1st District candidates disagree (and agree) agreeably

Two men in suits sitting at a table
Rep. Brad Finstad (left) and Jeff Ettinger held a campaign debate at the Owatonna Country Club on Monday. Finstad, a Republican won a special session in August against DFLer Ettinger and the two are facing off again.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

In an era when politics is sometimes defined by shouting and outrageous behavior, the two leading candidates for Congress in southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District held a thoughtful, measured debate Monday at the Owatonna Country Club.

The mood may have been set in part because the candidates know each other so well. 

The race in the district has been extraordinary this year after Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn died in February, leaving an open seat. In August, Finstad defeated  Ettinger in a special election. 

The two are now in a rematch general election campaign that will determine who will serve the next full two-year term in a new district, redrawn after the once every-10-year census..

If he wins a full two year term, Finstad said his number one priority will be addressing inflation.

“As I've gone county to county, community to community, it's family pocketbook issues. It's the price of gas, it's the price of food, it's inflation, it's the supply chain disruptions,” Finstad said. “These are the things that I'm hearing from all walks of life — farmers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, from Worthington to Rochester”

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Ettinger, a first-time candidate who led Hormel Foods as its CEO, said his top priority would be to force the federal  government to live up to its obligation to fully fund special education services.

“Our local districts have been hampered by this for years,” Ettinger said. “When I go around the district I hear they're getting eight cents, nine cents, 12 cents on the dollar instead of the 40 they were promised. It causes big shortfalls.”

Finstad said excessive government spending is causing inflation. Ettinger noted many outside factors are also at play, including the war in Ukraine and the pandemic.

Each was also asked about the House hearings into the January 6 Capitol insurrection. 

"Here's the deal. When I've been going county to county, community to community, not once has someone raised January 6,” Finstad said. “Day in, day out, I'm hearing about family pocketbook issues. I'm hearing about the price of gas, the price of food."

"You must talk to a very narrow set of people if that has never come up because I've had it come up over and over and over again,” Ettinger responded. “I'm not saying it's the number one issue for people, but it's something that people are nervous and concerned about."

While the two outlined many differences, they also agreed on several things: 

They both said President Joe Biden was wrong to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars of student loans.

They agreed that addressing the worker shortage will require reworking post-secondary education options for young people and deemphasizing the importance of a four-year college degree.

Both said congressional term limits are unnecessary.

They agreed that a balanced budget amendment  requiring the federal government to match spending with revenue would be impractical.

Both also said they support immigration reform to streamline the process of becoming a citizen and better secure U.S. borders.

“Early on in my tenure as CEO at Hormel Foods I helped bring a delegation out to Washington DC to talk to our elected officials about the impact on our communities from the failure of the federal government to do its job and address immigration reform,” Ettinger said. “We've not had a meaningful federal bill on immigration reform in this country since the Reagan administration.”

"Clearly, politics have failed us,” Finstad said. “I would assume 80 percent of us in this room would agree that an immigration policy or comprehensive reform would include some sort of strong border, some wall with a door and that door gets opened and we can understand then what we have coming in in regards to immigration."

When asked how each would try to get members of Congress to collaborate, each  expressed similar sentiment. 

"Both parties have been just in too big of a rush to have a one or two vote majority and then jam things through,” Ettinger said. ”I think you end up with bad legislation that way."

"We've elected too many people that are there for themselves,” Finstad said. “They're there to get their name and their face on TV. And they're there to verbally politically spar and punch each other in the face to be as outrageous as they can be to garner that attention."