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Sorting out DFL governor candidates: Forum a good introduction to a tough task

Eleven candidates took turns in ever-changing groups of three answering questions. The format worked, I guess, and was surely better than listening to 11 straight answers to each question.

November 24 DFL gubernatorial debate
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
About 700 turned out Tuesday to hear from the field of DFL candidates.

The sheer size of the DFL field for governor (the Repub field, too, but that’s for another day) makes it really hard on debate organizers (and even on debate attendees).

If you are just trying to figure out who’s who and what the basic pitches are, last night’s DFL debate in Hopkins was a good introduction to a tough task.

Eleven candidates took turns over more than two hours, in ever-changing groups of three, answering questions, chosen at semi-random out of a fishbowl by moderator Tom Hauser of KSTP-TV. It worked, I guess, and was surely better than listening to 11 straight answers to each question (which would also mean very few questions would get asked).

The audience of about 700 in the not-quite-full Hopkins Center for the Arts was chock-full of elected officials, political activists and potential DFL delegates, which is still the key audience for the guv hopefuls, most (but definitely not all) of whom are pledged to drop out of the race if someone else gets the endorsement at the DFL state convention April 23-26 in Duluth.

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I didn’t perceive any big winners or big losers. This field of candidates agrees on almost everything, so it was mostly a matter of emphasis and presentation. Here are some themes, moments and one-liners that landed in my notebook.

Here’s a recap:

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner jokes that, after getting her kids launched, running for governor is an overreaction to being an empty-nester.

When the pundits round up the usual suspect for governor, they don’t usually turn to someone like me, says Gaertner. She calls herself an outsider, but also, in her fourth term as county attorney, a proven politician who has also proven that she is one who gets things done. She wants us to think of two words when we think of her: “Vote-getter” and “go-getter.”

If she had to choose one bill to make her first as governor, it would be marriage equality (which means legalizing same-sex marriage).

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton’s mantra is: “Read my lips. Tax the rich.” His main emphasis on where to put the new revenues would be public schools. He would pull the state out of No Child Left Behind.

While many of the candidates tell hard-luck or regular-Joe stories of their growing up, Dayton acknowledges that he was “uniquely fortunate” in his family circumstances and is able to pay for his campaign out of his “own resources.” His first job out of college, teaching in the slums of New York, “seared his conscience” and shaped his thinking evermore about the unfairness of life circumstances.

Dayton talks a lot about things he did or tried to do as U.S. senator. He gets a question about predatory lending practices and says he tried to put a national limit on interest rates for loans as a senator but couldn’t get it done because of the special interests. One reason he want to be governor is to lead and not rely on the agreement of 99 others.

State Senate Tax Committee Chair Tom Bakk’s slogan is “jobs, jobs, jobs.” His overriding theme is that someone has to have an “honest conversation” with Minnesotans about how deep the budget mess is. In a back-handed slap at some of the other candidates, he says that you can’t raise enough money by taxing the rich to solve the problem. He made his pre-politics living as a carpenter. He wants to be governor because “carpenters are problem solvers.” If they weren’t, “you’d never get a building up.”

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Bakk’s first move would be to restore funding for General Assistance Medical Care. Gov. Pawlenty’s veto of funding for that program, which takes care of “the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick,” was “criminal.” Property taxes have increased by more than 60 percent (and $2.7 billion) during the Pawlenty years, and that cost-shifting from state to local taxing and from more progressive to less progressive taxes has to be reversed.

His electability pitch: DFLers all make it sound like they will solve the problem by taxing the rich and Repubs will solve it by cutting waste and neither approach will be enough, Bakk says. But he worries that if the public thinks the problem is “manageable,” they will vote for whoever is promising not to raise taxes.

A Minnesota-only single-payer health care plan, covering all health care — including dental, pharmaceutical and mental health — is the centerpiece of state Sen. John Marty’s campaign. He’s the author of a bill called the Minnesota Health Plan. He has dozens of co-sponsors and the bill has been passed in two Senate committees (that’s an update thanks to alert readers in the thread) but hasn’t been able to get it passed by any House committee. Health care should be a basic right of citizenship, like police or fire protection. When you call the Fire Department, they don’t ask if you have fire insurance. They come and put out the fire. It should be like that with health problems.

He says he is the only candidate who, despite not being wealthy enough to finance his own campaign, won’t take any PAC or lobbyist money. “You can’t speak truth to power if you’re taking big money from the power.

Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher starts every presentation talking about her childhood on a farm in rural Blue Earth Countyand circles back often to farmgirl themes. When asked about what bill she would take up first as governor, she talks about fishing with her dad as a girl as a segue into an answer about environmental and preservation issues.

Kelliher emphasizes her record of bringing people together to get things done. She lists the endorsements she has received and is the only candidate to, unbidden last night, state that she will abide by the endorsement. Hers is an endorsement-focused strategy. Stump speaking is not Kelliher’s strength.

Kelliher endorses Marty’s “Minnesota Health Plan.” (Marty, who is on stage at the time, asks why she is not already a co-sponsor. It was an awkward moment. She says she will join.) The speaker adds that under current federal law, it would be impossible for one state to enact a single-payer health care plan and that she looks forward to working with Minnesota’s congressional delegation (with a nod to Keith Ellison, who was in the audience) to change federal law to make that possible.

