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Importance of being earnest: Few attacks in Walz-Davis race

MANKATO, MINN. — Norm Coleman may have made a big statement about pulling his negative ads, but can't do a thing about the deluge of attacks that keep on airing from the national Republican powers that be. Michele Bachmann may have convinced us that she speaks from the heart, while not quite removing her foot from her mouth. And how many mea culpas has Al Franken offered at this point?

But you'll not likely hear U.S. Rep. Tim Walz or his challenger in the 1st Congressional District, Dr. Brian Davis, backpedaling from any mean-spirited gaffes between now and Election Day. That's because while the two men disagree on nearly every policy issue, there's nary a whiff of ill will between them.

"I want to thank Congressman Walz for engaging, serving and being available," Davis said as part of his closing remarks during an Oct. 13 debate on Minnesota State University, Mankato campus.

"Dr. Davis and your family," Walz snarled in retort, "thank you for being a part of this."


See how ugly things have gotten down in southern Minnesota?

Actually, in a particularly venomous political season, the Walz/Davis race is a breath of fresh air. But because it's lacking in the popular blood sport of the day, scant attention has been paid. Some of this may be due to the idea that Walz, closing out his first-term after shocking incumbent Gil Gutknecht two years ago, is a lock for the Democrats in a cycle where many are thinking sweep. On the other hand, Davis is a formidable Republican candidate in a district that has been red for years — though that may be changing — and anyone with an "R" beside his name isn't exactly a write-off candidate.

So it might not be the stuff of breathless headlines and hot-aired punditry, but the race in the 1st is giving voters in southern Minnesota something worthwhile: Two serious candidates talking thoughtfully about issues, issues, issues.

Both candidates claim that civility is part of their character — it's what the voters deserve, they'll both tell you — but it's also borne of political strategy as well.

"This is a campaign that's actually been talking more about substance and issues than you would see," says David Schultz, who teaches politics and government at Hamline University, noting the number of potential moderate voters in the district. "For the most part you're not seeing much of the major ad buys, from the national parties, and slugging it out like that. For moderates, that's where the negative attack ads are the worst. They have the least interest in attack ads, it turns them off, and I'm sure both candidates know it."

Stark differences on issues
But let's not get carried away here. This is politics, after all, in a season with much at stake. It's not like Davis and Walz are chummy.

On the surface, both candidates are straight out of Central Casting — albeit cast in the wrong party. Walz, who lives in Mankato, is a bulldog of a guy, making much of his history in the National Guard and his experiences and lessons learned as a high school football coach. Not the usual stuff of Democrats.

Rochester resident Davis, on the other hand, emits an East Coast vibe and cuts a patrician figure reminiscent of John Kerry, all the while downplaying the extreme social ideology that so many other Republicans have taken to the bank.

But on principle, Walz and Davis find little common ground, each hewing to his respective party line, but not afraid to drift away in cases of personal and political belief.

(There is a third candidate in the race, Greg Mikkelson, a Crystal Lake resident who is running under the Independence Party banner this year. Mikkelson has run before: He ran in the district in 2002 as a Green Party candidate, and again in 2004 as an Independent candidate, gathering 3.8 percent and 4.8 percent of the vote, respectively. He has no website and has not appeared in debates.)

Rep. Tim Walz
Rep. Tim Walz

Case in point is the $700 billion bailout. Both men say they oppose it, and Walz voted against it. But their opposition comes from different places. "The economics of it were solid," Walz said at the Oct. 13 debate. "But it didn't address mortgages, and there was no protection for taxpayers."

Davis opposed it for reasons of oversight. "The secretary of the Treasury came to a lot of people with a blank check," he says, leaning hard on the bad business practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "A lot of smart people gave out a lot of loans. They should not have been allowed to do that."

When it's pointed out to Davis that perhaps the bailout is the only place where he and Walz agree, he chuckles: "We both have 'A' ratings with the NRA."

From Mayo and the campaign
Davis, 50, grew up in Waukegan, Ill., in between Chicago and Milwaukee. Both of his parents were teachers, and his father, as he often points out, is a World War II veteran. Davis graduated from the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana with a degree in nuclear engineering, and worked for three years in the nuclear power industry.

"After the Three Mile Island accident, I switched to the medical field," he says, joking lightly about the degrees he's acquired in 14 years of schooling.

