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MN Democratic governor candidates vary marginally, share goals

Former Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers, right, tells Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson, left, and Democratic candidate Chris Coleman about the upcoming candidate forum on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Zellers' public relations firm organized the forum, held at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Republican Minnesota governor candidate Mary Giuliani Stephens and Democratic candidate Tim Walz talk before the Friday, Jan. 26, candidate forum at the Minnesota Newspaper Convention. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

BLOOMINGTON, Minn.—Minnesota's Democratic governor candidates generally agree on policies affecting greater Minnesota, ranging from spending more money for affordable housing to making it more enticing for young people to obtain two-year degrees.

On many issues, they differ only to a matter of degree.

Differences and similarities became clear Friday, Jan. 26, as members of the Minnesota Newspaper Association listened to a governors' candidate forum. Questions came from reporters and the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Democrats generally sounded supportive of bringing immigrants to the state to help fill jobs that remain vacant in many rural communities.

State Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul said one factor that can help immigrants maintain employment is to issue even undocumented residents driver's licenses. "It would help ... employees get to work in a reliable way."

Providing licenses to immigrants would improve public safety, she added.

Murphy, a former House Democratic leader, said she can handle the governor's job. "I am cool in a crisis, but I am Irish and will fight for the people of Minnesota."

Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, a former House speaker, said the first thing rural communities need to do is make sure "the quality of life is there."

Community institutions may need government help, he added. "Sometimes it costs more to support institutions in less dense places."

Like others of both parties, Thissen said that more young people should go for two-year degrees. "We just need the kids to work with their hands more," he said, and they would be more willing to make trades their careers.

Former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said the governor needs to help make rural communities more vibrant. He praised former Duluth Mayor Don Ness for "rebranding" his community into an outdoor enthusiast's destination.

Coleman was among candidates who said broadband high-speed internet service is valuable for rural Minnesotans. Communities cannot attract families "where people have to get in a car and drive around to find service," he said.

State Rep. Tina Liebling of Rochester touted her support of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election, saying she is the only one in the race to back him.

She proposed helping the workforce shortage by paying the first two years of college for Minnesotans. "Often times they want that education, but cannot afford to get it."

She said insurance companies no longer should pay for medical care. "Like so many other countries, we should be paying our premiums as part of our taxes."

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of Mankato said affordable housing should be made safer for low-income residents.

For health care, he said, the state may need to provide financial incentives for providers such as doctors to relocate to rural areas. But his overall solution to the health insurance problem was to "keep people healthier so they don't have to use it."

As the only person running for governor who has voted for and against international trade deals, Walz said that he would be able to lobby Congress for pacts that would help farmers.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who lives on a small farm, also called for the state funding the first two years of students' college education if they maintain a 2.5 grade point average and meet other standards.

For more affordable housing, she said that she supports the $115 million housing assistance Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton put in his public works proposal.

While she opposes some farm chemical use, she said that farmers must be included when planning to make changes.

Housing issue No. 1

How to provide affordable housing for workers is what greater Minnesota residents want to hear from governor candidates.

Governor candidate forum moderator Mary Lahammer of Twin Cities Public Television said the workforce question was the most asked one of those who submitted ideas from forum sponsors the Minnesota Newspaper Association and the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Reed Anfinson, owner of Swift and Grant county newspapers, said he only heard "very vague ideas" from candidates about how to solve problems like housing and his top concern, how to bring people into rural Minnesota. He uses the term "people creation" instead of "job creation" because in many communities jobs are available, but workers are not.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.