On November 24, 2009 Minnesota’s DFL gubernatorial candidates met at the Hopkins Center for the Arts for a debate moderated by Tom Hauser of KSTP. The lineup included Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, former Sen. Mark Dayton, Ole Savior, State Sen. Tom Bakk, former State Rep. (and DFL Minority Leader) Matt Entenza, State Rep. / Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher, former State Sen. Steve Kelley, State Sen. John Marty, State Rep. Tom Rukavina, Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and State Rep. Paul Thissen.
Only three candidates were onstage simultaneously at any one time, making it difficult to compare answers across the board. Each candidate was given time for an opening statement, some shared questions and a few moments for rebuttal. First up were Susan Gaertner, Ole Savior and Mark Dayton.
Regarding first days in office, Gaertner said she wanted to restore the political contribution refund but added that contributions should be reported as they are collected to make the process transparent. She said the main piece of legislation to pass would be a budget bill that pays for today’s bills and is structurally balanced for future needs.
Dayton said that because he was funding his own campaign, he had more time to spend talking and listening to people rather than “dialing for dollars” adding that “special interest money pollutes the political process.” He said that every dollar contributed should be reported immediately. Dayton wants to focus on education in Minnesota including the increase of state spending for public education for real inflation adjusted dollars every year, which would be linked to progressive taxes.
Savior said it was noble of Dayton to pay for his own campaign and want to raise his own taxes, but that they system should be fair.
Tom Bakk said the first bill he would pass, assuming we were still operating under current law, would be to restore the general assistance medicare program – to” help the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick.” Dayton saluted Bakk’s remarks, then said he would forego any parties if elected and get immediately to work because there was so much for the next governor to do adding that he planned to get more done in one week than Pawlenty had in a year. Gaertner pointed out that needs are increasing yet there has been a decline on the part of the state to try and meet those needs. Under her leadership, she said, “The buck stops here.”
Dayton spoke about the usurious interest rates and predatory loan practices. The state of Georgia has imposed a limit on interest rates and Minnesota should follow suit. Under his leadership, there would be a limit on credit card and bank loan interest rates. (Currently, there is nothing to stop banks from charging over 30% on a credit card and payday-type loan interest is as high as 450%.)
Savior was replaced at his podium by Tom Bakk who said, “…it’s not [that] simple but I do think that the governor’s office needs to call in the big banks and find out what the state can do to partner with Minnesota banks to improve the standard of living for people needing payday loans and for people that need jobs.”( Bakk authored a provision in the senate tax bill that would have put interest charges over 15% into the state’s general fund which has already passed the senate twice – but was vetoed by Pawlenty. Additionally, as Chair of the Senate Tax Committee, Bakk helped pass a windfall profits tax. )
Matt Entenza took over Gaertner’s podium and asked, “What is the role we want the governor to have?” People need the opportunity to live life to the fullest and we need to have regulations when the private sector (regarding payday loans, pollution, home mortgages, etc.) becomes predatory. He said Republicans think the only time to regulate is with regard to personal activity which is “the wrong balance.” As a legislator, he successfully worked to stop rent-to-own practices which amounted to interest rate charges as high as 4000%. Entenza, who is the founder of the progressive, non-partisan public policy think tank Minnesota2020, said Minnesota used to be a state that believed in opportunity but that’s been taken away.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher took over Dayton’s podium and gave an opening statement highlighting her proven ability as Minnesota’s Speaker of the House to bring people together from all political persuasions to get things done. Kelliher co-authored and shepherded the Legacy Amendment because it represents Minnesota’s values including clean water, arts and culture. She said she wants to leave Minnesota in better condition for our children and grandchildren, and we have a lot of work to do.
Regarding transportation, Kelliher said, “We need leadership…someone who brings people around the table to solve the problem [and] attack the challenge not each other, whether it’s renewable energy standards or the work done after the 35W collapse to pass a comprehensive transportation bill over the objection of Gov. Pawlenty.” (Kelliher spent six months working hard to build a coalition that put together first funding ever dedicated to transit in our state law.)