He went on to medical school at the University of Illinois in Chicago, did his internship at Northwestern and did a stint at Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in the mid-1990s before coming to Rochester 12 years ago. He went to work in the oncology department at the Mayo Clinic, where he met his wife, Lori, who is also a physician. They have four children, and Dr. Davis went on leave from Mayo in April 2007 to focus on his campaign.

He says he was more than happy to have Gil Gutknecht representing him in Congress, and that changed in 2006 when Walz won. "I decided to step up to the plate, and I'd always had an interest in history and politics," he says. "I never would have ruled it out [running for Congress], but never crafted my life around this."

Because of his background, Davis can talk at length (15 minutes in one interview sitting) about energy policy, laying out a convincing argument for a second look at nuclear energy. And this is the area where he and Walz differ the most. Davis sees an urgent need for drilling now, including off the coast of California, in the Gulf of Mexico and the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge. "Absolutely," he says. "Almost anywhere."

It's not that Davis doesn't see a need for alternative energy, he just thinks the jury is out, for instance, on the costs of wind power, which is an idea getting a big push in the 1st District. (He is not a climate-change denier, but he does believe that the problem may be overstated, and that the jury is out on how much man-made damage will have an impact in coming years.)

"In energy reproduction of any kind, there are pros and cons," he says. "There isn't any energy reproduction that doesn't take up resources that you'd like to use elsewhere."

And that makes him look at all the talk about wind power with a critical eye. "What would the cost be?" he asks. "Could be double, could be triple. And what would be the cost of land?"

For Davis, the price of oil is directly tied to the economy, and any economic recovery has to depend on lowering oil and fuel costs. "Energy is the lifeblood of the American economy," he told the crowd at the debate. "We are clearly in an economic downturn, if not a crisis. And it was precipitated by energy prices."

Brian Davis
Dr. Brian Davis

For a physician, Davis can be oddly slippery on health care. And maybe that's his point. He sees a need for major reform, but is opposed to "socialized medicine."

"There is not just one solution to our health care problem," he says. "We need to be able to offer in this country basic health insurance that can be purchases across state lines. Instead of having 50 separate markets, that we have one market. Health insurance can be a lot less expensive."

As for the war in Iraq, he believes the best way out is to hold a referendum, and have Iraqis vote on whether they want the U.S. out. "Have mistakes been made, yes," he says.  "For us to move forward as a nation, let's at least register an opinion."

Military background and stint in China
Aspects of Walz's story sound nearly apocryphal because it so closely resembles the "real America" that Sarah Palin has referred to recently.

He grew up in Butte, Neb., a farming town of little less than 500, where he had 24 classmates, and, as Walz, 44, often points out with a laugh, half of them were relatives. When he was 17, he joined the Nation Guard and trained at Ft. Benning, Ga., and later graduated from Chadron State College. By 1985, he was teaching at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and not long after, through a program at Harvard University, he was teaching in China.

"First time I was ever on an airplane was to go to basic training," Walz says of his quick turn of events. "Suddenly I'm totally removed from any English speakers."

Eventually he met his wife, Gwen, while teaching back in the states, and the couple moved back to her native Minnesota. Walz continued teaching, geography and English at Mankato West High School, coaching basketball and football. He also served in Italy for nine months under the Iraq War in 2003, but never saw combat.

As he tells it, he never planned to be a congressman, but he often refers to a time in 2004 when President Bush came to town, and he took his students to see the president. Some of his students had John Kerry campaign material, and the group was barred entry by the Secret Service. "It was just so divisive," Walz recalls. "That and coming back in '04, and watching that campaign in frustration. I don't know if it was an epiphany or a final push."

Soon Walz was organizing for Kerry, and when it was all over, some locals were urging Walz to organize and run. He credits Karl Rove for showing him the light on grassroots organization, and Walz knows exactly how many votes it takes to win his district this time out. (It's 181,795, for those scoring at home.)

Like Davis, Walz sees energy as a way out of the economic crisis, but unlike Davis, he doesn't see drilling as the option. He's calling for investment in all kinds of alternative fuel source, but sees wind power as a powerful source, especially in his district.

"It's huge, huge," he says. "It's job growth more than energy and environment."

