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Published February 18, 2012, 11:30 PM

Santorum hears from local mothers during Fargo visit

FARGO – As part of his bid for the Republican presidential candidacy, Sen. Rick Santorum paused briefly during a stopover Wednesday evening in Fargo to chat with a small group of local mothers.

FARGO – As part of his bid for the Republican presidential candidacy, Sen. Rick Santorum paused briefly during a stopover Wednesday evening in Fargo to chat with a small group of local mothers.

The discussion was set in motion by Maria Hennen, wife of local radio host Scott Hennen, and took place in a private room of the Holiday Inn following Santorum’s rally.

Earlier this month, when the two met at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference event in Washington D.C., Scott asked the senator what he wanted to do during his visit to North Dakota. Santorum said he hoped to talk with “real people.” Together, they decided on Tioga – Oil Patch country – and Fargo as the best locations.

The idea to have a politician-mom meeting was not original. Maria said that several months ago, she and Scott were flipping through television channels and randomly stopped on CSPAN, which was hosting a discussion with another Republican candidate, Newt Gingrich, and a group of mothers.

“It was a really cool format and evoked answers from Newt that were unlike anything we’ve heard before,” Maria said.

Maria selected the mothers herself, choosing those she knows are tuned into politics in at least a general way. She didn’t want to know beforehand which presidential candidate the moms might be leaning toward.

“I know one of them did like a different candidate,” she said. “But I didn’t want it to be an easy slam-dunk. I just wanted to elicit some sincere responses from Rick.”

In order to keep the setting casual and not intimidating for the moms, Maria said, media presence was kept to a minimum. “This normally would have been Scott’s half-hour, so typically it would have been him in a room with Rick,” she said. “We wanted it to be as much like a natural conversation as possible and for the moms not to feel pressured.”

The setting included six chairs set in a circle – one for Santorum, and the rest for the five mothers. Another group of chairs was set up nearby for family members.

The participants, all of whom live near or in Fargo, included Rebekah Skogen, mother of five who works part time at a vocational school; Susan Noah, mother of six boys; Kari Brock, mother of four and a geography/current events instructor at Sullivan Middle School; Cheryl Unterseher, single mother of one employed by Fargo Public Schools; and me, the only media presence allowed.

The session lasted 22 minutes, during which time participants had a chance to ask the senator one question.

Skogen went first, asking him what he might do as president to lower gas prices. “It’s painful to pay as much at the pump as we do,” Skogen said.

Santorum suggested, as one solution, opening up areas currently considered off-limits for the extraction of energy resources. “My intention is to look at those lands and see where we can … open them up for leasing, or in some cases, move them to the state or sell them more profitably to private ownership.”

He also proposed challenging the current regulatory environment, which he said creates uncertainty and unnecessary costs.

A third possibility would be to build a pipeline. “That would be huge for North Dakota and Canada. You could get your oil and market it in a way that could be a much more profitable venture than it is right now.”

Noah said her biggest concern is the challenge of trying to raise children with integrity, a strong work ethic and other virtues. “What can you do to change the culture as president?” she asked.

Santorum began by saying that because politics often reflects the culture, it can’t always shape the culture in profound ways, but that a president can make some impact, including personal example. Being a good husband and father is the first place to start, he said.

“At the same time, it’s also what you say and what your policies are; what you choose to talk about.”

Brock said that teaching in a Catholic school has allowed her to help instill values of faith in youngsters, but those values are not necessarily being reflected in the culture, and our children are being bombarded by mistruths. “I guess what I’m wondering is, are you prepared for what the response will be to you as a conservative Catholic?”

“Oh yeah, this isn’t my first rodeo,” Santorum said, noting that he’s been attacked on issues regarding his faith convictions many times before.

Responding to statistics Brock obtained from Facebook with a grid showing that 98 percent of Catholics practice birth control, despite church teaching to the contrary, Santorum said that just because we don’t always live up to our own standards doesn’t mean we should live down to where the culture is. “We should always aspire to do better.”

He acknowledged that the Catholic Church’s position on contraception is a controversial topic, but one he’s researched well and understands as a conscientious Catholic.

“I’ve read ‘Theology of the Body’ and the church’s teaching on this, and it makes perfectly good sense to me, “ he said, noting that the lack of Catholic consensus on the issue has more to do with formation than the teaching itself.

“To some degree do I suffer the consequence of that?” he asked. “When the church at large doesn’t preach the Gospel or teach the truth, we all suffer.”

As representative of SheSays, my question was more general, pertaining to what Santorum believes are the most important issues for women right now.

“I tend to look at it as, what are the most important issues for America, because half of America are women,” he said, “and women are certainly not any kind of monolith, either in their beliefs or their actions or a whole host of other things, politically or otherwise.”

Santorum added that women seem to be doing relatively well, in terms of higher college enrollment and a strong presence in the work place and “with what they hope to accomplish in the work place.” Where things may differ for them from men, he said, is a greater need for flexibility in the work place, depending on their phase in life.

“I would try to facilitate and make clear that we wanted and accepted that discrepancy or disparity between how women in the workplace function versus men,” he said, noting that solutions such as job-sharing can work well. “I guess I would identify that as something that maybe … the business community doesn’t recognize how valuable that resource is.”

His final question of the evening came from Unterseher, who said she dislikes entitlement programs and wonders how he, as president, would handle them.

“What I want to do with all of these entitlement programs, save Social Security and Medicare, is to treat them the same way we did welfare,” he said. “Welfare was cut, capped and frozen for five years, which gave flexibility to the states to redesign their program under certain guidelines.”

Santorum said the first programs to address and consider for a block grant would be Medicaid and food stamps. “All the rest are relatively small programs compared to those two,” he said, proposing that Medicare be given back to the states.

“(We need to) get the federal government out of the Medicare business and make that a private-sector-run program,” he said. “People don’t realize how much the federal government controls health care, even private sector healthcare.” Giving it back to the states, he said, will allow for “discrepancy and disparity, which may lead to a lot more competition and efficiency.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Roxane Salonen at (701) 241-5587