Johnson, Walz hold animated final debate

Republican Jeff Johnson, on left, debates DFLer Tim Walz, right, on public television's "Almanac." Brian Bakst | MPR News

In a final debate of a high-stakes governor campaign, Republican Jeff Johnson accused DFLer Tim Walz of pushing policies that would make Minnesota an outlier among states. Walz portrayed Johnson as a perpetual critic of government who hasn’t been effective at moving change forward.

The Friday evening debate on the Twin Cities PBS program, Almanac, covered ground familiar from seven prior face-to-face meetings. But there were also topics that the candidates hadn’t confronted previously, from liquor sales to fireworks.

Johnson, a county commissioner who has trailed in the race but embraced the role of an underdog, spent much of the debate hounding Walz about his promises on health care and state spending. He said Walz, a southern Minnesota congressman, has outlined an agenda that would be costly to enact.

“You also have to look sometimes at the people paying the bill. And you never look at that side of the equation,” Johnson said to Walz at one point. “I know it’s easy to spend other people’s money. I know it’s very easy in government, especially in Congress.”

Walz said Minnesota prides itself on being a high-service state and should avoid a “race to the bottom.” He said investments in infrastructure, education and health care pay dividends that get lost on the ledger sheet.

“We’re talking about investing on the front end of some of these things to grow the economy,” Walz said.

Johnson called Walz' plans for health care too risky.

Walz would allow people in the individual market to buy into the state-managed MinnesotaCare program. But he said the state should eventually move toward a single-payer system as a way to reduce overhead. Johnson said that would give government too much of a role in health care.

“And there is no state in America that has a single payer system. None,” Johnson said. “California almost went there but they backed out and said it was too expensive.”

Walz cut in, “We can do better than them.”

The candidates disagreed over governing style, too.

Walz framed Johnson as too ideologically rigid to move the state forward, calling him a “dissenting voice on a county board” rather than a coalition builder.

“Pointing out a problem. That's fine,” Walz he said during one testy exchange. “If you don't have the skill set or the capacity to be a uniter, to be someone who brings folks together, it won't happen.”

Johnson countered the Walz appraisal by noting how he got bills passed as a state legislator in the early 2000s that required Democratic help

The Hennepin County commissioner said he's spent the campaign calling for change to government “that not everybody loves but actually being honest and truthful and upfront and substantive.”

In rapid-fire fashion, the pair also tackled some lesser-discussed initiatives that either could decide as governor.

Both said they would sign a bills expanding the authority of grocery stores to sell wine and making more types of fireworks legal.

They differed on whether to limit cell phone use of drivers to hands-free devices, with Walz supporting it and Johnson saying he probably wouldn’t.

Walz was more open than Johnson to legalized sports betting.

Walz favored an independent or judicial commission to redraw congressional and legislative boundaries after the upcoming U.S. Census; Johnson said it probably should be up to lawmakers elected by voters.

Johnson and Walz are both fathers of two school-aged children, so neither committed to living in the official governor’s residence. Johnson said he would not live in the Summit Avenue mansion, at least in the short term, and Walz said he hasn’t thought enough about it.

During a lighter moment, the candidates shared a laugh over the first car each owned: a Chevy Camaro.

Walz, 54, said his was a 1973 model. Johnson, 51, said his was a 1978 vintage.

“I’m just a little bit younger apparently,” Johnson cracked.

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