The first debate in the big Third Congressional District general election campaign, held early today at General Mills headquarters and sponsored by the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, was a tame affair with no name-calling and few punches landed.
State Rep. Erik Paulsen, the Republican nominee, managed to mention Jim Ramstad, the popular, retiring, Republican congressman in the district, at least seven times, but who’s counting.
Attorney Ashwin Madia, the Democrat in the race, brought up the fact that he is a former Republican and presented himself as a pro-business, pro-growth Democrat.
David Dillon of the Independence Party one-upped Madia by being a former Republican and a former DFLer who now believes that the polarized two-party “food fight” keeps Congress from getting anything done.
Dillon probably made the biggest impression, if only because, as a newcomer to the race and the representative of a party that, let’s face it, hasn’t won many elections, expectations were low. Dillon came across as thoughtful and articulate. He employed a couple of cute gimmicks, such as bringing with him to the event (although he didn’t have it on stage) a 6,000-page printout of the U.S. tax code (and that doesn’t include the 1,000-page index) as an example of what’s wrong with Washington. Dillon also pledged to “resign and come home” from Washington if he ever votes for deficit spending or if he ever supports any earmarked appropriations.
Paulsen and Madia declined Dillon’s invitations to join him in that pledge, but they did join him in denouncing deficit spending. Paulsen endorsed the old Reaganite standard of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. None of them identified any major areas of spending cuts they would support to accomplish that goal. Madia presents himself as the candidate who is willing to ask for shared sacrifice such as allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the highest-income 1 or 2 percent of Americans. Paulsen said any tax increases “would be a tremendous mistake.” Madia said that if the feds don’t raise the money from somewhere, they simply end up borrowing the money from China and leaving the debt for our kids to worry about.
The format didn’t do much to focus on differences. Each candidate had two minutes to respond general topic areas. It’s impressive, once you get into general election mode how narrow the differences become.
All three candidates endorsed the expansion of free trade pacts, vowed to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil through a combination of off-shore drilling and promotion of alternative energy technologies, and all thought that education is really, really important.
Paulsen and Dillon got to gang up on Madia because he supports the “Employee Free Choice Act,” which would enable unions to organize a workplace by acquiring signatures from a majority of the workers, but without the current requirement of a secret ballot. Paulsen said the change would “fundamentally shift the balance of power between unions and management for decades to come,” and feigned surprise to find Madia to the left of even George McGovern on the issue. Dillon used it as yet another example of how each of the major parties is beholden to its special interests — in this case, a Democrat beholden to the big unions who favor the bill. Madia said that if a majority of workers express their support for a union by signing cards, that’s fine, as long as no intimidation is used. The others said intimidation would surely occur.
Madia’s favorite line of attack was to mention that Paulsen, as a legislator and leader of the Republican caucus in the House, had supported “the biggest education cuts in Minnesota history,” a reference to the budget fight of 2003. He even managed to get a reference to it into his answer on the Union elections question.
The suburban Third District, which curls around Minneapolis like a C on the north, west and south, has been represented by Republicans for 50 years but has become a swing district in other races over recent years. Ramstad, a very popular moderate Repub, was considered a shoo-in for another term if he had wanted it, but his retirement set off what most of the raters believe is one of the ten biggest swing races in the country.
Paulsen has said that he is more conservative than Ramstad, and sees himself as more of a “Pawlenty Republican.” But he didn’t say that on Thursday. Instead he described himself as a “student” of Ramstad (and also of Bill Frenzel, the moderate Republican who preceded Ramstad in the seat), that he worked for Ramstad as a young man, that Ramstad supports him, and that Ramstad is chairing his campaign.
Update and closings
After I filed my post this morning, the Chamber of Commerce put out a press release that included (nearly) full text of the three candidates’ closing statements. I thought you might like to get the raw feed without any more of my snotty analysis. Here they are:
Paulsen: “Today, we’re competing against China, India and the rest of the world in a hypercompetitive global market. If we’re going to continue successfully, Congress is going to need to act with forward-thinking leadership to jumpstart our stagnant economy. That means we have to have a conversation about new energy options and domestic opportunities for exploration. We need to make sure we have an educated workforce down the road, and we need to make sure we’re formulating and addressing health care costs that are affecting small businesses and families throughout the Third District.
“And, we need the right tax code that’s going to increase and enhance the high-quality jobs of the future. That’s a big difference between me and Mr. Madia — I am for extending those tax cuts. That is critical. Because it’s going to impact families and small businesses in the Third District in a very negative way if we don’t allow them to go forward. The Third District is made up of a very vibrant small business community, and we don’t need to give them more tax burdens.
“We need more than anything to look at the examples of Jim Ramstad and Bill Frenzel — folks who have been very involved in my recent campaign; Jim Ramstad is the chair of my campaign. Working for him I learned one important lesson I will always carry with me: the importance of civility in politics and being results-oriented, much like the business community. We need that in Congress. We need to restructure the practice in Washington to eliminate partisan fighting and get more in the habit of cooperating and rebuilding for our future.
“There’s no doubt these are challenging times, but America is the best, most prosperous and most wonderful country in the world. I know with the right leadership we will continue to make the Third District and Minnesota a great place to live, to work and to raise a family.”
Dillon: “We’ve established that Congress needs to act. What I have to ask you is, do you think they will? Do you think they will do something about Social Security? Do you think they will address health care? I know we’ve been talking about energy since the ‘70s — do you think they will now act?
“What I’m trying to point out here is that partisan politics — from professional politicians to people who would like to be professional politicians — is part of the problem. It’s a two-year election cycle. It’s not long between now and when the next election comes up, and there’s special interest money at play. I’m the one candidate in this race who has declined to take special interest money, and it’s an expensive decision to do that in politics. And yet I believe that proves me to be in a position that no one else has in this race.
“As an independent, I would be in a position to speak truth to power, to take ideas from both sides of the aisle, to argue to the right that the left has a good idea for universality in health care; to argue to the left that we have to take costs out of the system, and that includes taking regulation out of the system. If you consider this, if you’re willing to send an independent to Congress, the country will take notice. And I will tell you one other thing: if you will lead, the professional politicians will follow.”
Madia began by explaining that until five or six years ago, he was a member of the Republican Party, but he left due to its promotion of fiscally irresponsible policy and “wars we didn’t need to fight with enemies we didn’t need to have.”
“Now I’m a moderate, pro-business Democrat. I’m fiscally conservative and I’m socially moderate. Of course want taxes to be low, and of course I want a balanced budget, and I want to keep government out of people’s personal lives.
“Ultimately, elections are about choices, and you have a very clear choice before you here today,” Madia said. “You can continue [as we have been] — some people think that the way to get our economy moving again is to do more of the same. Maybe it’s more tax cuts, more deficit spending and more debt. Just keep going and someone else can take care of the debt later on — maybe it will be our kids, or maybe our grandkids, but someone will figure it out. I disagree. I think we can do better.
“We need to balance our federal budget, invest in our people and create a comprehensive energy strategy to get off this dependence on foreign oil. I think if we do these things we’ll have a new direction for our economy — these are pro-growth policies that will help everyone in our communities, small businesses especially.
“Now it’s true that I’m not giving you short-term fixes here. These are mid-term to long-term solutions. If we want to get our nation back on track again, it needs to take all of us as Americans coming together again to solve these problems and right our nation’s course. The good news is, we’ve been doing it for generations…we’ve put someone on the moon, we’ve mapped the human genome…it is inside of us to do it, it’s in our DNA to come together as Americans to be part of the solution. I think we have an opportunity here to get things in our great nation back on track again, and I’d be honored to have your support.”