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Minnesota governor candidates (most of them, anyway) talk gridlock, breaking bread, and ‘the next Amazon’ at forum

While GOP candidate Jeff Johnson shadow boxed with the absent Tim Pawlenty, the three DFL candidates — Tim Walz, Lori Swanson and Erin Murphy — mostly stuck to broad campaign themes.

Participating in Thursday night's gubernatorial forum were, from left, Attorney General Lori Swanson, Rep. Tim Walz, County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, and state Rep. Erin Murphy.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Jeff Johnson was so eager to be at a campaign forum with other candidates for governor that he didn’t care that they were all DFLers.

The Hennepin County Commissioner, who’s making his second run for Minnesota’s top elected job, hasn’t had much success getting face time with his main rival for the GOP nomination, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. So a three-against-one forum at the Economic Development Association of Minnesota summer conference in Nisswa was an acceptable alternative.

“It’s really nice to show up at something and have another candidate or two to talk to,” Johnson said about the three DFLers with whom he shared the stage.

“I’m glad we could help out Jeff,” U.S. Rep. Tim Walz joked back. “This is bipartisanship in action here.”

The friendly exchange wasn’t out of character with the rest of what is just the second time the three main DFL candidates had been together. While Johnson shadow boxed with the absent Pawlenty — and with the retiring Gov. Mark Dayton — the DFL trio kept mostly to broad campaign themes woven in with responses to questions about economic development.

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All said they were concerned about the state of politics in Minnesota and pledged to change it.

Erin Murphy, who’s represented her St. Paul state House district since 2007,  said she grew up around politics “that were about improving people’s lives” and said she wants to return to that if elected.

“We should be doing all that we can to make sure that we’re building a future for the people of Minnesota,” she said. But lately, “I see us moving in a direction more toward a Washington, D.C.-style of politics where we’re thinking too much about how to beat the other side, how to get to the next election and the things we need to do together are falling behind.”

Walz too talked about changing political culture. And just as Murphy often references her nursing profession, Walz often cites his time as a social studies teacher. “We believe in education and we do it in that classroom because it doesn’t have to be a pejorative to talk about government,” said the six-term member of Congress from Mankato. “It’s us. It’s the people who make decisions in communities. But we have to make sure those most impacted by decisions are at the table.

“The behind-closed-doors thing is undermining our basic faith…we’re a very polarized nation and that is holding us back,” he said.

Johnson complained of “arrogance” in state agencies and said he seeks to change “the very culture in St. Paul.”

“I got into this race almost 14 months ago and I got in for a very simple reason: to give people more control over their own money and over their own businesses and over their own kids’ education and over their own health care and, frankly, over their own lives,” Johnson said.

Swanson, who is finishing her third term as state attorney general, said she would meet with all 201 members of the Legislature before her first session as governor in hopes of not recreating the 2018 session that ended with little accomplished. “The people who run for office, they’re good people,” she said. “Nobody runs for office saying ‘I’m gonna be a jerk or I’m gonna have gridlock.’ But we seem to get gridlock. We see it in St. Paul, we see it in Washington. So we’re going to meet with them, we’re going to break bread.

“There’s some spark that made them want to be in public service. We’re going to find out what that is and then we’re gonna channel it and find ways to work across the aisle,” Swanson said.

It was that discussion — over how to break the gridlock — that produced the only exchange that got even close to a disagreement among the DFL candidates. Murphy said it will “take more than breaking bread with 201 legislators to break the logjam inside the capitol. It is going to take us, together, the break that logjam.”

The next Amazon

One of the questions asked of the four candidates was how would they respond to the next mega-economic development opportunity, that is: the next Amazon. Minnesota competed for the company’s second headquarters but did not make the first cut of cities Amazon is considering.

Walz said the state should be proactive rather than reactive, citing the work he has been involved with to attract the U.S. Army’s Futures Command Headquarters. “We can’t see Amazon as a get-rich-quick-scheme that suddenly we’re going to make up,” he said. “We get ready for these opportunities by having the best qualified, healthiest workforce. Nobody being left behind.”

He said the state should have transportation infrastructure in place and make itself “unavoidable.”

But Walz said he would not duplicate Wisconsin’s courting of Foxconn — a $10 billion electronics assembly plant that may receive upwards of $4 billion in state and local aid. “Those are poor decisions, poorly made and they will end up hurting economic growth.”

Swanson said she was hesitant “to chase the next big thing and disregard all of the great work being done by all of you every day, creating jobs sometimes five at a time, sometimes 20 at a time.”

She cited concerns, such as those expressed by Dayton, that big retailers who already call the state home, like Target and Best Buy, would be unhappy that a competitor received benefits they did not. She also stressed increasing the pipeline of technology workers via training and research in the state.

Murphy said she was troubled by the secrecy around the state’s Amazon bid. “I think if there’s going to be a public process and we’re going to make a public bid, we should make that public to the people of Minnesota,” she said. She too was concerned with Amazon pitting itself against companies already in the state and compared it to how she thinks some in the governor’s race are pitting regions against one another.

Murphy said the state should have looked at competing for Amazon but wants it to be compared to other investments. “What would we do in the state of Minnesota if we took that same amount of money and invested it in transportation and broadband and housing, the kinds of things we know are holding us back in terms of job creation,” she said.

Johnson was the most critical of the state’s response to Amazon, arguing that the bid was doomed because of the underlying business climate. “To me, this is not rocket science and no one else has even mentioned this,” he said. “We have to be more competitive from a business climate with other states. We are not competing when you look at our tax structure, when you look at our regulatory structure, when you look at the attitude of some in our state agencies, we are simply not competing.”

Johnson said he knows Minnesota will not be a low-tax or low-regulation state “but if we could at least be somewhat competitive with other states,” the state would be better able to tout its workforce and infrastructure and natural assets.

Johnson said he doesn’t favor going after the big expansion like Amazon “where we are generally unfriendly to job creation but give a special deal to a big company that no one else in the state gets.”

The candidates generally agreed on the need to promote technical education as an alternative for those who aren’t interested in four-year colleges. Walz and Murphy spoke specifically to the need to help low-income and communities of color be prepared for careers. Swanson said she would have a full-time post in her office that would coordinate between training programs and employers.

The DFLers all said that immigration — both domestically and internationally — will be needed to meet future workforce needs. And all four supported the major state funds that are used to attract and keep employers, though Johnson called for greater accountability in how state funds are spent.