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MN governor candidates aim to harvest votes at Farmfest

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Elbow-to-elbow on the Farmfest stage in southwestern Minnesota, the five main candidates for Minnesota governor worked Wednesday to be seen as most in touch with concerns of farm country voters as two up-for-grabs primary races near an end.

It was the first and only time that all five would appear at the same forum. The debate aired live on WCCO Radio and featured DFLers Erin Murphy, Lori Swanson and Tim Walz along with Republicans Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty.

The round-robin format didn’t lend itself to much engagement among the candidates, but they covered lots of ground and occasionally jabbed at rivals in their own party and on the other side.

Reliable on renewables?

Farmers generally welcome government mandates that gasoline or diesel fuel contain additives from corn or soybeans because they provide assured outlets for crops.

So Pawlenty, the former two-term governor, wasn’t bashful about promoting his role in enacting or upping those kinds of standards during his time in office.

“There’s the unquestioned champion of renewable fuels as a governor in the state and in the modern history of the country, and he’s talking to you right now,” Pawlenty said, adding that wind and solar energy needs to be fostered and protected. “And so if you want to know what somebody is going to do about renewable energy, you look at my record. And no one has ever surpassed a commitment and drive to help greater Minnesota and rural America with those kind of approaches and value-added approaches than me."

It’s one of a few clear fault lines between Pawlenty and his primary opponent Johnson, who has the party’s endorsement in the race. Johnson said he had qualms about government being involved with the renewable fuel industry in the first place.

But he added, “While I may have my questions about it, I'm not going to pull the rug out from under that because you should ever treat people who rely on government that has created a market.”

The three DFL candidates described themselves as renewable energy supporters, promoting what they’ve done to help make them happen and what could be done to expand on existing goals.

“Why would we spend a billion dollars a day in getting our energy from countries that hate us when they’ll hate us for free and we can create jobs all across Minnesota? That’s what we do,” said Walz.

Troubled by tariffs

Candidates from both parties raised concerns about President Donald Trump's trade policies that have led to retaliation against farm products.

There was broad agreement that the state's agriculture sector faces damage from Trump's tariff standoff with China.

Murphy, the endorsed DFL candidate, said a proposed Trump administration aid package will simply mask farmer concerns. She said as governor she would embark on trade missions to find new markets. 

“The erratic behavior coming out of Washington D.C., on tariffs and the trade war, we're going to have a problem here in Minnesota with pork farmers and soybean farmers in the immediate future when we see a loss of sales to China and to Mexico,” Murphy said. “But that will continue next year when we have depressed bean prices. But that will spill over into corn.”

Swanson, the three-term attorney general, said she fears other countries will look elsewhere for their farm goods before long, closing off markets for Minnesota farmers. 

Pawlenty was also critical of the tariffs, saying the Trump administration needs to be tough on China but be mindful of the collateral damage of doing so.

“We shouldn’t be tough on our farmers,” Pawlenty said. “My message to Washington is going to be: If you’re going to get the better deal, get the better deal. But in the meantime, don’t trigger a trade war that hurts our Minnesota soybean growers and many other farmers across this state.” 

Better on buffers

Retiring Gov. Mark Dayton's water quality policy is a flashpoint in the race to choose his successor. 

Dayton's law requiring farmers to keep land buffers between their crops and waterways came in for criticism from Pawlenty and Johnson. They told the Farmfest audience that farmers were treated as adversaries in the process, and the agriculture rules could be revisited if they win.

“Our state agencies or some of our state agencies have become so arrogant that they don’t care, and that absolutely has to change,” Johnson said. He said some regulators should have to spend at least a couple days per year working for the people they regulate.

Walz said he also would have approached the policy development and implementation differently. Walz noted he’s worked with farmers on details of three federal farm bills so has a good rapport with the agriculture sector.

“Whether it’s farming and water, whether it’s mining and water, whether it’s lumbering and water or whether it’s urban sprawl and water, we’re going to need a proven leader that brings people together to solve these problems,” Walz said.

Swanson also said she’d involve the agriculture sector more in developing policies, saying there were problems with the buffer strip rollout. She said she supports tax credits to compensate farmers who have to take land out of production to allow for the shore setbacks.

“Most farmers would agree that water is important. After all, you live on the land, you drink the water. It’s your wells. There is a common interest in making sure you have clean water to drink.”

Road testing fall themes

Walz has been running on a “One Minnesota” theme, aimed at telling voters from different reaches of the state that they can rally around a common cause. (His DFL challengers have made similar pitches under other slogans.)

“Minnesota is stronger when we recognize the state works as one,” Walz said.

Pawlenty mocked Walz’s branding.

“The vision is definitely in ‘One Minnesota.’ The problem is what’s really going on with my Democratic friends on this panel is they want one Minneapolis: higher taxes for everybody, they want more spending out-of-control for everybody, they want sanctuary cities or sanctuary states, they want government to take over their health care,” Pawlenty said.

Swanson, speaking after Pawlenty, pushed back.

“We do best as a state when we don't pit the rural against the suburban against the metro but when we operate as a single, one Minnesota,” she said.

But the DFLers gave it back to Pawlenty in other parts of the debate. Walz, for instance, brought up local government aid cuts under Pawlenty, which put pressure on property taxes.