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Former Senate leader Amy Koch takes first step back into politics at minimum-wage debate

“I’m emphatically not running — in 2014,” she said. After that? Koch laughed and went about the business of greeting friends who came to watch her debate DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler.

Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler debated a hike in Minnesota's minimum wage at Koch's bowling alley in Maple Lake.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

Given the excitement, the crowd, the big sign announcing a debate, it appeared that the proprietor of the bowling establishment in Maple Lake was making her first step back into politics.

But the proprietor, former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, laughed.

“I’m emphatically not running — in 2014,” she said.

After that? Koch laughed again and went about the business of greeting friends from around the region who had come to the Maple Lake Bowl to watch Koch debate DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler about whether the state’s minimum wage should be raised.

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Winkler has been the champion for increasing Minnesota’s minimum to $9.50 an hour.

Her story has been told often, of course. Koch was credited by her peers for her work in giving the GOP the majority in the state Senate in 2010. For her work in that campaign, her party made her the Senate’s majority leader. But in December 2011, everything unraveled for Koch.

That’s when her peers forced her to step down as majority leader, publicly pointing to her affair with Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb. Koch announced that she would not seek re-election in 2012.

Putting her life back together

Koch, now divorced, is putting her life back together. As part of reconstruction, she purchased the bowling/restaurant/bar in December. She said she’s not yet sure whether she’s making minimum wage herself since that purchase.

A few things were obvious at the debate:

• Koch still has strong conservative political convictions. “The market should decide how much people are paid,” she said.

• She still has a sense of humor. At the end of the hourlong debate, Koch told the crowd, “I win or I cut you off [at the bar].” (That got laughs, including a laugh from Winkler.)

• Koch may have had a big fall from grace, but she has a lot of friends in Wright County. Given the hugs and hearty handshakes she was receiving and giving, it’s clear that a lot of people either never stopped believing in Koch, or that they have forgiven her.

“I accept and give forgiveness,” Koch said in a quiet moment before the debate.

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The idea for a debate began about a month ago, when Winkler and Koch began sharing tweets.

One tweet led to another and finally to the suggestion that they should have a debate on the minimum wage at her bowling establishment, which is about 50 miles north and west of downtown Minneapolis.

Winkler agreed to be a “guest” bartender before the debate. It turned out that he was a highly specialized bartender. He only pulled the Coors Light tap for small beers given away to those who made a donation to the local food shelf. (More than $100 and 60 pounds of food were donated by the gathering of about 100.)

For the debate, Winkler and Koch sat beneath a sign that looked like something you might see at a boxing match.

“Live Debate!! Koch vs Winkler,” read the sign that stretched across a couple of lanes at the eight-lane establishment. (Monday is not a bowling night.)

Living wage vs. market forces

The debate was serious, respectful and predictable. Given that Maple Lake is in the heart of GOP country and that Koch was surrounded by buddies, it wasn’t surprising that Koch got most of the applause.

Here were the basic arguments:

Winkler: “This is not just about the minimum wage. It’s about the fact that people working full time should be able to support themselves and their family.” The biggest areas of job growth in Minnesota — and across the nation — are in traditionally low-wage sectors of the economy.

Restaurant, low-end health-care workers, part-time office and retail workers need the boost of a higher minimum wage. Those dollars would flow from the pockets of those workers back into the economy.

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Koch: “Ryan and I both want the same thing, more money in people’s checks.” But the best way to get that is to encourage “job creators” to move into the state. The competition for workers will force the market to increase wages.

The “unintended consequence” of raising the minimum wage is that it will force businesses to cut their workforces. “You hurt the very people you want to help.” Better to give more businesses more tax incentives for paying higher wages than to give those wages directly to workers.

Winkler said that Koch’s argument is as old as the advent of the minimum wage, which began in 1938. Always, he said, businesses have argued that raising the minimum will hurt the low-paid workers and raise prices. It’s never been true, he said.

He also noted that if the minimum had merely kept up with inflation, it would be $10.75 an hour today, not today’s $7.25 federal and $6.15 state rates.

Typically, this was a crowd that favored Koch’s “let the market decide” argument.

But there were murmurs of approval and even one burst of applause for Winkler when he noted “wages are at a record low and profits are at a record high. Wages are not the problem.”

Still, this was Koch’s place and Koch’s night.

“I’d like to pay my bartenders $20 an hour,” Koch said. “They work their tails off. But this place just can’t sustain that.’’

An increase in the minimum wage might just cost one of her half-dozen employees their job, Koch lamented.

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She did suggest that customers could help the staff by giving generous tips.

At the end, there were ever more reminders of the power of home-field advantage. Koch was given a birthday cake (she turns 42 today) which she shared with the crowd.

Winkler tried to smile as he was forcefully told that life is very difficult for business people in the state.