The other issue that Walz sees as fundamentally wrong with the economy is a lack of oversight in the lending market, but also a crunch on the middle class. "The stagnant wages in this country are what's hurting," he said at the debate. He is also against the Bush tax cuts.

Though Walz stops short of talking about universal health coverage, he indicates that's an answer for some. "There are single mothers working 50 hours a week trying to find health insurance for their children," Walz says. "There are 29,400 veterans without health insurance. That's a fundamental difference [between him and Davis]. Health care as a right versus health care as a commodity."

As a veteran, Walz seems to talk in circles about what to do in Iraq. He says he's not sure if he would have voted for the war. And he was against the surge, mainly because it didn't have the economic and diplomatic aspects that he believes can restore Iraq to independence.

Ultimately, Walz talks more about coalition building there and in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a path toward some kind of stability. "If you want to talk about the war, [the U.S.] won the war," he says. "They took out the dictator or whatever, but the mission kept creeping. The military is designed to blow things up, not to build."

Not your grandfather's district
Perhaps a decade ago, no one would be talking about Walz, or any Democrat, as a serious challenger in the 1st. Though some of the recent trend might be backlash against Bush, some, like Hamline's David Schultz, also believe Walz's victory indicates a change in southern Minnesota.

"It's no longer your grandfather's district anymore," Schultz argues, pointing to the two main employers in the largest city in the district. "Rochester and Olmsted County make up a classic moderate swing district. Some of it is the rightward drift of the national party. With Rochester Mayo and IBM, those people are probably more moderate people than they are ideological. The population is growing, and becoming more racially diverse. It's clearly moderating."

The economy is also hitting the district hard, and Schultz sees a correlation between that, and the idea that many in the district see the military not only as a duty to country, but also a means to a financial end.

"A lot of it is the war," Schultz says, by way of explaining how the Republicans have lost ground in a part of the state where many go into the military. "Kids are coming back in body bags, and others are feeling a lot of the strain of the economy. These are people who care about patriotism and so forth. They want to support the war, and they go off, come back and feel, 'I'm being punished now for my patriotic duty.' There's a feeling that the Bush administration has gotten them to go off and fight and now isn't doing enough."

In 2004, Kerry captured 48 percent of the vote in a district that had been solidly Republican for nearly a century. Walz then beat Gutknecht 53 per cent to 47 per cent two years later.

There's a generational gap too. Joe Weis, a self-described "staunch Republican" from Rochester, has long been involved in party politics in the district, and is supporting Davis. Still, he feels that there is a trend toward moderate, and even liberal, candidates like Walz.

"It ain't conservative no more," Weis, 76, says. "Oh, hell no. When Bush stole the election from Al Gore, that got people so pissed off."

Weis admires Davis, but concedes that Walz has staying power. "Davis has got 14 years of college education, and he'd be by far the smartest guy in congress if elected," Weis offers. "It's going to be an uphill battle for Davis. It's kind of Walz's to lose. He's always talking about what he's going to do. No reason to doubt him; he's never really told me anything that he hasn't lived up to."

Ryan Marti, a 22-year-old paramedic from Mankato who served in the guard under Walz, echoes those sentiments, saying that Walz has deep ties in the community, especially among people of his generation. "I have no ill will toward Davis," Marti says, adding that he was also a student and football player of Walz's. "Former students, friends and teachers, all rallied behind [Walz] to get elected. He groomed us to be good leaders. And all I can say is, I trust Tim Walz."

Which is why Walz doesn't go on the attack — his reputation means he doesn't need to. In years past, Davis would be the man to beat, but publications like Congressional Quarterly have put the district in the category of safely Democratic. There's still an opening if people feel what Schultz identifies as a leftward drift that Walz has shown in recent months. But in truth, he's a tough incumbent.

"I sort of figured that Tim Walz owns this race," Schultz concludes. "My own sense is that the district has changed enough, and it will be very difficult, very hard to knock him off."

G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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Comments (3)

Thanks for the story, G.R. Well done. Minnpost.com, in general, has done just as good of a job covering the Minnesota scene as the Strib and PiPress -- and with far fewer resources. Bravo.

For all Dr. Davis's intelligence and education, he still seems to support changes to our health care system that sound just like John McCain's injurious, anti-poor-and-middle-class, anti-worker, anti-state-mandates/regulation "plan."

thanks for reading and posting (and the kind words) to both of you. -gr