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Family time tugs at rural legislators, gone weeks at a time

Kent Eken and Jim Ellefson are bucking a trend. Their Minnesota House District 2A contest is one of the few rural races in which candidates still have children at home. "I am torn," Ellefson said about deciding to run. If he wins, it would mean g...

Ellefson, Eken debate

Kent Eken and Jim Ellefson are bucking a trend.

Their Minnesota House District 2A contest is one of the few rural races in which candidates still have children at home.

"I am torn," Ellefson said about deciding to run. If he wins, it would mean giving up time with his family.

"It is more difficult when you have young children during that time when you are in session," added Eken, a first-term representative. "That is the time when it probably tests the marriage the most and the commitment of the spouse."

For both candidates in the district that encompasses all of Norman and Mahnomen counties and parts of Becker, Polk and Clearwater, the decision was a balance between family and their interest in public service.

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Ellefson, a Republican, is the mayor of Ada, 40 miles northeast of Moorhead.

"My involvement with the city created the interest to probably do something a little more larger-scope than the mayor."

Eken, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party member, grew up watching his father, Willis, serve in the House for 14 years, including four as majority leader. Willis Eken served some of the same area his son now serves.

Family drew Willis Eken into politics. A son, Kyle, had been diagnosed with mental retardation. Kent Eken said his parents had two unacceptable choices for the boy - send him to an institution or keep him at home, where he could not get an education.

Willis Eken wanted a third option, to keep Kyle at home and still get an education. So he became politically active, which eventually led him to the Minnesota House. His son, Kent, followed two years ago.

"For me, politics is intertwined with family; it is not separate from it," Kent Eken said.

The candidates and their families discussed what it means for a legislator to be away from their family weekdays and some weekends when the Legislature is in session the first several months every year. They also must campaign every two years and attend frequent meetings.

"That was probably the big concern, missing some of the events she will be involved in and being away from home that long a period of time," Ellefson said about his eighth-grade daughter, Vicki.

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At the same time, legislative issues affecting the northwest Minnesota district are important, Ellefson said. As mayor, Ellefson has felt the reduction in state Local Government Aid payments.

"I think being a voice from a community in northwest Minnesota and being a member of the majority party, we would have a larger input," he said. Those factors helped tip his decision to run.

Besides family worries, many would-be candidates balk at running because of business concerns.

Ellefson's family sold the telephone company it owned in 1996. Now that he owns a nursery, he has freedom to take time off to be a lawmaker.

After he was elected two years ago, Eken quit his teaching job and his wife quit her job to be with the children.

The Ekens - with four children 5½ months to 11 years at home - live on the $31,140 annual legislator salary, supplemented by his part-time job teaching college political science classes in Detroit Lakes.

His district's average household income is $40,000.

Family and friends are important to rural legislators' spouses.

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"My brother is here to plow out the driveway for Lori," Eken said. "Neighbors down the road have made it clear to us they are there to help out ... for anything at all. That is the one nice thing about these small towns. You have a large extended family and you have neighbors who are willing to help out."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

Ellefson, Eken debate

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