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Today’s big debate ‘news’: Fact-checkers find gubernatorial candidates stick to ‘the facts’

Given the public’s general skepticism about trusting politicians to tell the truth, you might think today’s debate fact-checkers would have become the stars of the show.

Given the underlying sentiment among many that politicians are incapable of telling the truth, you might have assumed that the three fact-checkers Minnesota Public Radio had in place for its morning gubernatorial debate would have become the stars of the show.

But in fact, the fact-checkers really didn’t catch Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer or Tom Horner telling tall tales.

Oh, the three — Mike Mulcahy, Catharine Richert and Tom Scheck — did “nail” Dayton, the DFL candidate, on one item.

Dayton said that the population of the state will increase by 130,000 in the next 10 years.

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The fact-checkers reported that the state demographer says the population will increase by 123,000.

Even Horner and Emmer laughed at that.

Skeptics might argue that the three candidates were at their most honest in this debate because they knew their statements were being checked.

But, in fact, what the candidates said in this debate was little different than what they’ve said in all those debates that have come before.

Political ‘facts’ often depend on point of view

In fact, gubernatorial politics isn’t so much about facts as it is about assumptions, perceptions, philosophies, style and hopes.

For example, Emmer has said repeatedly that the state really isn’t facing a nearly $6 billion budget deficit. It’s merely promising to spend more money than it has revenue. Under his no-new-taxes budget proposal, he says that the state still will grow at a 7 to 8 percent rate.

Is that factually correct?

Well, yes — and sort of no, according to the instant fact-checkers.

Bob Collins, blogging the work of the fact-checkers, wrote: “Emmer’s right that the state will have more cash in the next biennium. But that’s not the whole story. Projected spending will increase more than that. Further, Emmer’s not accounting for $2 billion in federal dollars that won’t be available in the next biennium.”

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That’s the way it is when you’re talking state budgets. Facts are a difficult thing to pin down.

Facts, as most of us know, often are in the eye of the beholder.

MPR moderator Kerri Miller devoted one segment of the two-hour debate to a discussion of the negative ads that have been created by organizations in support of the different candidates.

The first commercial she pulled up was the one aired by the Republican Party the day after Dayton won the DFL primary. The ad, you’ll recall, is the one that made heavy references to Dayton’s “erratic behavior” while he was a senator. The ad, which referred to Dayton’s decision to close down his Senate office in 2004 because of a concern over a terrorist attack, concluded that Dayton is “too risky for Minnesota.”

Dayton has responded about his reasons for closing his office several times, especially early in the campaign.  He said this morning that, given the circumstances — he says he read an intelligence report that there was “a very real terrorist threat’’ — he would make the same decision.

The MPR fact-checkers noted that when the ad was being run, KSTP-TV fact-checkers checked the veracity of Dayton’s reference to an intelligence report. The KSTP fact-checkers used a CNN report to dispute Dayton’s claim: “At the time CNN reported U.S. government officials said there was no new intelligence concerning a possible attack.”

When that third-hand CNN fact was mentioned to Dayton this morning, he simply said, “That is just unbelievably wrong.”

So it goes with facts.

Debate offers insights into each candidate

But perhaps in this debate, more than in many, we could see the broad outlines of who the candidates are.

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For example, Emmer is not fond of unions.

In a question regarding education spending and reform, Emmer went after Education Minnesota leader Tom Dooher.

“Literacy should be the goal,” Emmer said. “I thnk the union boss, Tom Dooher, is the problem.”

Dayton showed himself to be empathetic toward unions. You can’t separate Dooher from the teachers because he is their elected leader, he said when asked about Dooher.

For his part, Horner was his standard a little of this, a little of that on the subject of Dooher. 

On the MPR website, Collins noted information he was given by the fact-checkers: Education Minnesota endorsed Dayton and gave $500,000 to a fund which “steered” the money to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, “which is running ads against Emmer and Horner.”

This was a “half-fact” statistic, given that there was no balancing context given – and no mention of the money Emmer, or his supporting organizations, have received from businesses that may not look kindly at unions.

Still, if anything, the fact-checking showed that each of the candidates is being pretty straightforward. Their differences are philosophical. Their priorities are different. And Horner noted that voters in Minnesota have no excuse for not knowing the differences.

“I can’t imagine every voter doesn’t know where we’ll take the state,” he said at one point in the debate.

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And that’s a fact. Or, by now at least, it should be.

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