After months at town meetings, diners, union halls and businesses, you’d think the trio of leading DFL candidates for governor — Erin Murphy, Tim Walz and Rebecca Otto — might have heard every question by now. But at last week’s Faith in Minnesota candidate forum, one question gave each member of the trio pause, with all struggling to find an answer to satisfy a group that will have a lot to say about deciding who will become the DFL nominee for governor.
In fact, as the the political arm of ISAIAH — a faith-based coalition of progressive congregations — Faith in Minnesota is expected to have 132 delegates and 70 alternates at the upcoming DFL convention in Rochester, said ISAIAH spokesperson JaNae Bates. That’s more than 10 percent of the convention’s elected delegates.
Which means that their responses were important — none more so than the one in response to a question posed at the end of each separate 30-minute interview conducted in front of a packed sanctuary at Richfield’s House of Prayer Lutheran Church. That’s when each of the candidates was asked to address what is the most serious reservation the group’s DFL delegates had about them.
It was like the dreaded “what are your weaknesses” job-interview question — but much more personal. And each got to the core of what many DFLers — especially those on the left of the political spectrum — fear is each candidate’s fundamental flaw leading into the convention, which begins Friday in Rochester.
Here, then, are their discomfortable responses — sometimes rambling, sometimes tearful — which are even more revealing given that the candidates were told of the question ahead of time. Each was given four minutes to respond. Below are excerpts of their comments.
Going first, State Rep. Erin Murphy was told that some delegates were worried that she couldn’t win the DFL endorsement or a primary. Javen Swanson, the associate pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, also told the candidate that some feel “you have not clearly articulated a compelling vision for how you will lead Minnesota.”
Murphy’s response: “I got into this race back in 2016 and I did that because I wanted to make sure we were taking all the time we needed to build the kind of campaign that I believe in, one that is rooted in us, one that is powerfully about us, one that is the kind of politics that is intended to improve people’s lives,” Murphy said. “And we have done that.”
Murphy recalled being told by a voter during her first legislative campaign that she needed to represent the whole state, not just a single district. “I have taken that to heart,” the St. Paul representative said. “I have spent the last 12 years all over the state of Minnesota. I have been in our schools and our hospitals and our clinics. I’ve been in our farm fields and I’ve been in our mines and our forests. I’ve been in our community centers and our businesses. And I know Minnesota like the back of my hand.”
“We have built an infrastructure that we can win in November and we can win in a primary and we can win an endorsement. I’ve built a strong campaign. I am talking about an honest and progressive vision for the people of Minnesota.”
Murphy said she will take on tough issues and not play it safe, a theme she has expressed from early on, and one that she’s employed as both an implied and direct criticism of Walz.
“We can sleep our way through this campaign,” she said. “We can poll and figure out what are the issues Minnesotans feel most comfortable about and talk about those and never, ever confront the hard issues in front of us. As I listen to Minnesotans across the state, they are very clear that they want more from us and they want more from our politics than we are delivering right now.
“If we are going to take on the toughest issues that we face — structural racism, a workforce shortage, take on single-payer health care — we need Minnesotans to be engaged and we need to use the campaign to set that stage,” Murphy said. We need to organize now to deliver on that over the next eight years.”
“I need you in partnership with me and I think that’s a pretty goldarn compelling message.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was told that some delegates were put off by his political persona, that of a moderate who can speak to a wide spectrum of both DFLers and state voters. “We — Faith in Minnesota — want a candidate who is going to be a progressive champion, not a referee between powerful interests and the people facing oppression from those powerful interests,” said Imam Asad Zaman, the executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.
Walz has represented southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District since 2007 and is one of just 10 Democrats nationally who have won in what are considered rural districts. His ability to work across ideological lines is one of the skills he is selling, arguing that the DFL needs to win statewide, not just in the cities.
That isn’t an asset for some Faith in Minnesota delegates, however: “If you are elected, how will you stand with us and the people of Minnesota against the powerful interests to accommodate the bold solutions we set forth?” Zaman asked.
Walz, who shared his 30-minute interview time almost equally with his lieutenant governor pick, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, took this question alone. “This one is at the core and I tell you this: I got elected right from the classroom,” he said. “I had no political experience other than as an active voter. I was teaching and coaching. I was elected from a district and I’m the second Democrat in 125 years.”
“And I ran on the core shared values that shaped my life: of equality and opportunity and fairness and all of those things that were there. But I’m also the rarest of the rare now. There are 10 rural Democrats left in America.”
Walz said that in trying to balance his beliefs with his district, “I’ve gotten it wrong at times. And when I think I’ve gotten it wrong, it is trying to understand that eternal conflict that goes on between representing a small geographic area and a commonality amongst people and that broader humanity or that broader government or democracy that we have.”
But he ultimately didn’t differ with his reputation as a bridge builder. “When I talk about bringing people together, I look at all people without assuming the worst,” he said. “I’m not Pollyannaish. I know that when some come to the table it’s not out of good will, it’s not going to end that way. But I’ve stood because it’s fundamentally who I am. I am a school teacher. I am labor.
“So I take to heart what you are saying. I take to heart too again, I want to find solutions. I live and work in a place where espousing a position without the ability to bring people to get it done — this is what we’ve been doing to people. Nothing moves through Congress, nothing moves through the Minnesota Legislature. Nothing brings real changes … And I think as a governor we are going to need someone who can do that. Who can go to every corner.”
State Auditor Rebecca Otto, appearing last, was asked to speak to concerns that her appearance before a Latino-Latina convention the week before left many attendees unconvinced of her commitment to racial justice — and her ability to stand up to racism and division.
Otto, accompanied onstage with her running mate, Zarina Baber, had perhaps the hardest time with a question that called into doubt her commitment to racial justice. All three candidates had already been asked questions about dismantling mass incarceration, welcoming immigrants and Muslims, establishing climate justice, building a “caring economy” and fighting Islamophobia. And Otto had already committed to meeting weekly with representatives of Faith in Minnesota if elected.
Otto began by saying she would “call out the Republicans’ white nationalist agenda” and promised to “reach out to the communities that are impacted to hear directly from them of their struggles and their realities.”
She then changed tone to talk about the criticism itself. “When I got feedback after that forum I took it to heart,” she said. “Yesterday my campaign told me all the things I had to do and I said, no. I’m going to go reflect for a while. Because to me, I needed time to think about how I interacted, answers that I provided and somehow that I didn’t connect. And I was really disappointed with myself.
“So I will tell you that my experience going through this whole process of engagement, of questions, all the different formats … I have grown. You have helped me grow. It made me dig deeper and deeper and deeper. Because I know who I am in my heart. I must not be effectively communicating that to everybody. So I apologize. I thank you.
“I know I’m a privileged white woman and sometimes that puts people off,” Otto said. “But I did come from poverty. … I have a very diverse family. I have African-American nephews, who I love dearly. And my step-sister is Latino, my step-mother is Latino — Latina, Latina, sorry, I’m nervous — I care about all people and so for me it is really about connecting more and when I show my heart …”
Otto stopped speaking and appeared to be trying to regain her composure. After 10 seconds or so, some in the audience began to applaud and she began again. “There’s a lot of love in here for a lot of people,” she said. “There’s a lot of pain for Minnesota. That pain is real. I feel the pain. I want to take away the pain.”