Entenza said we need a comprehensive plan that includes the leveraging of federal funds. He then spoke about a clean energy economy which is a way forward for the state. Entenza has a degree in Environmental Studies and said we should be paying ourselves for energy, by manufacturing wind turbines, etc. (Ninety percent of our turbines are currently owned by out-of-state and foreign companies.) We could save money and help the environment by moving forward with a clean energy economy.
Before Steve Kelley took over his podium, Bakk (who recently retired as business representative for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters) pointed out that when a business is deciding whether to move to your state, the first things they look at are the availability of the workforce and the transportation infrastructure.
Entenza followed with what constituted his opening remarks including the belief that Minnesota needs a leader who wants to be in Minnesota (think Pawlenty) and who has a hopeful positive vision of where we can go. In the last two gubernatorial elections, Democrats in Minnesota have been lacking in message. Entenza said he could win because he has a progressive message. He wants to get Minnesota working and create opportunities so people can live their lives, work hard, get a job, have kids, send them to school, retire. His strategy includes a new clean energy, building the economy, and reinvesting in education and health care. In a nutshell: “Get MN working again. Have a strategy. [Build] a new clean energy economy.”
Kelley, a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (currently teaching Public Budgeting which focuses on budget principles and processes at the state and federal levels) is a former MN state senator (1997-2006) and representative (1993-1996). He said Democrats need to stop being shy about talking about their values. Republicans talk as if they corner the market on values, but the Democrats believe in opportunities and justice for everyone. He will put into action those values that we as Minnesotans share. During the 14 years he served in the legislature, Kelley worked on energy and environmental issues leading to energy efficient standards financed by bonding dollars, health care, and education. (The venue in which this debate was held was built through Kelley’s efforts as a state senator in District 44, a fact pointed out by Entenza with thanks.)
John Marty and Tom Rukavina came on stage as Kelliher and Entenza left. Marty declared he did not take PAC or lobby money saying “you can’t speak truth to power if you’re taking that money.” His agenda is a “bold and progressive” one where Minnesotans do better and “every kid graduates.” He believes health care is becoming the defining issue of the age, and we have reached a tipping point where we must make the choice between insurance companies and providing health care. He said, “We’re going pass [a] MN health plan, tackle poverty, [and] take big money out of politics so we can pass a progressive agenda.”
Rukavina, a 23-year legislator from the Iron Range chairs the Education/Workforce Committee and “hates the direction Minnesota is going in.” He believes in hard work, taking care of your neighbors and community, and a good education for children.
Regarding party platform, Kelley said the party platform should express the values we share. He also spoke about the state’s commitment to education for all its children: “The future of our state is in what we do for our children.” He said schools have been asked to solve achievement gap and other disparities caused by poverty by themselves, but we need to offer health care, jobs and opportunities in those communities where the gaps exist.
Marty said the role of government is to represent everyone in the state and the party platform states what the party believes. He said his record is the closest to what the DFL party stands for: “I authored marriage equality [legislation], a MN health plan, and was willing to fund education even when taxpayers league says we have to cut taxes in 1999…I had the courage to stand up and say no because we ought to fund education.” He said the party stands for fair policies, human rights that respect everyone and health care that covers everyone and “the platform is a pretty good road map for getting us there.”
Rukavina said the Iron Range comprises the strongest DFL’ers in the state. He believes in the basic principles of the platform: fair taxes, educating youth, higher education that’s affordable, health care that’s affordable, a minimum wage that lifts people up, and taking care of people. He said, “I’ll be governor for [the] entire state so I might have to put state ahead of some principles, but not basics. You have to know when to compromise, but not give up basic principles.”
Regarding charter schools, Marty said they’ve added some good things but taken money away from public schools, and that schools shouldn’t have to keep depending on property tax referendums for funding but should be funded properly by the state. Charter schools should not be expanding as public schools continue to experience cuts. Rukavina says some charter schools are good; some are not. And when money goes out to public schools, we need to keep track of how it’s spent. Charter schools serve a diversity purpose, but “we need to keep an eye on that taxpayer money.”
R. T. Rybak took the stage and said charter schools provided innovation but haven’t delivered on the original intent to incubate innovation for our public schools. He said we need to change the way we fund our schools and it needs to be fair. Committed to the Minneapolis Promise which says to our young people that if they stay in school and focus on where they want to go, we will get them there, Rybak noted that schools should not be raising our children. He said, “We have to have higher standards for our schools [and] every Minnesotan has to be a part [of that].”
