The four endorsed major party gubernatorial candidates met for their first televised debate. The forum was sponsored by Twin Cities Public Television, and moved from education to transportation to budget issues. It contained few surprises, but each hopeful took the chance to set himself apart from his opponents.
The debate, although mostly cordial, showed clear differences between the styles and philosophies of the four endorsed candidates: Republican Tim Pawlenty, DFLer Roger Moe, Independence Party candidate Tim Penny, and Green Party candidate Ken Pentel. Each was eager to contrast himself with his opponents, while careful to avoid unflattering stereotypes. Pawlenty, for example, rebutted the presumption that he is beholden to conservative special interests.
"What am I too conservative about? Taxes? Education reform? Welfare reform? The issues that I'm going to be featuring and focusing on in this race are the bread-and-butter issues that most Minnesotans care about. And it's about accountability. Anybody on this couch can go over to the Capitol and say we're going to do the status quo plus inflation. That doesn't take any creativity or leadership," he said.
Pentel defended his record as an environmental activist, saying his focus on sustainable living shouldn't marginalize him.
"It depends on if people want to eat their fish and drink their water and have growable soil. I mean, it's common sense what I'm talking about. Very basic stuff. And we want to make sure that when we talk about turning on a light switch it doesn't come back with 10,000 years of nuclear waste," Pentel said.
Tim Penny, a former Democrat who jumped to the Independence Party earlier this summer, shrugged off a suggestion that his party switch was opportunistic. He returned to his theme of representing the "sensible center."
"I've always been an independent Democrat, always been a non-partisan Democrat. And, frankly, I, even my years in public office, was more focused on that 60 percent of the voters in the middle of the spectrum than I was in the interest groups that were part of my own party," Penny said.
And Roger Moe, who's served in the Minnesota Senate for more than three decades, said his consistent support for staple Democratic issues shouldn't be considered a disadvantage.
"If it means figuring out strategies to keep health care costs in check, particularly focusing on seniors and the high cost of prescription drugs, speaking out to protect pension plans and investments from corporate rip-offs which have been taking place as of late, then I guess that's same old, same old," Moe said.
Moe says, in addition, he'd like to continue his support for public education. He laid down a challenge of ensuring every Minnesota student can read by the 3rd grade. He criticized property tax reforms enacted two years ago that shifted a greater portion of education funding away from local property tax payers and to the state. Moe says the shift has left schools sorely underfunded.
The move was championed by the Ventura administration, and Moe took the opportunity to hang the governor's education record around Penny's neck as well.
"Well, I certainly will not demean public education like the administration that Tim Penny has been advising. I think demeaning teachers, demeaning public education serves no purpose in this state. And you can trust that a Moe administration will not engage in that kind of rhetoric," he said.
All four candidates voiced support for education, particularly for grades K-12. But Pawlenty ruled out raising taxes to meet education needs. In fact, Pawlenty has ruled out tax increases of any kind at the state level, including a proposed gas tax for transportation projects.
Instead, the Republican endorsee called for borrowing the transportation money at an estimated four percent interest rate.
"The cost of right-of-way is going up at a multiple of that, the cost of constrution's going up at a multiple of that. So it's actually quite efficient to loan the money, bond for it now and pay for it over a 20-, 30-year-period. And that's going to give us the big catch-up that we need. This idea that a nickel-a-gallon gas tax increase is going to solve this problem is not true," he said.
The other three candidates also favor more transportation dollars, but they place more emphasis on "multi-modal systems" that embrace rail, bus, and other transit options. Pawlenty's insistence on not raising taxes drew a brief exchange between him and Penny, who questioned how a projected multi-billion deficit could be resolved next year without all options on the table.
Penny broadened the attack to include both Moe as well. Pawlenty and Moe are the majority leaders in the state House and Senate, and Penny says the budget deal they crafted will only aggravate next year's budget headaches.
"The legislators basically said 'we don't want to meet you part way, governor.' But the only way we can get the Republicans together with the Democrats is to sweep this problem under the rug, borrow every reserve known to man, and put ourselves behind an eight-ball for the future. Now, that is not leadership and we need better than that," he said.
Penny says Ventura's plan to use a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts showed political courage that the Republicans and Democrats failed to recognize. Pawlenty responded, saying the final budget agreements preserved education funding and nursing home funding while holding the line on taxes.
Moe questioned the governor's involvement, saying he failed to exercise leadership in the process. The deficit reduction package was passed despite Ventura's vetoes.
Green candidate Ken Pentel joined the criticism, calling last session's budget deal misguided. He pinned the blame, in part, on wealthy political patrons and pledged to encourage more citizen involvement at the Capitol.
"The people that have been running the show, who have been in charge, obviously either have stood silent or have acquiesced to huge political power or monied interests -- corporate interests -- who have taken huge control over the citizen system," Pentel said.
Pentel carried his criticisms of corporate culture further, suggesting an independent board of ethics to monitor business practices. Corporate responsibility, in fact, was the only issue to generate consensus. All four support using the state's power to invest billions of dollars in pension funds as a lever to punish corporations that abuse the public's trust.
While the four debated onstage, a debate of another sort was underway outside the studios. Four lesser known challengers are each mounting primary challenges to the endorsed candidates.
Environmental activist Leslie Davis is running in the Republican primary, but was denied a seat at the debate. "We've all paid $600 and we're on the primary ballot for Sept. 10. And none of these people should be debating the governorship without us included in the debate," Davis said.
TPT says their policy is to include only those candidates who have scored at least 5 percent in an independent poll. The station says none of the excluded candidates meets that threshold. In addition to Davis, Ole Savior is as a DFLer; Richard Klatte is seeking the Green nomination; and Bill Dahn is running in the Independence Party primary.More from MPR