It was like Farmfest, but without the Carhartt. And the boots. And the questions about E-85. And the audience.
And all the candidates.
It was Sunday Night Live (sort of) for politics in Minnesota at Metro State University in St. Paul with KSTP-TV, giving up an evening of regular programing to show back-to-back-to-back-to-back debates for governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate, with stations throughout the state carrying the feed.
But the tightly controlled setting — there were far more plain-clothed security personnel than candidates — made it something less than spontaneous. Audience members were chosen by the candidates and the sponsors, with the lucky handful getting to sit in Metro State’s Great Hall, where KSTP had set up its studio. Those in the second-tier of importance got to sit in a large campus auditorium to watch on the big screen.
The media — other than KSTP’s own staff — were somewhere in the third tier. A press room/interview area was set up a distance from the great hall and the auditorium, and media were required to walk outside to get from one to the other. (Both MPR and Twin Cities PBS invite reporters from other media into their studios whenever they conduct on-air debates). Candidates were asked to go into the press room after their segments to respond to questions. But due to the tightly packed schedule, reporters were often busy watching the next debate by the time candidates showed up.
Those lucky enough to get into the Great Hall, the large, high-ceilinged Metro State room that overlooks downtown St. Paul, had to follow strict rules. No clothing or accessories identifiable with any candidate, party or political issue. No “shouting , cheering, clapping or jeering.” And no signs, noisemakers “or any other partisan outerwear” were permitted. Also, no cameras, though audience members were encouraged “to promote KSTP’s LIVE broadcast of the debate on their social media channels,” but were banned from livestreaming the event.
The prohibition against photography even applied to the small number of reporters trying to cover the event, and even applied to taking pictures through the wall of windows on the Great Hall. A very polite security guard made that very clear.
As it turned out, not many attended, making the prohibition on selling tickets unnecessary. There were lots of seats empty in the studio and only a few handfuls of people sat in the large auditorium.
Not even all the candidates made it. In fact, only the DFL and GOP nominees for governor, attorney general and both U.S. Senate seats were allowed to take part. In response, Libertarians held a modest protest outside, objecting to the decision to exclude their candidates. The walked in a circle for a bit and then went home, presumably to watch the rest of the debates at home.
And not all of those had been extended an invitation decided to show up. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, citing a conflict, asked to record her segment earlier in the day, and was accommodated. Still, her GOP rival Jim Newberger dutifully showed up and stayed throughout the evening, twice venturing into the press room in case anyone had questions.
The other U.S. Senate debate offered less of everything. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith choose not to take part, which led to a dispute that caused two labor groups to withdraw their co-sponsorships of the event.
As designed, the event was meant to be a political ceasefire of sorts, with business organizations and labor unions coming together in peace and harmony to put it on. The SEIU state council and the regional council of Carpenters had initially joined with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, other regional chambers and the Citizen’s League as sponsors.
But when Klobuchar balked and Smith decided not to attend, KSTP decided to go ahead with the debates anyway, fueling labor’s suspicions about an event put on by a station owned by the Hubbard family, which has long been a donor to conservative causes and candidates. When a demand by SEIU and the Carpenters to remove the second podium from the stage during the question of Karin Housley was rejected, the two groups bolted.
KSTP did pledge not to show the empty podium during the broadcast. But pictures (despite the ban on photography) were soon published on social media, giving meaning to the phrase “bad optics.”
“Following two candidates making the choice to not take part, we have been dismayed with the actions of KSTP and how this event has turned into yet another divisive tool being used by candidates running for statewide office to slam their opponent,” read a statement issued by the SEIU Minnesota State Council and the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.
The debates themselves would be familiar to anyone who has seen the candidates before. DFL governor nominee Tim Walz and GOP nominee Jeff Johnson have been together so many times that they almost complete each other’s sentences. Nothing either said should have come as a surprise to their rival, and even the comebacks have become well-worn to each other.
The most-obvious exception was the attorney general faceoff between GOP nominee Doug Wardlow and DFL nominee Keith Ellison. While Walz and Johnson disagree on most issues, they get along personally. No one would ever say such a thing about Ellison and Wardlow.
Unlike their first encounter — a joint interview on Twin Cities PBS’ Almanac — Ellison was more prepared Sunday for Wardlow’s attacks, about his politics and the recent allegations of domestic abuse by a former live-in girlfriend. Wardlow had also provided fodder for Ellison to poke holes in the Republican’s campaign theme: that he’ll keep politics out of the attorney general’s office.
The KSTP moderators — Tom Hauser and Leah McLean — eventually gave up trying to keep the two from interrupting one another. For those who stuck around for it, the argument offered one of the most-entertaining hours of political theater presented this election.
At the end, one of the moderators asked a question familiar to anyone who has been in marriage counseling: “Would you identify a positive quality of your opponent.”
Wardlow said he thinks Ellison has ,“very passionate beliefs and he does believe the things he says and that’s a good thing.”
Ellison hesitated before saying, “I think Mr. Wardlow dresses well. I like that tie. That’s a pretty good tie.”
He then added, that Wardlow’s father — former state Rep. Lynn Wardlow — is “a very nice man.”
And that was it.