Rukavina noted that during the last Democratic governorship 15% of the budget went toward education. Today, that number is only 8%. In 2003, schools that received $6,000/per pupil; today, that number is only $4,000. Rukavina says schools are expected to do more – but with less. He said teachers are caught up in testing and measuring, and should be allowed to teach.
Rybak said Minnesota’s brain power is deeply threatened, and education leadership in our state is threatened. It starts with money but one size does not fit all; it’s about equity plus fairness. Different parts of the state face different challenges. In the rural areas, there’s a loss of music (and other) programs. In the inner city, we need to surround families with the support they need – including jobs. He said he’s been able to bring money in from out-of-state sources, not just Democrats, that has moved kids into the workforce.
Paul Thissen came on stage during a familiar conversation; his parents are both teachers and he has three children in public school. He said, “There are great things going on in our schools [and] hard working teachers. [We have to] start a discussion acknowledging that [and] move to [the] challenges.” The achievement gap proves that we’re not serving every child the way we ought to, but “we can do it if we have the political will…making sure we create learning environments that are exciting and engaging – learning styles are different.” He said we need choices that serve all kids and all learning styles, and that we should take what works in charter schools and incorporate that to public schools. He also noted that we haven’t been investing in higher education or figuring out how to keep tuition down. He proposed a tax break on tuition repayment to students who go to college – and then work – in Minnesota.
Thissen’s opening remarks: “We’re here for same reason – we love the state, [but] think it’s going in wrong direction. [We need to] make it more fair, more just for everyone. The question is how to get that done. You can play to win or not to lose. In Minnesota, in the DFL party, we’ve been playing not to lose for too long – holding on too tightly to old ways of doing things, and old grudges, and political battles, and old relationships. We need to turn that around. I have the willingness to do things in a whole new way. [We need to] have new ways, energy, and excitement around Minnesota’s future. I’m committed. We can transform health care in this state. We can transform education, close the achievement gap, [prepare] communities so they’re ready for the age wave. [I am a] transformational leader. That’s the kind of governor Minnesota desperately needs.”
On taxes, Rybak said we need state tax reform and to take the pressure of property taxpayers. And we need to see the budget as a challenge – to cut spending and reform the way we deliver services.
Thissen agreed absolutely that we need state tax reform. He said property taxes should be moved back to a fair and progressive state tax. The number one thing he hears about taxes is the frustration with property tax increases and suggested people “connect the dots between [Pawlenty’s] No New Taxes and property tax increases.” Thissen says we need to “look at the entire tax system…We’re taxing a 30-year old economy — not today’s economy (which is a service economy not goods economy).” Thissen also said we have to go after health care costs as they eat up more of local, state and family budgets. We have to be smarter about paying for health care. We have to pay for the right things, not the expensive things.
Rybak agrees with “progressivity and service-based taxes, and getting off property taxes.” He said, “As Mayor [of Minneapolis], I understand basic services are critically important. I want to go back to local governments to deliver more for less.”
Regarding the criteria for choosing state commissioners, Thissen said he wanted people with on-the-ground experience. For example, the Department of Education should employ people with experience in the classroom. He spoke to the importance of developing a culture of innovation in empowering employees. Pawlenty has put up barriers between those on the ground and those in the capitol. Thissen believes in working with Health and Human Services employees to solve hospital problems. He says, “The answers are with those on the ground.”
Savior said qualities and experience would guide his state commissioner appointments – not friendships – and that we need new ideas.
Gaertner’s appointees would “have subject matter knowledge and experience in the particular area [in which they were] asked to lead.” Beyond that, she’d be looking for temperament, passion and pragmatism, and not give out commissioner appointments as favors.
All the candidates were gracious and had ideas to move Minnesota forward. The format, previously untested, may not have been the best way to compare detailed positions on specific issues, but it did provide some basics on what the candidates believe and how they might govern the state. With caucuses coming up fast (February 2, 2010), voters ought to start thinking about what the candidates have to offer and how that fits in with where we need to see the State of Minnesota once Pawlenty [officially] leaves offices.