By Don Davis
REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Four Republican candidates for Minnesota governor struggled to point out differences among themselves to more than 1,000 farmers and agribusiness workers at a Farmfest forum Tuesday, but had no problem criticizing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton for skipping the event.
Marty Seifert repeatedly reminded the audience attending the traditional candidate forum that “I grew up a couple miles down the road” and he is “the only rural candidate.” He got the most applause from the crowd.
Kurt Zellers played up growing up on a farm, relating to farmers when he talked about barley chaff getting inside his shirt on hot August days. He did not mention that he grew up in North Dakota.
Jeff Johnson said he would be best to help rural Minnesota because with his current Hennepin County commissioner position and growing up in Detroit Lakes, he has respect from both sides.
Scott Honour claimed no rural roots, but said lower taxes like he wants to see in Minnesota would help farmers in the audience, those who sell to them and all Minnesotans.
The four agreed that Dayton should have attended the event. As it was, he became the second incumbent governor to skip the forum in the 24 years it has been held. But the Minnesota Farmers Union announced at about the same time the GOP candidates were debating that it endorsed Dayton.
Also on the forum panel was Hannah Nicollet, the Independence Party’s endorsed candidate.
Without Dayton, the crowd watched to see how the four Republicans handled questions from farm leaders. For the most part, they put away feisty performances they have shown in a couple of recent debates.
Also, the other three did not pick on Johnson, as has happened in the past week. Johnson has the Republican Party’s endorsement and benefits it brings, such as databases of potential primary voters.
The primary that will decide the Republican nominee is Tuesday, with predictions of low turnout. Most of the candidates say that rural Minnesota will be a key factor in who wins.
The Republicans agreed that state government intrudes too much into Minnesotans’ lives, but came at it from slightly different directions.
Johnson said those in state government tend to “regulate and punish. That seems to be what everyone in these agencies thinks is their job.” He promised to improve the “attitude and culture” so state workers become helpers, not punishers.
Seifert said: “People are increasingly becoming servants of the government when government is supposed to serve the people.” He said rural Minnesotans, in particular, are “being micromanaged out of business.”
Honour’s answer to government overreach was to “get the scale of government back under control.” He frequently mentioned the need for lower taxes, including eliminating the estate tax that many farmers say prevents them from leaving their farms to their children.
Zellers said he would make government more responsive by appointing good people to Cabinet and other positions. The agriculture commissioner, for instance, “should be an advocate for agriculture,” Zellers said.
One of the questions asked of the candidates was how they would deal with railroad car shortages farmer and agribusinesses face as oil transportation has taken priority.
Zellers said the light rail in the Twin Cities “has sucked the air out of the building,” sending too much money to the passenger rail instead of roads and bridges that Republicans favor.
Honour said that using pipelines to move oil would free rail capacity for ag needs.
Seifert agreed that more pipelines are needed, but also emphasized the need to spend more money on roads.
Johnson said nearly all transportation money should be spent on roads and bridges.
Nicollet often fit in with the GOP candidates, saying that too much money and power go to the Metropolitan Council, a Twin Cities government body appointed by the governor. “They’ve been spending boatloads of money we don’t have,” she said.
The Farmers Union’s endorsement of Dayton was no surprise since the organization leans Democratic, while the Farm Bureau leans Republican.
Farmers Union President Doug Peterson said the Dayton administration has “a fierce commitment to Minnesota’s rural communities, farmers and our state’s farming tradition.” He said that with improved roads, encouraging conservation and other things Dayton has done, the governor “has a good record to run on.”