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5th district candidates debate Mideast policy

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Four DFL candidates in the 5th Congressional District discussed Mideast policy during a debate Tuesday night sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

The debate was held in the sanctuary of Temple Israel, a large synagogue in south Minneapolis. Following the candidates' opening statements,  forum moderator and WCCO-TV reporter David Schechter launched into a question, drafted by the event's sponsors, about the issue that's dominated headlines for the last two weeks.

"The attack on Israel by Hezbollah across Israel's sovereign border has erupted into a dangerous crisis.  Do you support Israel's campaign to stop Hezbollah?" Schechter asked the candidates. 

All the candidates expressed support for Israel's right to defend itself, but also discussed a desire for the U.S. to do more to foster a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  

Keith Ellison, the DFL-endorsed candidate, referred to the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah as a terrorist act.  Mike Erlandson said the U.S. should lend support to an international peacekeeping force that would help stabilize the region.  

Ember Reichgott Junge referred to Israel as the beacon for democracy in the Middle East, and called for the U.S. do more to isolate Syria and Iran -- calling them staging areas for terrorist groups.  

Paul Ostrow outlined a proposal he'd issued the morning before the debate. 

"I call for not $30 million, but $60 million of aid to Lebanon, and for that to lead to a total of $300 million as a part of an international effort, that the United States must lead.  I also called for an increase in military assistance to Israel in the amount of $100 million," said Ostrow.

The debate sponsors also asked the candidates to comment on anti-Semitism, particularly about how  they would handle local and national organizations that encourage anti-Jewish sentiment.  

The questions appeared to be an indirect prompt for Ellison to explain his past ties to the Nation of Islam.  Ellison has been dogged by questions about his past association with the group, which is often criticized as anti-Semitic. But Ellison didn't take the bait.  Instead he talked about how as a college student, he took a trip to Auschwitz.

"It had an indelible imprint on my thinking," Ellison said. "And it made it very clear to me that not only is anti-Semitism morally wrong, but it's brutally dangerous and we have to oppose it everywhere we see it."

Following the questions written by the debate's sponsors, the moderator read questions submitted by audience members. Those inquiries gave the candidates the chance to talk about other issues, like universal health care and renewable energy.  

Ember Reichgott Junge expressed her concern  that the changing Supreme Court may affect abortion rights. 

"You know what the problem I see in this area is?  That women, young women, take this right for granted now.  They really do.  They don't see that this is in danger," said Reichgott Junge. "And if we don't mobilize young women to understand that their right to reproductive choice is at stake here, and that they vote in this election -- I mean, we have got to get them out to vote."

The candidates differed little on the issues, but tried to differentiate themselves in other ways. 

Mike Erlandson said that while is stance on the issues may be similar to his opponents, his experience is much different.  As a chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, whose retiring from this seat, Erlandson says he's got the best insight into what it takes to be a congressman. 

"A lot of people don't know what the chief of staff is to a United States member of Congress.  It is a behind-the-scenes job.  It's not one where you stand up and take a lot of credit for," said Erlandson. "It's not one where you run around to groundbreakings and stick the shovel in the ground.  But it is one where you get the job done.  And I've done that for 19 years."

There are three other DFLers running in the September primary -- Andrew Vincent Favorite, Gregg Iverson and Patrick Wiles.  The winner of the September primary will face Independence Party member Tammy Lee, Republican Alan Fine and Green Party candidate Jay Pond in November.