Fifth District congressional candidates hold first debate

Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff makes a point during the first debate among candidates for Congress in Minnesota's 5th District.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

The 5th District is one of the state's biggest DFL strongholds. It consists mostly of the city of Minneapolis, including affluent neighborhoods around Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, as well as a few adjoining suburbs.

The DFL candidates trying to replace Martin Sabo share a lot of similarities in their views. For the most part, they favor increased education spending, they want fewer tax breaks for the wealthy, and they oppose a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

5th District debate
Some of the candidates for the 5th District congressional seat in Minnesota debated on Sunday April 23,2006.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Despite the similarities in their views, their political experience varies considerably.

First, there are the outsiders; people like Jorge Savaadra. He's a lawyer who served as chief legal officer of Centro Legal, a legal service for the Hispanic community. And he's worked on cases relating to issues like immigration and sex trafficking. Throughout the forum, he touted a pretty common "outsider" line, that his ambitions are more genuine than those of jaded politicos.

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"I've come to this not as a politician or as a political insider or as a millionaire -- the things that unfortunatley seem to qualify what a congressperson can be. I come to you as a person working in the community," he said.

Then there's a group of candidates who have worked at the city or county level. Gail Dorfman is Hennepin county commissioner, and she's also been mayor of St. Louis Park and served on the city council. She's calling attention to her track record.

"As commissioner, I led the fight for the Hennepin County smoking ban, fought public funding for the stadium, because we have more important priorities. All politics is personal, and all politics is local. And what happens in washington impacts what happens here at home every day. And I'll fight for a better quality of life here at home," Dorfman said.

The only candidate who holds office at the state level, Keith Ellison, also made connections between local and national issues. Ellison represents an area that includes North Minneapolis in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He said he'd be able to work with Republicans to get things done at a national level, because he has been able to get legislation through Minnesota's Republican-controlled House.

Ember Reichgott Junge
Ember Reichgott Junge speaks at the first debate of 5th District congressional candidates.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"I got bills passed on lead abatement, homelessness. I got bills passed, bonding bills passed to improve my district," he said. "I'll work with moderate Republicans the same way I've been working with them in the state Legislature, and I'll keep working with them, because I've been doing it."

A couple of the candidates identify themselves as policy experts, including University of St. Thomas professor of justice and peace Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. He says one of his recent books deals with the invasion of Iraq, and he's is ready to serve in Congress because of his extensive knowledge of international issues.

"The issue here is very concrete," he said. "How do we get out of Iraq? We have to void all the oil contracts which we've imposed on Iraq. We have to stop the construction of the permanent military bases. We have to set a timeline for a withdrawal of all troops. And we have to put billions of dollars into an escrow account for Iraqi reconstruction that only gets released when Iraqis form a workable government."

And finally, there's candidate Mike Erlandson, who, as Martin Sabo's chief of staff, is regarded as one of the frontrunners in the race. In his comments at the forum, he mostly underscored his political experience at the national level and his knowledge of Washington. During the candidate forum Erlandson surprised some in the audience with his emotional comments about gay marriage.

"I don't think I would've gotten married if I had known as much about the politics of hate and the gay-marriage debate," Erlandson said. "I'd still be with my wife, Dawn, and we'd have our children, but when some people in society can't participate in the fundamental rights the rest of us have, we've got to keep fighting until it's done."

Chances are good that Erlandson or another DFL candidate will win the 5th District seat. The contest has only drawn a couple of independent candidates and no major Republican candidates.

Most of the DFL contenders say they will honor the DFL endorsement.