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Gubernatorial trio again performs its three-part harmony but with a limited repertoire

Each member — Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer and Tom Horner — can sing his own part perfectly, but today’s 90-minute forum could have been boiled down to 10 or 15 minutes because all three seldom strayed from their basic tracks.
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Each member of the gubernatorial trio — Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer and Tom Horner — can sing his own part perfectly but, it turns out, the three have a limited repertoire.

The trio performed again this morning at a forum, sponsored by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and the University of St. Thomas.

The forum, held at the St. Thomas business school in downtown Minneapolis, lasted 90 minutes. But 10 or 15 minutes would have sufficed because each of the candidates seldom strayed from their basic tracks.

Familiar messages
You know the parts by now:

• Dayton: Fair taxes and investment, especially in education.

• Emmer: Get government off our backs.

• Horner: Get some government off our backs but invest some in education.

Emmer came the closest to making news in responding to a question about how each would act as the state’s CEO.

Instead of having a cabinet of 22 commissioners around him, he would surround himself with six advisers to make the big decisions about what state government should be doing and how well it is performing.

He didn’t specify whether that means he’s willing to close down, or consolidate, all those agencies currently headed by commissioners. And he wasn’t available for direct questions after the forum was over.

Perhaps the other most informative aspect of the forum came when the moderator, Christopher Puto, dean of the business school, asked what “brand” candidates would use to describe Minnesota.

Horner’s: “Minnesota’s a knowledge state.”

Emmer’s: “Minnesota, open for business.”

Dayton’s (which wasn’t so succinct, which is true to his style): “House divided against itself cannot stand.”

Mark Dayton
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Mark Dayton

This was Dayton’s way of saying that Minnesotans have too long complained about being a high-tax, big-government state. The facts, he said, don’t support that stereotype. In fact, Dayton said, Minnesota ranks 21st in overall taxation and 31st in number of government employees per capita.

Because there was no give-and-take with audience members, made up of business people and a smattering of lawyers and other white-collar types, it was hard to tell who made the best impression.

As always, Emmer seemed to feel the most comfortable with the crowd. He arrived for the 8:30 a.m. forum more than 40 minutes early and stood around, comfortably schmoozing with people as they drank coffee and munched on sweet rolls.

Yet, some of his answers to questions may have seemed overly simplistic to this presumably conservative crowd.

For example, Horner had talked about some of the things good government should invest in to make the state competitive globally. He included high-speed broadband near the top of that list.

“Ultra-speed broadband?” Emmer said with a degree of contempt. “How does that work? … Minnesota is headed in the same direction as California.”

Horner appeared to get the most nods of agreement from the crowd as he repeatedly talked about the budget plan he outlined Monday and took digs at both Dayton’s plans to tax the richest and Emmer’s unclear (to date) plan to cut Minnesota’s way out of its budget problems.

“I don’t need to explain why I’m in the race,” Horner said with a smile. “They [Dayton and Emmer] demonstrate it for me.”

High comfort levels
Horner approaches these forums with a comfort level that seems born of all his years of making presentations to, and for, clients he’s represented in his public relations business. He’s sure of himself, affable and seemingly reasonable.

Tom Horner
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Tom Horner

Emmer also is sure of himself and affable, but also repetitive to the extreme.

No matter the question, Emmer has pretty much the same answer.

“We have so much government it’s sucking the air out of the private economy,” he says, in various ways on every issue from energy to education. He promises “a 21st Century government, a new Minnesota Miracle based on reducing taxes and reforms on overly burdensome regulation.”

Dayton also is sure of himself. He’s a font of statistics and knowledge about government, but he’s also repetitive and sometimes hard to follow.

His basic message to the business crowd: Minnesota prospered when it invested in education across the board.

Dayton did set up one moment of precious humor in the mostly predictable forum. He offered to “defer my time” on a question about where to cut government if Emmer would offer specifics.

Emmer happily took the time but then went off on one of his spiels about too much government.

Dayton, shaking his head, said he’d deferred his time for specifics.

Emmer said he was trying to answer but that Dayton was interrupting.

Specifics? With rare exceptions, they were hard to come by.

Tom Emmer
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Tom Emmer

An exception was when the moderator asked about nuclear power: Should Minnesota lift its moratorium on building nuke plants?

Horner: “Lift.”

Dayton: “I oppose lifting.”

Only Emmer ducked.

“Here’s the difference between us,” he said. “I’m just a guy from Delano. … Trust in the people. Trust in business.”

The trio will continue to perform into November.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.