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At forum, all five major Minnesota governor candidates make their primary pitch — with an eye toward November

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rep. Tim Walz, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Attorney General Lori Swanson during Wednesday's debate at FarmFest.

The people who packed a steel pole barn at the Minnesota FarmFest Wednesday were either witness to the final gasp of the primaries for Minnesota governor — or watching the first act of the general election.

All five major candidates for governor were together for the first — and likely only — time this election at an event that has become a must-do in Minnesota politics. Held in Redwood Falls, FarmFest features equipment dealers, seed companies and politicians, all pitching their goods to a mostly farmer audience. And coming just five days before the Aug. 14 primary, it was one of the last chances for all to make the sale.

But the two Republicans and three DFLers mostly ignored their own party rivals during the forum, despite the short-term need to beat them on Tuesday. Instead, each delivered general election messages that only two of the five will have the chance to use, framing the contest to replace two-term Gov. Mark Dayton as a collision of differing visions for the state.

The three DFLers — Tim Walz, Erin Murphy and Lori Swanson — all relied on a variation of a One Minnesota theme (though none used a quote that is ubiquitous at DFL gatherings: the late Paul Wellstone’s, “We all do better when we all do better.”).

“There absolutely is a sense that we’re estranged from one another, divided from one another,” said Murphy, who is currently a state House member. “The Minnesota Miracle was something passed many, many years ago that had as its premise that we’re going to share the benefits and the burdens of our economy across the state. That has been replaced inside the Capitol that we’re gonna have to compete against one another for the things we need.”

“We have so much gridlock in our politics today where people are fighting, where we are led to believe you shouldn’t care about the plight of others unless it provides some personal benefit to you,” said Swanson, who now serves as Minnesota’s attorney general. “Or you shouldn’t listen to others unless you already agree with them. We’ve got to end that to move this state forward.”

Walz, who represents the 1st Congressional District in Washington, said he practices bipartisanship in Congress, where his work on veterans and farm issues are often bipartisan. “It’s not enough to point out problems,” he said. “We need solutions.”

But the two Republicans on the panel — Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty — wondered if all that rhetoric is just cover for continuing what they see as metro-centric politics that don’t treat Greater Minnesota fairly.

Both Pawlenty, a former governor, and Johnson, a current Hennepin County commissioner, raised the specter of a state with another DFL governor who, they claimed, would increase spending, taxes and regulations. “The vision definitely is One Minnesota but … what’s really going on with my Democratic friends on this panel is they really want One Minneapolis,” Pawlenty said.

“I don’t need to be governor again for the title, I’ve already got it. I don’t need to sit in the office, I’ve already done it,” he said. “I’m running to get things done … there’s a lot of great work to do there’s just a difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrat about how best to do it.”

Added Johnson: “There is a divide and a mistrust in Minnesota between metro and Greater Minnesota. I find it interesting that all the DFLers are talking about how we’re One Minnesota, but it has to be fair.”

Johnson claimed that since Dayton was sworn in, funding for K-12 education, transportation and local government aide have “become much-more metro-centric than what they were before.”

Calling the 70-minute exchange a debate would be generous. The five candidates rarely addressed one another and the format did not allow responses to the answers of the others. Except for a few references by Murphy and Walz to what they saw as failures of Pawlenty’s two-terms in office and Pawlenty’s criticism of Walz’s claim to bipartisanship, the candidates mostly stayed in their own lanes.

Which meant the exceptions were noteworthy. Pawlenty didn’t mention his primary rival Johnson at all,  in contrast to the two GOP forums last Friday in which he criticised his opponent for talking about being a conservative while not always practicing it. On Wednesday, his most pointed criticism was aimed at Democrats in general and Walz in particular.

Pawlenty pounced on Walz — the only candidate who does not live in the Twin Cities area — after the 12-year incumbent in Congress touted his work on past farm bills and his position on the Veterans Affairs Committee, which he termed an example of bipartisan cooperation.

