The first debate between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger governor Jeff Johnson proved the adage that all politics is local.
At the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Dayton, Johnson, and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet fielded questions on small-bore questions on issues like support for high-speed rail between Rochester and the Twin Cities (they all gave a tepid yes), the fire-sprinkler requirement in new homes (Dayton is in favor, Johnson and Nicollet not), and Sunday liquor sales (yes from all three).
The narrow focus of most of the questions offered few openings for any feisty interaction among the candidates. Response to a question on MNsure — on the geographic disparities in insurance rates — came the closest to a direct exchange between Johnson and Dayton. “It’s been an unmitigated disaster and it’s hurting thousands of people. We’ve seen rates increase after MNsure, they’re about to spike next year,” Johnson said. As governor, he said, he would ask for a waiver from the Affordable Care Act and “fire every member of the board and staff because they’re incompetent.”
Dayton responded indirectly. “You can cite some statistics that are misleading. A hundred and forty thousand people were [on] health plans that were not ACA compliant,” he said. “The insurers had to adjust those plans and offer them something better than what they had before.”
Dayton and Johnson also sparred briefly on jobs related to the expansion of mining in northern Minnesota, under review by the state and federal environmental agencies. “We’re kind of slow walking that process,” Johnson said. “I don’t think Polymet [mining company] will open if the governor is re-elected.”
“To jump at this point of the environmental review process … is going to pander to northern Minnesota,” Dayton countered.
In the hour-long debate, the candidates also didn’t delve too deeply on transportation and taxes and spending. All three agreed that transportation funded needed to be a priority.
On taxes, Dayton defended his tax increases but said he sees no need to for another increase. Johnson promised a reform of the state’s tax system, and Nicollet said she’d repeal the corporate income tax.
Newcomer Nicollet, a former software developer, has not been invited to join the next four debates. Dayton and Johnson face off again Wednesday in Moorhead.