The hot night started a little cool for Jim Meffert.
Meffert, the Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District seat, was headed into the auditorium at Edina’s South View Middle School for Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen‘s town hall meeting when he crossed paths with the incumbent.
“How you doin’?” Meffert asked Paulsen.
It seemed like an opportunity for the two to shake hands. Instead, Paulsen did a double-take and turned away, muttering to one of his aides, “Oh, Meffert’s here.”
Meffert’s appearance at Paulsen’s event was a bit of political theater aimed at bringing some attention to a race that is largely being overlooked by the media, at least until the big gubernatorial primary is over.
The theater was helped along by the DFL, which paid for someone to stand outside the school wearing a dog costume. On the front of the costume was a sign that read, “Erik Paulsen, Michele Bachmann’s lap dog.” A DFL representative handed out a sheet of paper claiming that Paulsen has voted with Bachmann 93 percent of the time.
Members of Women Against Military Madness also were outside the building, handing out a flier calling for Paulsen to streamline the budget by cutting military spending.
Few people entering the school seemed to be upset by either the dog or the WAMM members.
Anyway, after the chilly meeting with Paulsen, Meffert took a back-row seat. He had no intention of asking his opponent any questions.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Many in the crowd of more than 100 people came armed with hostile questions, which didn’t surprise Paulsen at all.
“It’s always the same,” said Paulsen of the town hall meeting format. “People wouldn’t come if they didn’t want to engage. They’re frustrated. This is a chance for them to bring their frustrations to me.”
The angriest questions regarded the perceived difference between Paulsen the candidate and Paulsen the congressman.
The feeling of many clearly was that Paulsen runs as a moderate — like his predecessor Jim Ramstad — when he’s in campaign mode but votes like a conservative when he’s on the House floor.
“You ran as a moderate,” said a woman who said she was from Edina. “But you’re behavior suggests otherwise.”
She asked three questions:
1. Did Paulsen act as a host at a Sarah Palin-Bachmann fundraiser?
2. Has he accepted contributions from MN Forward, a new business-oriented political action organization?
3. Did he vote against extending the hate crime bill to violence against women and gays?
The questions, asked angrily, got a big round of applause.
Paulsen tried to dance.
“In terms of being a moderate,” he said, “I voted with the president a third of the time. … I see myself as solution oriented.”
The woman didn’t like the dance.
“Were you a host at the Palin-Bachmann fundraiser?” she yelled.
“You’re asking a question you know the answer to,” Paulsen said.
“We’re you a host?”
“It was a Republican Party event,” he said.
“Did you vote against the extension of the hate crimes bill?”
“I did,” Paulsen said. “I believe judges should have discretion in sentencing.”
There were, of course, a few questions more friendly to Paulsen.
A man from Eden Prairie, for example, bemoaned high taxes.
“Increases are going to hit me hard,” the man said. “Sometimes it feels like the government is saying, ‘Those of you who have done the right thing, too bad.’ What can we do? I was in the military. I worked hard. It doesn’t matter.”
Paulsen felt the man’s pain, saying to him that tax increases would be a very bad idea in a sluggish economy.
But quickly a woman from Plymouth argued with both the congressman and the Eden Prairie man.
“Why all the complaining about taxes?” she asked. “Taxes are the price I pay for a civilized society. Taxes paid for my education. My streets. My bridges. Why do people feel the way they do about taxes?”
She suggested that taxes be raised to the levels they were in the Reagan years and said that then the national debt, which Paulsen harped on, wouldn’t be a concern.
“I don’t believe you should penalize success,” Paulsen said.
He was asked why he doesn’t support cap-and-trade legislation on energy.
Paulsen responded that you can’t raise taxes in a bad economy and can’t penalize entrepreneurs.
There was a huge cheer when Paulsen was asked about the military budget.
“It’s the elephant in the living room,” a man from Edina said, “and yet, you don’t talk about that when you talk about the budget problems. You’ve voted for every military bill.”
Paulsen didn’t think he had voted for every military bill.
For more than an hour, Paulsen was on the defensive as Meffert sat in the back row watching the session unfold.
Paulsen voted against the health care bill, though he was quick to say, “It’s not a slam-dunk either way.”
He consistently dropped names of Democrats he’s worked with as a way to show that he’s a moderate. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Tim Walz, Rep. Collin Peterson all got mentioned by Paulsen.
But two-thirds of those gathered didn’t seem impressed.
“You want to keep the Bush tax credits for the rich, but you voted against extending unemployment benefits,” said a woman from Edina. “How can you explain that?”
“I voted for unemployment when it was paid for,” Paulsen said. “But this last time, it wasn’t paid for.”
There were hoots.
But Meffert didn’t bat an eye. He soaked it all up. After it was all over, he respectfully pointed out he differs with Paulsen on a number of issues. But he was surprisingly empathetic about the tone of the evening.
“I expect hard questions of anyone who stands up there,” said Meffert in a nod to his opponent.
Then, he laughed. Paulsen’s not alone in getting the hard questions.
“I get them every time I go out door-knocking,” he said.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.