Incumbent DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen sparred Friday over issues ranging from education to the state's COVID-19 response during a noon debate in St. Paul hosted by MPR News.
It was the last scheduled chance for the candidates to confront each other in person before Election Day on Nov. 8.
Walz began the debate saying he held a more optimistic vision for Minnesota, calling Jensen’s perspective dark. "We've been through some challenging times together,” the governor said of the last four years, adding, Minnesota’s “come out stronger than ever."
Jensen used his opening statement to say he wanted to heal Minnesota after the pandemic and the civil unrest that followed the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Walz had failed as governor, Jensen said. “Minnesota is broken. We're fractured, more deeply divided than I can remember in my lifetime.”
Here’s a look at some of the exchanges between the candidates Friday, by topic.
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Walz said he had worked to protect abortion access and would keep fighting for legal access. He called out Jensen for shifting positions.
“Scott either in May blatantly lied to his supporters to get the endorsement of the Republican Party by saying of course we're going to ban abortion. Or he's flipped on it now,” Walz said.
In May, Jensen told MPR News that he would seek to ban abortion in Minnesota. But after the U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer reversing Roe v. Wade, he walked that back.
At Friday’s debate, Jensen said he wanted to stand side-by-side with women, make abortion less necessary and offer birth control over the counter in Minnesota.
Walz called Jensen the "most anti-choice, anti-woman ticket that's ever run." And he vowed to ensure that abortion would remain legal in Minnesota, if reelected.
“He's run his entire campaign on demonizing me and trying to tell the world that the only issue on the ballot is abortion,” Jensen said of Walz.
Budget and taxes
Asked about the state's budget surplus, Walz said the state needs to "invest in those things that make Minnesota strong," such as education, child care, workforce development infrastructure.
Jensen countered that the surplus is a result of overtaxing citizens. He proposes eliminating the tax on Social Security, cutting fraud and abuse and weighing a cut to the state income tax.
Walz countered that cutting the state's income tax could lead to cuts to funding for education, programs that assist needy families, public safety.
"Minnesota's economy is stronger in the upper Midwest and we can continue to be there,” Walz said.
Jensen said this is an "opportune moment" in the state's history to consider an income tax cut.
Walz said the state has done well in surviving and growing financially amid the COVID pandemic despite false information being raised from pandemic skeptics like Jensen.
Walz pressed that point, noting that the Minnesota Medical Association endorsed his campaign despite Jensen being a physician.
Jensen acknowledged that he has been a COVID skeptic and was investigated by the state’s medical board. He called the Minnesota Medical Association a liberal organization, adding that other physicians have also questioned Minnesota's approach to COVID.
"I think to oversimplify it is a mistake,” Jensen said.
Jensen criticized Walz for turning to remote learning for public schools during the pandemic, closing businesses temporarily to prevent the spread of COVID.
The governor said the state focused on protecting people's lives during the pandemic, disinformation complicated that effort.
"This reckless, dangerous behavior, this pushing internet conspiracy theories, made our job even harder," Walz said of Jensen.
Asked about Minnesota schools, decline in academic achievement, Jensen said it was "fluff" that Walz has said schools are doing well.
"This isn't the time to be parading around with your chest out saying haven't we done well? No, we haven't. And I don't think it's a lack of dollars.”
Walz touted his background in teaching and said students globally struggled in the pandemic. He said the state needs to boost school funding, bring in more counselors to support mental health.
Jensen pressed Walz to say what "fully funded schools" meant and said that other states have had better academic outcomes on standardized tests. Walz countered that student success is more than a test score, saying Jensen wanted Minnesota to be another state.
Feeding Our Future
Jensen pressed Walz over the Feeding Our Future scandal. Federal authorities in September charged 50 people in a Minnesota-centered scam that allegedly stole at least $250 million in federal funds meant to feed needy children but that went instead to buy cars, luxury goods, jewelry and property in the United States, Kenya and Turkey.
Federal investigators said the center scam was uncovered by the Minnesota Department of Education, the state agency that oversees federal child nutrition spending.
Jensen and other critics have questioned whether the Walz administration should have known sooner and moved faster to stop the scam.
Jensen said Friday that state officials should've seen hints of wrongdoing and stepped in to limit the amount of money that went out the door.
"Over and over again, we have seen a culture of waste, fraud, abuse and cost overruns swept under the rug," Jensen said.
Walz called the loss of federal money in the scam unacceptable, adding that he didn’t want to to jeopardize additional convictions by commenting in detail.
"We'll get the answers when we get the investigation done," Walz said, noting that some of those charged have already pleaded guilty.
Walz said his office has proposed and supported putting additional state funding toward law enforcement groups and has done what he can without legislative approval to boost resources for them.
Jensen calls Walz "the godfather of crime.” The challenger said he supports putting more cops on the streets and that as governor he would elevate the work that police do and seek to ensure that repeat violent offenders don't get lenient sentences.
Walz said Jensen likely wouldn't be able to boost police funding if he moves forward with a plan to cut income taxes. Jensen, he said, is "admiring the problem and offering no solutions."
Jensen said the state could get more funding to support law enforcement if it roots out fraud and abuse of state funds, he touted his campaign's endorsement from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
Watch the whole debate: