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.”
Commissioner Jeff Johnson and state Rep. Erin Murphy during Wednesday's debate at FarmFest. (Photo by Peter Callaghan)
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.