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At Farmfest, major gubernatorial candidates emphasize links to the land

DFLers and Republican Tom Emmer all worked to prove their farm bona fides, but it was Emmer who drew the most cheers at today’s forum.
Mary Lahammer: Candidates talk turkey at Farmfest debate

Tom Emmer makes a point at Farmfest; he is flanked by, from left, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Tom Horner and Matt Entenza.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Tom Emmer makes a point at Farmfest; he is flanked by, from left, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Tom Horner and Matt Entenza.

REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Some had voiced concern that all of the major gubernatorial candidates have metro roots.

Turns out that’s not true.

At a Farmfest gubernatorial forum today, we discovered most of the candidates fall just short of milking cows and gathering eggs and tilling the back 40.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL’s endorsed candidate, explained, many times, that she grew up on a farm and loved 4-H and FFA.

DFLer Mark Dayton spoke of how earlier generations of Daytons had been farmers.

Matt Ententza, the third DFLer on the podium, talked of how his great-great-grandfather farmed near Marietta, and that in his first year on the farm, locusts — from South Dakota, by the way — ate all the crops.

The Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, Tom Emmer, spoke of how just last year he and many members of his family had baled hay, so he understands farming, unlike those dandies who walk the Capitol halls and try to tell farmers how to do their work.

Only IP candidates refrained
Oh, yes, most of the candidates were trying to prove their bona fides to this audience. Only the IP candidates, Tom Horner, the endorsed candidate, and Rob Hahn, his primary foe, didn’t relate any of their down-on-the-farm experiences.

It’s not clear if any of the farmers who packed the tent to listen to the candidates really cared about the barnyard backgrounds of the candidates.

What was clear is that Farmfest is in the midst of Republican country and that Emmer got the biggest cheers, despite the fact that the DFLers all took frequent swipes at him.

In fact, it was Emmer who created the biggest news of the day by saying that any environmental issue that touches on agriculture should be moved from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources and put under the Department of Agriculture.

That, of course, got a big cheer from many in the crowd, estimated at 1,300 sweating people.

“Government should serve the people, not the government,” said Emmer in explaining his plan.

Idea played well here
It is the sort of idea that was safe to play to this crowd. But it’s also the sort of idea that likely will not play so well among a large cross section of environmentalists, conservationists, hunters and anglers.

“It just shows,” said Dayton, after the debate, “that he [Emmer] has never run a large agency. I just don’t know where that idea came from.”

But it was a classic example of how Emmer was continually able to generate large cheers from the crowd. While other candidates, except for Hahn, who often seemed lost, made an effort to answer questions on complex farm issues, Emmer was quick to return to his constant themes: lower taxes, less regulation, prosperity for everybody.

These are, by the way, prosperous times for Minnesota farmers. They are looking at record harvests.

Only on such big issues as health insurance did Emmer’s simplicity seem to raise eyebrows.

Rising number of uninsured farmers
Health insurance is a huge issue down on the farms of Minnesota. Studies have shown that farmers are paying twice what other Minnesotans pay for health insurance and that in the last 10 years, the number of uninsured farmers has more than doubled, to 15 percent.

In other states, pooling of farmers is allowed. But apparently not so in Minnesota. Kelliher pounced on the question. She empathized, by pointing out that her sisters-in-law (who are farm spouses) “have to take town jobs where they can get health insurance” in order to protect their families’ health. She also pointed out that the Republicans had opposed a plan that would have brought more federal money into the health system, not only for the poor, but for money for rural hospitals.

Farmfest attendees listen as gubernatorial hopefuls make their case.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Farmfest attendees listen as gubernatorial hopefuls make their case.

Emmer countered that it was “myopic” to talk about bringing federal dollars to Minnesota. We should all pay less taxes. He also suggested that people should be allowed to purchase health insurance across state lines as a way to make insurance more affordable.

Entenza pounced on that response.

“Selling Arkansas and Mississippi policies in Minnesota is not going to cut it,” he said.

He called policies from Southern states “stripper polices,” meaning they don’t cover much.

“You’re pregnant? Oops, you’re not covered,” said Entenza.

But back up a moment. This was a special event. It marked the last time in this long campaign that so many candidates will be seated at the head table. In six days, two of the DFLers will be gone, as will one of the Independents.

Beginning of fall campaign
It also marked the beginning of the fall campaign. Over and over, the three DFLers and Emmer pointed out the huge philosophical differences between the two parties.

Horner, it should be noted, seems to be getting more fiscally conservative.

“Smaller government, absolutely,” said Horner at one point. “… But we do have to invest in lifelong learning.”

Emmer would raise his eyebrows, or smirk, or shake his head in disbelief anytime any of his foes would use such words as “invest.” To him, government “investment” means government growth.

Entenza, Dayton and Kelliher, and even Horner, each took a crack at explaining why some taxes are important to farms and the communities near them.

Rising property taxes, for example, are, according to farmers, a big problem in rural Minnesota.

“No new taxes means it trickles down to you in the form of higher property taxes,” Entenza said. “Property taxes are simply the worst, least fair, taxes you can have.”

Even Horner said that property taxes have risen because the Pawlenty administration has cut Local Government Aid so deeply.

And of course Dayton used the discussion of property taxes to pound home his over-riding theme, “tax the rich.”

Emmer just shook his head.

‘Every year, we get more bureaucrats’
“Reform government,” he said. “Get rid of bloat. Every year, we get more bureaucrats. Let’s say you’ve got a broke [drainage] tile. Before you can do anything, a bureaucrat has to come out, look at it and say, ‘Yep, it’s broken, you can fix it.’ ”

The farmers laughed.

None of the DFLers expected this would be the most supportive of crowds. And though there were some efforts at pandering — all the candidates took turns saying what wonderful stewards of the land, air and water farmers are — at times the DFLers were willing to say unpopular things.

The DFLers talked of investing in education. Emmer got cheers for bashing Education Minnesota, the teachers union.

Sometimes, the DFLers even managed to hit on a point that would raise a cheer. Entenza talked of growing up in Worthington and being able to participate in activities, without charge. Now, he noted, fees are attached to all things.

“Schools have been gutted and gilled,” he said.

Kelliher followed that by talking about making sure that 4H and FAA “is restored so kids have activities after school.” She got cheered for that.

But the biggest cheers were for Emmer.

“Tom is going to have 30 percent of the people cheering wherever he goes,” said Entenza. “That is the 30 percent that cheer the dismantling of schools. They’re here and they’re loud.”