1st District candidates Hagedorn, Feehan face off in debate

Two men stand behind podiums.
U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn (right) speaks about his stance on education in Minnesota during a televised debate with Democratic candidate Dan Feehan Sunday in North Mankato, Minn.
Gage Cureton for MPR News

Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn and DFL challenger Dan Feehan outlined their differing views on health care, civil unrest in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, and Minnesota's COVID-19 response in a debate Sunday.

This election to represent Minnesota's 1st District is a rematch of 2018, when Hagedorn narrowly defeated Feehan for the seat vacated by Democrat Tim Walz, who successfully ran for governor. The district spans east to west across southern Minnesota and includes cities such as Rochester, Mankato, New Ulm, Owatonna and Worthington. 

Health care was a central focus of Sunday's debate, hosted by KEYC-TV in Mankato. 

Hagedorn took jabs at Feehan’s views on health care, calling the Affordable Care Act “a disaster.” Hagedorn said he wanted to repeal it and replace it with free-market solutions, expanding health savings accounts and allowing people to buy health insurance across state lines. 

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“I heard a lot of liberal Democrat stuff, public option, more government, that’s what you’re all about,” Hagedorn said to Feehan. “You’re a liberal Democrat that wants to do what (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi wants.”

Feehan said he favors a public option as one of several health care options, including private insurance — with a goal of more people getting access to medical care. 

"When more people ... actually have health care, seek preventative care, our rural hospitals and clinics can actually function and stay open," he said.

A man speaks behind a podium.
Dan Feehan, Democratic candidate for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, speaks during a televised debate with Republican incumbent Rep. Jim Hagedorn Sunday.
Gage Cureton for MPR News

Feehan also accused Hagedorn of placing partisan interests over what's best for constituents.

“Congressman Hagedorn tried real hard to talk like someone who's bipartisan,” Feehan said. “But if you heard it, it came out. He only sees the world in red and blue. That's how he sees it. You are either red or blue to him, meaning you're on his side or you're not. Frankly, health care is an issue that doesn't have a color to it.”

Hagedorn said he's put the interests of the 1st District ahead of party.

“This is probably the most consequential election of our lifetime, so there’s a vast difference between the parties, the Republicans and Democrats,” Hagedorn said. “During this two-year term, I’ve done everything I can to work with Republicans and Democrats alike to deliver for this district.”

Asked about protests in the Twin Cities and across the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Hagedorn criticized Gov. Walz’s handling of the protests and also the response of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, saying Frey "didn’t let law enforcement do their jobs and now they’ve been undermined all across this country.”

“I’ll make sure everybody’s treated fairly, no doubt about that,” said Hagedorn. “I don’t know anybody that supported the way the police officer handled that case with Mr. Floyd. But, that in no way is an excuse to go out and riot and loot and burn. ... I stand for law and order. People need to respect and admire the police because they do heroic work.”

A man speaks behind a podium.
U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn speaks during a debate with Democratic challenger Dan Feehan Sunday.
Gage Cureton for MPR News

Feehan said he doesn’t support abolishing police departments. However, he said it’s possible to support both law enforcement and those seeking racial justice.

“It’s not a false choice,” Feehan said. “It’s not this idea of law and order, or human rights. It’s both. You can have safe communities and you can have human rights for everyone, including our Black neighbors who are indiscriminately targeted through our criminal justice system. ... This is a time for unity, a time to come together and acknowledge these challenges so that we can figure out solutions to them, not to ignore them entirely.”

The candidates also addressed the response to COVID-19. Hagedorn criticized Walz’s handling of the pandemic, saying “I don’t like the way our governor has treated Minnesota, especially rural Minnesota throughout this deal."

"He has been heavy-handed with small businesses (while) he kept the big box stores open" in the early stages of the pandemic, Hagedorn said of Walz.

Feehan said the overriding problems in the pandemic response come from a lack of direction from the White House.

"This administration in Washington, D.C., has outright quit on us when it came to this virus," he said. "It is a national security problem that requires a national strategy."

The candidates traded accusations of ethics violations in a heated exchange near the end of the debate. 

Hagedorn fired his chief of staff in August after his office spent almost 40 percent of its annual expense allowances in the first quarter of this year, outpacing all of his colleagues in the House. Much of that spending was on printing and mailing correspondence, and some of the money went to a firm linked to a part-time Hagedorn staffer. Feehan labeled it the "type of corruption that people hate about politics."

Hagedorn said Sunday that he took immediate action to make sure it doesn’t happen again — and he was quick to level accusations at Feehan, alleging he was being paid to run for office by Democratic groups.

“Sir, I am an unemployed guy trying to earn the title of congressman here in this district — working hard, supported by an incredible wife who is allowing our family to go through this,” Feehan responded. “How dare you attack my integrity? Integrity is central to every single member of Congress, and you have shown absolutely none.”

The Mankato Free Press reported after the debate that Feehan's disclosure forms show $476,620 in earned income from 2017-2019, "but there is no indication from the income disclosure forms to suggest he was paid for anything other than work he did for those groups."