The phrase “the new clean energy economy” is central to former state Rep. Matt Entenza’s plan. It’s an energy/environment pitch and it’s central to his economic stimulus thinking. (On his campaign brochure, he’s standing in a field of windmills.) Entenza got the question: Why will you win this race? He answers that he has a “hopeful, positive vision.” One problem with the Dems, Entenza says, is that unlike the Repubs (lower taxes, less government) the public doesn’t know what the basic Dem message is. His basic message: New clean energy economy, get Minnesota working again.

He talks about how the Repub guv candidates do not believe in global warming. “The Flat Earth Society cannot run this state.”

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Entenza wants substantial new investment in transportation infrastructure which, he argues, is not only a jobs program and good for state residents but attracts new businesses.

Entenza also relies on his childhood in southwestern Minnesota, especially Worthington. His is a hard-luck story. His alcoholic father abandoned the family when he was a teenager, but thanks to the community values of a place like Worthington and the special commitment of a state like Minnesota, his family stayed afloat and he was able to go to college and make something of himself. He fears that Minnesota is losing that and he wants to bring it back. His joke: “Entenza is Norwegian for governor.”

Former state Sen. Steve Kelley was on his home turf in Hopkins. A pro-Kelley marching band greeted the crowd outside the auditorium. His themes: “opportunity, justice, innovation.” His favorite issue: closing the racial achievement gap in schools. It’s caused by poverty and you have to attack it holistically, by taking on the many ways that poverty interferes with educational achievement.

Kelley’s electability argument is that he is a suburbanite. The DFL keeps losing gubernatorial races because they do not appeal to swing voters in the suburbs. He can do that.

Some of the candidates compete for the best put-down of Pawlenty. Kelley’s entry in that contest gets a laugh. Kelley now teaches a course in public budget at the U of M’s Humphrey Institute. He says he thought about inviting Pawlenty to take the course. But “he doesn’t have the prerequisites” and besides, Kelley “hates to flunk a student.”

State Rep. Tom Rukavina is the funniest one. He quotes a guy who told him: “You’re kinda the love child of Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura.”

 Minnesota has to learn to do more with less and being 5-foot-4, Rukavina says he has been doing more with less his whole life. He doesn’t mind reminding the audience that the last DFLer to win a guv race was Rudy Perpich, a Croatian from the Range.

Yes education is seriously underfunded, Rukavina says. When Perpich was governor, 15 percent of the general fund went to education. Now it’s 8 percent. “I’m refreshingly honest,” Rukavina says. “Some people say brutally honest, but that doesn’t make a good statewide slogan, so I’ve toned it down a little.”

“Transformational” is a big word for state Rep. Paul Thissen, the second youngest of the candidate. (He’s 42. Speaker MAK is 41.) He often calls this a “generational” election. He wasn’t on stage for the why-are-you-the-one-who-can-win question, but his pitch includes the value of going with a new face and a new name. In the Legislature, he is a health care expert and talks about how to change incentives to make things better and says that he took the initiative that sucessfully changed state law so that every child in Minnesota has access to affordable health insurnace.

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Somewhat shockingly, considering the general tenor of DFL discussions of the current incumbent, Thissen somewhat shockingly gave pawlenty a compliment and said DFLers had to understand what Minnesotans respect about Pawlenty, namely: “He takes action. He makes decisions. He’s decisive.” Thissen wants to be that kind of leader, only in a different direction. He quoted an old high school coach who said there are teams that play to win and teams that play to not lose. He’s worred that DFLers and Minnesotans generally have been playing to not lose.

Thissen urges the audience to go to his website and study his legislative record and they will see that he can be a transformational leader.

Because of the strange format, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak didn’t get to speak until the debate was almost over. When his turn came, he had a star quality and came on strong talking about his record as mayor, although he was less specific about proposals for the state. He combined the common tactic of acknowledging his family in the audience with an I’m-a-tough-dad gag, saying to his college-age son in the audience: “Charlie, You go out tonight, you’re back by midnight.” But added that if the state doesn’t change direction, our kids will be the first generation of Minnesotans to have less opportunity than their parents — “we cannot allow that to happen.”

Rybak highlighted the contrast between his work as mayor and several other legislator contenders, saying of the governor’s job: “It’s an executive job, not a legislative job. I have that kind of experience.” This is an essential element of his electbility pitch. Rybak also made a vague swipe that seemed to associate his legislator opponents — perhaps especially Anderson Kelliher — with problems that DFLers mostly blame on Pawlenty, saying: “The mess at the Capitol is clear. It’s broken over there.”

He called for “a new kind of leadership” and claimed to have demonstrated that as mayor he “dramatically lowered crime, created thousands of new jobs, made sweeping innovations in transportation, showed strong financial management and paid down debt.”

He also uses family history to reach beyond his Minneapolis base. His family roots are from the Czech Republic and then from New Prague. His father died when he was a kid in Minneapolis, and his mother had to take over the family business in tough neighborhood. “I’m from tough people,” he claims.

He talks about the moment when the interstate bridge fell in his town, and I noticed he didn’t blame Pawlenty for it.

Perennial candidate Ole Savior also took part.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, MinnPost readers.