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Greater Minnesota issues dominate governor debate

One significant urban-rural divide in the race for Minnesota governor: the nature and location of the candidate forums themselves. They have been mostly rural, and mostly on rural subjects.

Rep. Tim Walz, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and state Rep. Erin Murphy participated in a gubernatorial candidates forum Thursday night in Mankato.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The candidates for governor who showed up for a debate Thursday in Mankato faced questions about agriculture, broadband investment in Greater Minnesota, workforce development and child care and, of course, the state’s urban-rural divide.

But one of the significant urban-rural divides has been in the forums themselves, at least the very few that have attracted major candidates. Those forums have been mostly rural, and mostly on rural subjects.

In fact, other than a group interview conducted on Twin Cities PBS’ “Almanac,” which took place in early June, only one forum has drawn all three of the DFL’s leading candidates, Attorney General Lori Swanson, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and state Rep. Erin Murphy. That debate was held at a lodge near Nisswa before an audience of local government economic development officials.

On the Republican side, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the GOP-endorsed candidate, was at the Nisswa event, but former Gov. Tim Pawlenty was not.

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Another forum, in Granite Falls, saw Walz, Murphy and Johnson show up, and it also focused on urban-rural equity. In fact, with a little more than two weeks to go before the Aug. 14 primary, there is only one forum where all five major candidates are pledged to attend, Pawlenty and Swanson included.

Will it finally reach the Metro? Will it take on topics such as racial equity, transit investment and criminal justice issues? No and unlikely. The location is Redwood Falls and the venue is Farmfest. The forum will be held amid pig races and the Bio-Diesel Pull-off.

Thursday’s forum in Mankato — which Pawlenty and Swanson also did not attend — was sponsored by the the Greater MN Partnership, Greater Mankato Growth and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which represents non-Metro governments. It was well-attended and streamed by KTV, the city’s public access station, and the first question by KEYC News 12 general manager Marvin Rhodes was about, yes, the rural-urban divide: about how each candidate would bridge it.

Walz, who lives in Mankato and represents southern Minnesota in Congress, first noted that “there are those who use it for political gain” but then said there are differences.

“It’s a bit patronizing when people say no, there’s no differences between metro areas and Greater Minnesota,” Walz said. “There certainly are differences in the needs of rural communities. You would never say that to folks in North Minneapolis or in East St. Paul, where we celebrate our diversity.”  But voters don’t have to guess how Walz would deal with the divide, he said, since he has been doing it during his time in Congress.

“That divide is real,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of frustration when I talk to people in Greater Minnesota. There is a lack of trust, at least among some, when you separate between urban, suburban and Greater Minnesota. I almost think there’s a three-way split.”

Murphy, who is the DFL’s endorsed candidate, said she hears similar concerns about a lack of attention to people’s problems from North Minneapolis and in rural areas, and she blamed dysfunction in the state capitol and in Washington, D.C. “When we use our politics to try to beat the other side, when we use our politics to try to win the next election and not focus on Minnesota’s future, people feel left behind by that,” Murphy said.

The candidates addressed the need for more childcare options and workforce training as well as more-affordable health care. But because of the setting, largely aimed their answers at the rural aspects of those shortages. All agreed that there is good reason to help expand high-speed internet access statewide.

Earlier that day, Walz had unveiled his “One Minnesota Community Prosperity Plan,” which includes a pledge to build out the broadband network with state grants. Murphy this week said she would dedicate any new revenue resulting from the state’s collecting sales tax on internet sales to broadband infrastructure. And Johnson said broadband build out would be one of the few areas where he might suspend his no-new-spending promises.

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The DFLers and Johnson aren’t fighting over the same voters at this stage, so while there were clear contrasts across party lines, there wasn’t a lot to distinguish between the views of Walz and Murphy. For example, Johnson said he wanted to stop accepting refugees until the state can assess the costs of resettlement and make sure those currently here are successful. Murphy and Walz both said the state needs to remain open to refugees and immigrants for both moral and economic reasons. The state needs migration, both foreign and domestic, to meet its workforce needs.

Walz and Murphy also said they would support increased gas taxes to address backlogs in both transit and road-and-bridge projects. They both support spending on transit projects in the Metro, but said there are unmet transit needs in Greater Minnesota as well. Johnson said light rail costs too much and doesn’t do enough to relieve congestion.

Yet even on transportation, the rural-urban divide took center stage, as Walz and Murphy had to both sympathize with and then gently dispute rural perceptions that the Metro gets more investment than Greater Minnesota does.

All three used anecdotes and one-liners to express their Greater Minnesota bona fides. Murphy pledged to open eight offices round the state to be more accessible to residents. Johnson said he grew up in rural Minnesota, lives in suburban Minnesota, and works each day in downtown Minneapolis. Said Walz: “I don’t travel to Greater Minnesota; I wake up in it.”

Empty chairs

Pawlenty, who officially declared his intention to regain the office he held from 2003 to 2011 in April, has not taken part in any public forums with other candidates. Swanson, who announced her bid governor on June 4, has done one. Because both entered relatively late, neither was involved in the many of the forums that took place throughout the winter and spring, but both have not appeared eager to join their rivals since.

On Thursday, Pawlenty was criticized by all three participants. Toward the end, Rhodes asked them to pose a question to the absent former governor.

“If he were elected governor again, what would he do differently to make sure he didn’t leave the state with a $6 billion deficit,” said Murphy.

“Why does he think Minnesotans want to go backwards?” asked Walz.

“Where do I start?” said Johnson. “I guess my question would be how in the world do you think you can win when you don’t even go out and talk to Minnesota voters.”

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Swanson, however, was not mentioned by her DFL rivals, despite polls that show her with leads of varying sizes. Her campaign cited a medical emergency involving her mother as the reason for cancelling her appearance in Mankato.

Depending on the polls, the forum did not include the leading DFL and GOP candidates. An NBC News/Marist poll has Swanson leading Walz 28 percent to 24 percent among all Democratic voters, a lead that fell to 28-27 among those who said they were likely to vote. Both numbers are within the poll’s margin or error. Murphy polled 11 percent among all Democrats and 13 percent among likely voters.

Pawlenty led Johnson 51 percent to 32 percent. In a November head-to-head, all three DFLers led Pawlenty: Walz and Swanson by 51-40 spreads and Murphy by 48-40.

Pawlenty’s absence gave Johnson mostly a free ride. He didn’t draw the attention of Walz and Murphy, which allowed him to portray himself to GOP voters as a clear contrast to the DFLers.

“I suspect I’m going to stand out a few times today,” he said after Walz and Murphy pledged to restore Local Government Aid, which was cut during Pawlenty’s administration. “I’m not going to make any promises to spend any more money on anything.”

He opposed increasing the gas tax, opposed most spending increases, said state regulators are hostile to business and farmers and repeated his call to suspend any refugee resettlements in the state until the financial costs of the program can be assessed.