to be put in between a woman and her health care provider, just like I equally don’t think that the government should be put in between a health care provider and a man’s decision about different things with his health.”
Much like Stauber, Nystrom said the main challenge facing the 8th District the coming two years is COVID-19 and how the federal government will navigate a host of related issues as diverse as pandemic relief funding to expanding rural broadband, from copper-nickel mining to law enforcement reform — and everything in between.
In 2020, roughly 40 million Americans lost their jobs at the height of the pandemic and tens of millions lost their employment-based health care coverage as a result. As the nation tries to find its footing again during the worst health crisis in a century, much of the national discourse has centered around alternative ways Americans can secure affordable health coverage even if they can’t maintain a job for no fault of their own.
“Not only are (people) struggling to put food on the table, but they’re struggling to figure out — can they pick up a prescription drug on a Friday, or when their children get sick can they bring them in without health insurance that won’t bankrupt them?” Nystrom said. “We cannot have health insurance tied directly to somebody’s employer.”
Nystrom said the best path forward is to improve and build off the Affordable Care Act, with an end goal to create a viable public option for people to buy into for their health care coverage needs.
During the presidency of President Donald Trump, the U.S. national debt skyrocketed at a rate previously unseen in American politics, increased by just under $7 trillion in less than four years. Some of this can be attributed to budgetary decisions and tax policies by the Trump administration prior to 2020, but much of it is tied to pandemic relief bills needed to soften the blow from statewide lockdowns intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Nystrom criticized tax cuts by Republicans that largely benefit corporate or high-income earners over lower and middle class Americans. The debt will continue to grow, she said, so long as lower-income Americans are expected to pick up the tab for people like Trump, who paid $750 in income tax in 2019, and powerful corporations like Eli Lilly and Co., which receive subsidies and pay virtually nothing in taxes to the federal government.
In short, the United States’ tax system needs significant structural reforms so everyone pays their fair share.
“I can say I make a heck of a lot less (than Trump), and I pay way more than $750 a year. So do most Americans right now who are middle class or lower class,” Nystrom said. “And so, I believe that is the first thing that needs to be addressed in this next Congress, so that we can start getting ourselves out of this massive debt.”
In 2020, the U.S. economy spiraled into Great Depression territory, with unemployment rates spiking at levels unseen since the 1930s and more than 8 million Americans descended into poverty.
The federal government’s relief and stimulus packages — with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act preeminent — gave American citizens a one-time payment of $1,200 and authorized a $600 boost to unemployment benefits. Small businesses were granted access to more than $500 billion in zero-interest loans and grants.
Assessments of the CARES Act have ranged from praise as one of the most robust relief programs in U.S. history, to criticism as a bloated package of handouts ripe for abuse.
Nystrom praised the passage of the CARES Act, but criticized Republicans in the Senate for stonewalling passage of the House-sponsored Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act. She said the HEROES Act would have continued to support Americans — particularly lower-income and some Native American communities — who haven’t received much aid and are on the brink of bankruptcy.
With the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd on May 25, a firestorm of unrest erupted in Minneapolis and spread across the globe. Within weeks, all 50 states saw more than 10,600 mass protests against police brutality that brought together 15 million to 26 million people in the single largest protest movement in American history. Estimates place between $1 to $2 billion in damage was inflicted on American properties during riots.
Nystrom noted she’s had productive working relationships with Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted and she’s not in favor of defunding police, but there has to be more accountability for law enforcement officers that act out of line — accountability measures, she noted, that are missing from the Justice Act that Stauber championed in the House this year.
“We need to see that this is not an isolated incident,” Nystrom said. “We know that there have been several circumstances very similar to George Floyd’s.”
Needless to say, 2020 has not been good for the soul, with reports of skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, drug overdoses and suicidal ideation coupled with indications that mental health services and crisis hotlines are severely overtaxed. A particularly disturbing report by the Public Health Survey at the University of Chicago indicated 1 out of 10 Americans seriously contemplated taking their own life in June.
Nystrom emphasizes that the issue, now more than ever, is critically underfunded and this is reflected across the board — from counties’ struggles to keep beds available for those in need, to high suicide rates among veterans, to high incarceration rates of the mentally unstable, particularly in rural areas. Leaning on her experience as a mental health liaison for the city of Baxter, Nystrom said she would look to empower people to pursue mental health as a career and provide more funding for local care providers to bridge the gap.
“We have to put funding appropriately into the different parts of the country to make sure that there’s therapists, psychiatrists, and treatment options,” Nystrom said. “The federal level needs to make sure that when people are ready to get treatment — if that’s for opioid addiction — that health insurance companies are required to pay.”
In terms of mass surveillance, Nystrom would not commit to renewing, or reforming, or repealing the Patriot Act as it currently stands. She said she would have to review the matter carefully to determine whether it’s still necessary for public safety. In 2015, polls by the American Civil Liberties Union indicate 80% of Americans fear their privacy and personal information is being infringed, while 60% of Americans believe the Patriot Act should be reformed.
In terms of the federal minimum wage, Nystrom said she is in favor of raising it and criticized Stauber’s position, noting that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would roughly equal the $600 “plus” in unemployment benefits the incumbent believes is disincentivizing workers from going back to work. If minimal government aid during a crisis is better than what they’ll receive at work, she said, it means the pay needs to be better across the board, rather than blaming workers as lazy or entitled.
In terms of Enbridge Line 3, Nystrom said she is in favor of the project, so long as it incorporates input from affected populations, particularly Native American communities.
In terms of the nation’s D+ rated infrastructure, Nystrom said the government needs to be proactive, not reactive — especially with memories of the I-35 bridge collapse still in the minds of many. She said she would push for a large-scale infrastructure package to be passed by early next year.