“Congressman Walz voted with Nancy Pelosi 94 percent of the time,” Pawlenty said in reference to the House Democratic leader from California and perhaps a preview of general election talking points already being used in other states. Walz did not fire back directly. But in his closing remarks, he returned to the theme of ending partisan and regional divides.

“We can have a politics that is predicated on the best of who we are, a politics that doesn’t need to find division, a politics that doesn’t need to be nasty, a politics that doesn’t need to be petty, a politics that stands firm on our principles but respects our neighbors,” said Walz.

The only other reference to another candidate was so subtle it could have easily been missed. Long after Swanson repeated her pledge to have lunch with every member of the Legislature to start to build working relationships, Murphy said of divisiveness: “We’re not going to change that by having lunch together.”

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Commissioner Jeff Johnson and state Rep. Erin Murphy during Wednesday’s debate at FarmFest.

This was just the third time Swanson has joined Walz and Murphy since she joined the race on June 4. The fourth and fifth times comes Friday at 11 a.m. for a live Minnesota Public Radio interview and Sunday on KSTP-TV at 10 a.m.

Because of the setting Wednesday, many of the questions from WCCO radio hosts Dave Lee and Blois Olson were on agricultural issues. All candidates expressed sympathy over the potential impacts of trade tariffs on commodities such as soybeans. While Murphy blamed President Trump directly, the Republicans were not openly critical of Trump and his strategy to wrestle better trade terms with China, though they did argue for a rapid resolution.

“We need to be tough on China, not on farmers,” said Pawlenty.

Swanson said she would like to help develop additional markets for the state’s agricultural production but said she worried that other nations would find different suppliers if trade with the U.S. is disrupted for too long. All praised bio-diesel, and all said that health insurance is too expensive.

Murphy and Walz have both supported what they term a path to single-payer health care, with a first step being to allow anyone to buy insurance through the state’s MinnesotaCare, which is currently available to low-income residents and which benefits from large purchasing power. Swanson said she would like that option available at least for drug purchases. Pawlenty and Johnson both attacked single-payer, a system that involves having a public entity be the insurer but uses private and nonprofit medical providers.

Pawlenty and Johnson also took shots at Dayton (without actually naming him) for the way he rolled out a regulation to require buffers along streams and ditches, and all five pledged to involve farmers and the ag community in decisionmaking that impacts farming. Pawlenty used the questions as a way to tie to farming his criticism of state bureaucracies. “The buffer strip process and outcome is a good case study in how not to treat farmers,” he said.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/09/2018 - 02:08 pm.


    While this is all posing – telling people what you think they want to hear because you need their vote in a few days – making it nonpartisan horsefeathers across the board, and I haven’t made up my own mind yet, it’s worth noting that what Tim Pawlenty knows about farming is approximately equal to what I know about quantum physics

    I also am curious about the oft-mentioned nature of criticisms of state government and spending as being “metro-centric” – a criticism I heard regarding the Denver-Colorado Springs axis when I lived in Colorado. If the majority of the state’s population, and the majority of the state’s economic activity, and the majority of the state’s tax revenue, are all “metro-centric,” it’s not only **not** some sort of sinister conspiracy to pay attention to metro-area needs, it’s politically sensible and even necessary. Without at all suggesting that greater Minnesota be ignored, I’m inclined to think the people who are paying the greater share of the bills – as folks who like to call themselves “conservative” would surely say – are entitled to have their voice(s) heard.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/10/2018 - 09:54 am.

      Here’s an Idea

      Can we have a debate right in the Metro, about urban issues? I’m feeling a little taken for granted lately, what with rural folks naive of urban needs but still feeling qualified to lecture me on how the transportation network should be ordered.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/09/2018 - 04:12 pm.

    About those buffer strips

    I’ve heard it proposed that farmers be paid for the land required to be put into buffer strips. Wrong move, for a number of reasons.

    First and foremost, they are only required to protect public waters because farmers haven’t done so in their other farming practices. Second, the law permits them to use “alternative practices with equivalent water quality benefits that are based on the Natural Resources Conservation Service Field Office Technical Guide.”

