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

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 10/08/2013 - 10:43 am.

    Minnesota Nice

    How lucky we are to have leaders in our legislature who take time to work for the betterment of others. Knowing that this event was a setup Rep Winkler still drove on his own time to Maple Lake; he bartended to raise funds and food for struggling folks in Wright County; and made the case for economic justice to Ms Koch’s friends.

    It is unlikely the audience came with minds open to Rep Winkler’s advocacy on behalf of the lowest wage earners in our community. My hope is that the rest of Minnesota is listening not only to Representative Winkler but to folks all over the state who can help us understand why it is reasonable to raise the minimum wage to benefit families and eventually our entire economy.

    • Submitted by Gene Kasper on 10/09/2013 - 10:20 am.

      Minnesota Nice

      Yes, Rep Winkler took his time to debate in Wright County shows his willingness to engage at the grass root level. That is to his credit. But, and it is a large “but”, most of his premises are left bromides that are easily refuted. Koch was being very nice and did not call him on most of them.

      For a few examples out of many, Rep. Winkler said the “essential” point was that by increasing the minimum wage more money would be spent and that would benefit the economy including businesses and more beer would be sold in bars like the one owned by Koch. If that is true, then increase the minimum wage to $12 or even $50 so our economy would then benefit. Of course this premise is wrong on many fronts and what keeps us from increasing the minimum wage to $75/hour is the same as what should be the reasons for not increasing the minimum wage to $10/hour or having a state set a minimum wage at all.

      The other was he compared a few high minimum wage states to respective lower unemployment percentages. Again all one needs is one example to show that this premise is false. Wyoming is one such example. The correlation that Winkler implied has no causation to minimum wage levels.

      High minimum wage mandated by the state harms the lower income person with few employable skills. Nationwide under 5% or the workforce are at the minimum wage level at any given moment in time. Studies by the UofM, the IRS and the Dallas Federal Reserve to name a few, show that most individuals, perhaps up to 90%, of those individuals who receive low wages report higher incomes 8 to 10 years later.

      The hard truth is employers will not hire someone who cannot provide value to the business and the person making a low wage has the responsibility to gain skills that increase their employable values and most do that over time. By placing a minimum wage, pushes people out of the work force as the price for their labor has no return to the employer. The logical conclusion is that minimum wages, most certainly those that are set too high, are barriers to employment and deny them the opportunity to learn employable skills. So they remain poor and unable to obtain the skills to earn a “living wage” in the future.

      We have major barriers to employment for those with limited skills and abilities. A state forced wage that is set above market adds to those barriers. We should support those who are willing to work and learn skills that provide real value to employers not put in more barriers to their employment with state mandated minimum wage laws.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/08/2013 - 12:39 pm.

    stay retired

    A famous US Army General once said retired Generals should stay retired, same applies to politicians especially those that leave office due to a scandal.

  3. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/08/2013 - 02:37 pm.

    Wow, some people’s self-image!

    Whether it’s Anthony Weiner, Amy Koch or a host of others, stop believing you’re vital enough that we should overlook your shortcomings. Very few people are so uniquely qualified to lead that we should forgive their huge moral failings. Any talents Amy Koch possesses can be found in dozens of others, without her lack of character.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/08/2013 - 03:54 pm.

      What would you say

      if I told you that a member of the Minnesota congressional delegation had an affair with their chief of staff which caused the destruction of two families? Would you call for his/her resignation?

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/08/2013 - 03:36 pm.

    Don’t forget about the past indiscretions of Mr. Winkler

    Just think if Michele Bachman had made a racist statement like Mr. Winkler had broadcast. Minnpost would never let us forget and forgive as they have obviously done with Mr. Winkler.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 10/08/2013 - 05:29 pm.

    Enlighten us Ron

    as to this ‘racist statement’.

    Poor Michelle….never bad-mouthed anyone, and yet she is always getting called on the carpet for her supposed shortcomings.

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/09/2013 - 06:21 am.

    Maple Lake yesterday…tomorrow NATION/WORLD?

    Where’s the story here? A small town bar trying to make some bucks with a couple local worn- thin political figures? Sponsored by Coors?

    Local coloratura in this village national, world interest? Is that all there is?

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/09/2013 - 08:15 am.


    Mr. Winkler made racially insensitive remarks concerning Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

    At first, he did not believe the remarks to be racists. A Lawyer –pleading ignorance that his comments were offensive is hard to believe. Mr. Winkler also has a history degree from Harvard.

    Second, he gave a non-apology apology.

    Third, He finally, after being educated, he issued an apology.

    Dennis – I am surprised you were not aware of this. It kind of proves my point.

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