Trump a hot topic at 8th District debate in northern Minnesota

BRAINERD, Minn. -- The major party candidates in the race for the open 8th Congressional District seat in northern Minnesota met in front of a crowd of roughly 400 people at Madden's Resort near Brainerd on Monday, Oct. 8.
Sparring late Monday, Oct. 8, at Madden's Town Hall in East Gull Lake, Republican Pete Stauber (left) and Democrat Joe Radinovich tackled a host of issues as they vie for the open 8th Congressional District seat. Election Day is Nov. 6, with early voting starting Sept. 21 and running until Nov. 5. Steve Kohls /Forum News Service

BRAINERD, Minn. - The major party candidates in the race for the open 8th Congressional District seat in northern Minnesota met in front of a crowd of roughly 400 people at Madden's Resort near Brainerd on Monday, Oct. 8.

But it was the spectre of a third person, President Donald Trump, which loomed large in the debate.

Republican Pete Stauber, the recipient of a Trump campaign visit to Duluth in June, credited the president for a robust economy and getting Iron Range miners back to work.

Democrat Joe Radinovich countered by explaining that the miners were back to work before Trump took office, and that the dumping of foreign steel on the United States was fixed by President Barack Obama.

Stauber responded that Trump's brand of bargaining and tariffs, "should have been done a decade ago."

Throughout the hour-and-a-half debate, Radinovich tried to pin down Stauber as just another Trump Republican.

"What I think happens too often in this election is Pete has ducked his positions," Radinovich said at the end of the night, having built a case that Stauber would be just another vote in favor of the full Trump agenda.

Their back-and-forths hit peaks of intensity. Radinovich was emotive, twisting his face at Stauber responses. Stauber was less demonstrative. But he used Trump language, saying "promises made, promises kept," a Trump mantra, multiple times. He also resisted the characterization that he was a pawn for the administration.

"I will never blindly follow anyone," Stauber said. "I'm an independent thinker and I will always do what's right."

Stauber said the Trump administration would not cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for an escalating national debt.

But Radinovich didn't buy it, saying Republicans in the administration have already broached the subject of Social Security and Medicare cuts in their public quotes.

Stauber gave more details on health care reform than he had previously - favoring association health plans, which group small businesses for better rates, and expanding health savings accounts for employees.

The universal, government-run health care favored by Radinovich, Stauber said, would "abolish employee care."

Radinovich, continuing a theme of his campaign, said reform of any kind - immigration, education, health care, etc. - was being held back by what he called the "secret money" in politics.

How can we change, he said, when "we have the corrupting influence of secret money," from lobbyists and super political action committees with unknown donors who can sway issues before those issues ever reach the legislative floor.

Stauber praised Trump throughout the evening.

"The bottom line is the president has done some really good things," Stauber said. "There's no perfect human being."

The comment drew groans. But so did a Radinovich comment about Trump paying hush money for extramarital affairs.

Nobody, it seemed, wanted to get into the pigpen too deeply. But Stauber did attack Radinovich with his opening remarks, saying the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate was holding mock press conferences to distract voters - an accusation with no corroboration to date.

Stauber later veered wildly to strike a civil note.

"The divisiveness is palpable, Joe," Stauber said. "You are not my enemy, you are my opponent and I respect my opponent."

One wondered if Radinovich felt the same way. Radinovich seemed exasperated at times. In one exchange, Stauber said he believed in the Trump criticisms of the FBI, wondering why so many of its leadership has retired, resigned or been fired. Radinovich, in turn, praised the credibility of the Robert Mueller investigation into the Trump campaign.

"Nobody in this country is above the law and that includes the president," he said, adding that were he elected he'd fight for congressional hearings into Trump's behavior. "Just the way a Republican Congress felt fit to hold Hillary Clinton accountable."

The Brainerd Dispatch, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters and Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government sponsored the debate on Monday.

Independence Party candidate Ray "Skip" Sandman was in the crowd, but not on stage. Organizers said in advance of the debate that Sandman's polling numbers were too low to be invited. To date, only a single poll has been held in the 8th District, by the New York Times.

"I'm here to show my face - to say it's not right," Sandman said, singling out one of the forum's organizing partners. "The League of Women Voters is supposed to share information on all candidates with the voters."