MOORHEAD — Minnesota legislative candidates who would represent mostly Clay and Becker counties almost all agreed COVID-19 was the greatest challenge facing the state this fall, although they had different twists on what to do.

The candidates, who participated in a Zoom forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley Thursday night, Oct. 8, were Democrat Heather Keeler and Republican Edwin Hahn in District 4B, which mostly covers Moorhead; Democratic State Rep. Paul Marquardt and his challenger Brian Anderson in District 4A, which is mostly in the rural areas of the counties and Detroit Lakes; and Democratic State Sen. Kent Eken, who represents the entire district in St. Paul.

Eken's challenger, Republican Mark Larson, didn't participate.

Keeler said the pandemic was affecting all areas of life including education, housing, small businesses and health care. She said her priority would be to work on quality health care for all, not just the privileged.

Hahn, the only one who didn't totally agree the pandemic was the top issue, said the unrest, division, fear and pubic safety were "the biggest threat." He said people need to be unified and have serious conversations.

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Anderson said COVID was the biggest challenge facing the area, but he was concerned about "government overreach." He said a more regional approach is needed in the state, rather than statewide mandates and actions on the pandemic.

Marquardt agreed. He said it was both a physical and economic problem, as people are losing their jobs and some small businesses are barely hanging on. He said a regional approach to the pandemic was a better way to handle it.

Eken said the challenges in rural Minnesota were different than in the metro area. He also added that with the state's aging population, attention to long-term care for the elderly and those with disabilities was also among the great challenges of these times.

As for what policies they would support to help fight the pandemic, candidate answers varied.

Hahn said the focus needed to be on policies of economic prosperity and freedom because without resources many problems couldn't be tackled. He said businesses were "fleeing" the state.

Keeler responded that she favors a "single-payer" approach to health care to provide access to all people and that it could also help small businesses keeping their operating costs down. She also said she believes property tax help from the state could help keep people in their homes and that a freeze on evictions could help renters, too, who make up a large share of Moorhead's population.

Marquardt added that the state had built up a $2.4 billion reserve fund and that such a fund is needed to help the state pull through the pandemic, as well as looking at ways to lower property taxes.

Anderson said he thought the pandemic was more like "an average flu season," stressing again that regulations for rural Minnesota need to be different than in more populated areas.

Looking down the road, Eken said the state needs to be better prepared for possibly another pandemic by having more hospital beds that could be transitioned into ICU care, more personal protective equipment, improved testing capabilities and a state "rainy day" reserve. All of the candidates agreed such a reserve would be a good way to prepare for future disease outbreaks.

Most of the other questions for the candidates, which came from voters, dealt with education.

In talking about ways to help improve school funding, there were several different suggestions.

Hahn said alternatives to public schools should be more of an option, while Keeler said a strong investment in education was needed so educational opportunities were more equal. She was in favor of tuition breaks for higher education.

Marquardt touted a bill he worked on that gives farmers a 70% tax credit on their ag land if school bond building referendums are passed.

"That's one way the metro area is helping rural Minnesota," he said.

Anderson thought businesses could become more involved by helping pay for technology in schools or other items that eventually benefit them.

The forum, which was part of an almost weeklong series of candidate Zoom events, can be seen starting this Friday, Oct. 9, on the League of Women Voters Facebook page and YouTube.