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Five things we learned from the DFL governor candidate forum

Takeaways from MPR’s DFL governor candidate forum with Tim Walz, Erin Murphy and Lori Swanson. 

DFL gubernatorial candidates Erin Murphy, Tim Walz, and Lori Swanson shown during Friday's MPR forum.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

DFL candidates for governor Erin Murphy, Lori Swanson and Tim Walz met for the fourth time in their primary campaign — in a forum broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio from their studios in St. Paul — just four days before election day.

Here are five things we learned:

1. If you wait long enough, candidates will find the need to talk about their opponents
When the other side does it, it’s called negative campaigning. When your side does it, it’s described as pointing out contrasts. Whichever term is used, the 2018 DFL primary for governor has been lacking in either. But Friday, it finally reached the point where the candidates are pointing out the flaws in their opponents.

It took some prodding from MPR political editor Michael Mulcahy and a question from a listener to get the trio to engage. But once the boundaries of Minnesota Nice had been breached, they seemed OK with it. Swanson defended her ads attacking Walz for missing a bunch of votes in Congress this year.

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“Congressman Walz this year has missed 63 percent of his votes,” Swanson said. “One of the most important things a congressman does is show up to vote,” and then compared him to a McDonald’s worker who regularly misses shifts.

“You’d get fired from that job,” she said.

Walz responded by saying he was “disappointed” that Swanson “chose to go down the low road.” He said he has been balancing many responsibilities within his congressional duties and his campaign. Some of the missed votes came during flooding in Southern Minnesota when he was touring his district. And he said he missed the vote on the farm bill knowing he would be on the conference committee that will work out a final version.

By that point in the forum, Walz and Murphy had already given their views on a pair of stories by the online news outlet The Intercept that reported that Swanson had pressured her AG staff to work on her campaigns.

Walz chided Swanson for questioning the integrity of the news source that wrote about her AG staff and campaigning. Swanson — who denies pressuring staff and rewarding those who help on campaigns — has alleged that the stories are political payback because The Intercept is funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is also partners in other investments with people who have been sued by the attorney general.

Walz said the story has been reported by state media outlets as well and attacked Swanson for attacking the media. “We’re at a very dangerous spot in this country where anything being reported is dismissed as fake news,” Walz said.

For much of the forum, Murphy got to stay out of the fray, even tsk-tsking both of her opponents for being negative. “What I hear from people is how frustrated they are with this type of politics, the politics of yesterday,” Murphy said. “They’re really tired of this kind of politics from the congressman and the then attorney general. I’m not going to be that kind of politician.”

2. Even without seeing any polls, you can make pretty good guesses about what the numbers are telling the candidates
If Swanson is leading in the polls, as the few publicly released polls indicate, she wouldn’t really need to give much of her attention to the others. She would just stick to her message that her experience as attorney general would make her a good governor. But if she’s not still leading, or if it is close, she might need to do what she did this week: launch a TV ad that attacked Walz for missing votes in Congress while he was back in Minnesota campaigning. The same day the TV ad went up, an independent expenditure campaign — one formed to support Swanson — sent a mailer making the same point.

Candidates and independent expenditure campaigns are not supposed to coordinate, and questions have been raised about the startling coincidence. Coordinated or not, however, the one-two punch put Walz on the defensive.

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In response, Walz said the attack must be because he’s winning. “It’s obvious the reason these things happen is my One Minnesota campaign … has gained traction so this is the direction you go.”

3. Murphy see guns and gun safety as a way — perhaps THE way — to help her catch Walz and Swanson
It was just a few minutes after Murphy said “she wasn’t going to be that kind of politician” that she went after Walz and Swanson on guns. Her two rivals have in the past received high grades from the NRA — A’s and A-pluses — while she received “Fs.” Walz accepted campaign money from the NRA.

And she defended the lack of gun control legislation when she was House majority leader — a time when both the governor’s office and Senate were in DFL hands — by saying the NRA had too much influence in St. Paul, influence aided by politicians like Walz and Swanson.

“There are significant differences between myself, the congressman and the attorney general,” Murphy said. She said that while the issue of gun restrictions was before the state Legislature, “the congressman was doing videos for the NRA, the attorney general was accepting their endorsement. Minnesotans are demanding urgent action on this issue.”

Walz said his position has changed and that he returned NRA money and was just given an “F” grade as well. But he also argued that it will take people like himself — a responsible gun owner who can talk to others like him — to forge a solution. “Advocacy is one thing,” he said of Murphy. “Leading and effectiveness is another.”

And Swanson took her own shot at Murphy, saying Murphy had not been the prime sponsor of a gun safety bill until this year, long after she was a candidate for governor. Still, if gun control in a key issue for a voter, Murphy likely solidified her position with them.

4. If there are DFL litmus tests — on abortion rights, voter ID, immigration and refugees — all three mostly passed
All three candidates proclaimed themselves pro-choice on abortion and said they would not agree to any bills that might restrict abortion. All three opposed requiring photo identification to vote. Walz and Murphy supported drivers’ licenses for undocumented residents, though Swanson said she would convene a task force to work on the details. And all said they support legal immigration and local separation ordinances so that police are not immigration enforcers.

There were a few differences on immigration, however. Swanson, for example, spoke of her offices’ participation in litigation against Trump Administration policies on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), on separation of families at the southern border and on the travel ban. But she said border security is an important function of the federal government.

Walz said he wants comprehensive immigration reform but said Republicans in Congress have blocked it. “In Minnesota, it starts out understanding our immigrant neighbors are adding to our economy, are adding to the richness of life,” Walz said. “But also understanding there is a responsibility to make sure the federal government is enforcing the borders.” He called for enforcing border laws “with humanity.”

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Murphy said she objected to federal immigration officers chasing down and arresting people who have been living and working in the state. She opposes new immigration detention facilities in the state. “The humanity of people rises to a higher priority for me than do documents and borders,” Murphy said.

5. They like Mark Dayton … just not too much
Asked to assess the eight years in office by the outgoing DFL incumbent, all three offered some praise for his work on restoring integrity to the state budget and increasing funding for education. Murphy, who has won Dayton’s endorsement, was most effusive.

But given that some of Dayton’s failures with the MNLARS licensing computer changes and the acrimony that left the last session in a mess with little accomplishments, all three said they would have different styles.

“I think Gov. Dayton has laid down markers for the next governor, but I think it’s going to be critically important that a leadership style that is able to bring Minnesota around a common vision” will be needed, Walz said.

Swanson spoke again about her desire to kindle a better working relationship with the Legislature that will include having a meal with all 201 members. And she said she is results-oriented and thinks she can get things passed.

And Murphy said, again, that “breaking bread with the Legislature is not going to break up the gridlock.” Instead, she said she will bring a progressive coalition to the Capitol that will demand action.

“The powerful voices of Minnesotans who are demanding action on the issues that are important to their communities is the way to break that gridlock,” Murphy said.