Rep. Ramstad wasn't in the audience, but his name came up repeatedly, particularly from the candidate trying to keep his seat in Republican hands: State Rep. Erik Paulsen.
DFL candidate Ashwin Madia also had kind words for the Republican Ramstad.
"I think Jim Ramstad is someone that is known for working across party lines, and I think that's the kind of leader we need in Washington," he said.
Ramstad, widely seen as a moderate, is extremely popular in this district, which encompasses most Minneapolis suburbs. Two years ago he was re-elected by a nearly 30 percentage point margin. So, it's not surprising the candidates would want to associate themselves with him.
Madia says he's a moderate, too. He told the audience at the Chamber-of-Commerce-sponsored debate he's a "pro-business Democrat," explaining that he used to be a Republican. He switched parties only about five years ago.
"I said, when did the Republican Party become a party that couldn't balance a budget? When did the Republican Party become a party that had irresponsible foreign policy? That would put us into wars that we didn't need to fight against enemies we didn't need to have?" he asked.
Independence Party candidate David Dillon didn't invoke Ramstad. But he also emphasized the importance of crossing party lines.
"Over and over and over again, I'm going to point out today a theme in which we talk about how progress can't happen in Washington, because of the locked battle between the red guys and the blue guys," he said.
Because it was a chamber debate, the questions focused on economic issues, including, of course, taxes.
Dillon, who's the CEO of a local printing company, printed out the entire federal tax code -- all 6,000 pages of it -- and hauled the giant stack of paper to the debate. Dillon said the tax code is too convoluted and filled with bizarre exemptions for special interests.
"I found taxes, trucks, 37,500 pounds or more, not if you carry concrete," he said. "I thought 'well, great for the concrete guys. The asphalt guys must be really mad.' Flipped the next page: not if you use it for camping. High five, Winnebago!"
Erik Paulsen wants to make sure that the tax cuts President Bush signed into law in 2001 and 2003 become permanent. Those tax cuts are set to expire in about two years. Paulsen said that would be disastrous.
"If you move that capital out of the marketplace, you're going to have less investment, less jobs," he said. "You don't raise taxes in a fragile economy."
Madia countered that lower taxes don't always lead to prosperity.
"We passed those tax cuts in 2001," he said. "Here we are eight years later. Do you feel like the economy's doing well? Do you feel like you have more money in your pocket? Do you feel like we have pro-growth policies in this country?"
Madia said he would keep the tax cuts for most people but allow taxes to go up on the top 2 percent of income earners.
The debate was largely civil. But the candidates did get in the occasional barb.
Madia criticized Paulsen's record in the state Legislature, twice raising this charge.
"He voted for the largest education cuts in Minnesota's history."
Those cuts were part of the solution to the $4 billion dollar budget shortfall Minnesota faced in 2003. Paulsen said those were "tough years" and called himself a "friend of public education."
"When we came into power in 1998, we put more money into K-21 education in the Republican majority in the House than the previous six years of the Democratic Legislature did combined," he said.
Paulsen criticized Madia for supporting the so-called "Employee Free Choice Act." That's a union-backed measure that would allow a workplace to unionize if a majority of workers fill out cards in favor of the union. Current law says they have to vote to form a union by secret ballot. Paulsen argued that could lead to intimidation.
"Even George McGovern, the most liberal candidate in the history of the United States is against taking away the secret ballot," he said. "I'm surprised Ashwin would be to the left of George McGovern!"
"Eric, I'm glad to hear of your newfound respect for George McGovern," said Madia.
He said the act would still allow employees to force a secret ballot vote if 30 percent of them want one. He also said he wanted to make sure there was no intimidation by unions or employers, although he didn't elaborate on how he would prevent intimidation.
Dillon, the Independence Party candidate, said secret ballots are a fundamental right and opposes the act.
There will be several more debates between the candidates vying to replace Rep. Ramstad. The next one is scheduled for Sept. 16.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.