One candidate grew up on a farm, one in a rural community and one sat on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.
The three Democratic-Farmer-Laborite governor candidates sounded a lot alike Wednesday when they opposed more regulation of farmers and decried escalating property taxes. They all supported biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel and blasted Republican candidate Tom Emmer and retiring Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
But they, often subtly, differentiated themselves by talking about their background during a governor candidate forum in the middle of the annual FarmFest show in southwestern Minnesota.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minnesota House speaker, was not shy talking about being raised on a Mankato-area farm and her tenure as a local dairy princess and state 4-H president.
Former state Rep. Matt Entenza frequently mentioned his Worthington roots (he moved there to live with his grandmother when he was 15) and later talked about his extensive campaigning in farm country.
Mark Dayton discussed, usually in an off-handed manner, his one term in the U.S. Senate, never mentioning that he served on the Agriculture Committee, but recounting some of the ideas he promoted in Washington.
The FarmFest forum often is the first for Minnesota campaigns, but with the primary bumped up to next Tuesday (a month earlier than usual), the rural Redwood County event is the next-to-last joint meeting of the candidates. They face off in a Minnesota Public Radio debate Sunday night.
It appeared the FarmFest crowd received Kelliher the best of the three, but Emmer received still more applause throughout the forum from the traditionally Republican-leaning farmer crowd.
When an ag finance official asked about what they would do to help farming survive long term, Kelliher pointed to the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute tent near where the forum was held.
"I fought hard to make sure their budget was restored," she said, after Pawlenty recommended a large cut in the Crookston-based organization that looks for innovative ways to market farm-related products.
She said the campaign is all about jobs, such as AURI can produce.
Dayton used a question about property tax increases, which farmers say is one of their biggest problems, to promote his tax-the-rich plan.
While Dayton’s plan is best known for increasing income taxes on couples earning more than $150,000 a year, he also would increase property taxes on rich Minnesotans.
"We need to make the richest people in this state pay their fair share of taxes," he said.
The current tax system, he added, is "fundamentally wrong, fundamentally unfair."
Entenza said no-new-taxes plans such as Emmer and Pawlenty promote force up property taxes while giving a break to the rich.
"No-new-taxes means it will trickle down to you," Entenza told hundreds of farmers dressed in jeans. "They have not been helping the farms here in southwest Minnesota. They have been helping the mansions around Lake Minnetonka."
Kelliher promoted her idea to cap how much senior citizens can pay in property taxes, saying her mother owns farmland.
Dayton added that recent reductions in money the state sends local governments and schools drive up property taxes. Anyone who does not agree does not understand finances, he said.
"Farmers have got to make a profit in the marketplace, as my family did in retailing," added Dayton, an heir to a department store fortune.
Entenza hit a Republican health-care proposal that would allow Minnesota farmers and others to buy insurance policies from other states.
"Selling Arkansas health policies in Minnesota is not going to cut it," he said, indicating that those policies would not give care as good as now received.
Entenza also complained that legislative leaders and Pawlenty approved a General Assistance Medical Care plan for poor Minnesotans that costs rural hospitals too much for them to participate.
All three DFLers said they liked the subsidies the state had paid to ethanol producers and after the Forum Kelliher said he would like to see something like that continue for the next generation of ethanol.
Most American ethanol today is made from corn, but a more efficient ethanol is in the works that could be made from switch grass or wood pulp.
Entenza said that the grass- or wood-based ethanol is part of his plan for alternative fuels.
While Entenza and Dayton did not go so far as to want to emulate the ethanol payments that now are winding down, Kelliher did: "Producer payments have been successful in getting the industry going."