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Walz, Hagedorn face off in Rochester

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Rochester, Minn. -- In their first debate of the year, the Democratic and Republican candidates running in Minnesota’s 1

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Congressional District sought to distance themselves from their respective parties, saying they would vote with their constituents – not party leadership – in mind.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and his Republican opponent, Jim Hagedorn, took the stage in Rochester, the largest town in southern Minnesota.

At every turn, whether it was on education, the economy or a local veterans’ cemetery, Walz emphasized his willingness to buck party leadership and work across the aisle to get things done.

“I don’t disagree with [the GOP] because they are Republicans, I disagree with them when I think they’re wrong,” Walz said. “I’ve been able to move more legislation, whether it was Stock Act, government reform, ethics legislation, or things in the Farm Bill, than any other member in the minority. That comes from trust and respect.”

And at every turn, Hagedorn, who won the GOP primary in August after failing to win his party’s endorsement in June, sought to link Walz to President Barack Obama, who is struggling with low approval ratings.

For instance, Hagedorn called Walz a “cap-and-trade extremist,” saying he’d voted against free market principles by supporting environmental regulations.

“The United States became a great economic power because of abundant reliable, low-cost energy,” Hagedorn said. “[Walz] believes in restricting fossil fuels on public lands, he’s voted to bankrupt the coal companies through EPA regulations.”

According to a vote analysis, Walz sided with his party 91 percent of the time over the course of the last two years, and 89 percent of the time in 2010 and 2011.

For his part, Hagedorn said he isn’t afraid to go his own way, either.

“I have a track record of always standing up to my party even when I thought it wasn’t going to do me much good,” he said, referring to his primary win.

Hagedorn said he is concerned that the federal government plays an outsized role in state policy, and he pointed to new school lunch regulations as a perfect example of government overreach.

“The government is controlling our lives, controlling what the kids eat in school,” Hagedorn said. “The government is way too involved in our business. What we need is regulatory reform.”

The candidates also sparred over troubles in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital system.

Hagedorn criticized Walz for working “hand-in-hand” with the Obama administration as a member of the committee that oversees the VA. “What’s the record? Veterans are dying at the hand of our government” due to long wait times and inadequate care, he said.

Walz, who served in the Army National Guard for 24 years, agrees that the ailing system requires big changes.

But Walz said Hagedorn was trying to politicize the issue.

“This issue amongst all issues cannot go down the road of partisanship,” Walz said. “It cannot go down the road of trying to divide us.”

Walz and Hagedorn face off again on Oct. 15 in Mankato.