    It’s a cost of doing business, no different than any other pollution control measure imposed on any other business.

  3. Submitted by Luke Thole on 08/11/2018 - 11:36 pm.

    I kinda agree

    With some of the other comments others have shared.
    Minnesota Farm Fest is as advertised. A showcase of modern technology driven by necessity in the agricultural industry.
    A lot of the driving factors for that very technology is from tax dollars and corporate waste.

    What are the intentions of subsidized taxpayer dollars going to, under the American Farming banner and why do family farms fail so much and so often in the current American Minnesotan economy?

    Complaints abound the local communities about corporations products that don’t meet standards of federal quality yet where are taxpayer dollars going in our or neighboring university systems?

    STEM education, apart of the Dayton administration gave direction to a generation where buffer strips have an environmental purpose.

    Every house in every city has a buffer strip or boulevard as it’s commonly known.

    What is/are big lobbying groups lobbying for?

    Trump type complaints about being corporate figure heads and having regulations placed upon them?

    A lot of their social media says yes.

    Pawlenty many have made cuts to the education community that Waltz and others did not agree with that Dayton administration has pushed forward.

    I for one want a better Minnesota.

    Landfills have become a hidden sink hole for educated workers resulting in limited access for their families, patriotism has become the new pollution agenda where least amount of effort is the way to lazy yeilds in the face of a growing nation, global warming, and wasted dollars from semantic politics has resulted in the patriotic polluters backstabbing their own citizens.

    Dayton’s STEM education isn’t supposed to be the way out for polluting society or systems or the crutch that others rely upon yet many other independent Ventura supporters may see it as such.

    Lori Swanson, did take on for profit educational systems that incurred unrealistic debt of its students yet many others have used it as a flag of freedom
    from legitimate educational systems.

    While Murphy’s metrocentric bipartisanship with candidate’s like Johnson, along with waltz to a certain extent are promising resolution to inner cities violence and other issues related to Minnesota politics, older generations are still suffering from losses incurred from past politics currently ignored by many on the Farm Fest panel.

    Jihadistism reaches the doorsteps of Minnesota’s communities along with types of home grown terrorism.

    Minnesota saw its largest turnout for pro marijuana and the nation saw the resurgence of NeoNazism sweep across the nation.

    Can Minnesota still be a progressive leader within the nation? I believe yes.

    Can Minnesota based companies still lead the nation or carry out what a evolving society needs? I believe yes.

    Can Minnesota still protect the natural resources and people of this state?

    I believe yes.

    Yet independent of the partisan divisions that fails to regulate themselves on issues they both may politic for I want working civilians to have the rights granted to them. I want those employed by others not to be self employed only to waste their dollars, I want individuals to be secure in their homes.

    I want those citizens to have not socialized healthcare yet healthcare that works for them free of the corporate greed that drove up opioid addiction and now pig ears marijuana as a legitimate business model to their pollution.

    I want Minnesota to have stronge boarder/s where ethnocentricity doesn’t grant a free pass despite other popular current engagements in foreign’s policy’s.

    Does Minnesota need a resurgence of regressionism, I think not, yet upholding current advances made need bolstering to take upon the issues that are often ignored buy busier society.

    We can keep Minnesota clean buy removing the pollution from our landscape and hold responsible polluters whom may or may not create waste out of taxpayer dollars.

    We can keep the regulations in place that corporations see as unprofitable in global competition and still produce goods to drive our economy in a balance that provides a clean economy and environment for populations of not only our own Minnesota people yet others also.

    We can use current infrastructure to halt big oil expansion in our state and hold them to their corporate salesmanship that promises clean energy systems and responsibile resources management.

    We can make Minnesota a example of what not to do compared to our Northeastern neighbors and still take down corporate polluters by holding them accountable.

    We can still be one of the top states in our nation for retirement and still have room for a bustling urban environment.

    We can restore democracy from which it once grew.

    We can reverse the damage that was done and I believe it can happen right here in Minnesota.

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