By Don Davis
Minnesota governor candidates who often deliver long campaign speeches neatly summarized their differences during their final debate
“Minnesota is moving forward,” Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday night, pointing to the fact that more people are employed now than when he took office nearly four years ago and that education has received more money.
“We need to have an engaged governor,” countered Republican Jeff Johnson, who added that Dayton frequently has not known what was in bills he signed.
The two comments echoed, in short form, what the competitors have said for the past month. Those simple comments were accentuated Friday night with frequent jabs at each other and demands to “let me finish” as both candidates often tried to talk at the same time.
In the Halloween night debate on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” show, to be rerun throughout the weekend of public television stations serving Minnesota, Johnson and Dayton were serious and determined to make their last major pitch to voters before Tuesday’s election.
Johnson said a “fundamental difference” between the candidates is over his proposal to audit every state program to determine what needs to continue. Dayton, Johnson said, thinks state money is being well spent, but he argued that is not the case.
“To imply that the state is just throwing money blindly at programs, that just is not true,” Dayton said.
On education, Johnson charged that Dayton makes decisions based on what the teachers’ union wants.
“If you think that, you don’t understand my 37 years of public service,” Dayton rebutted.
The two also argued about how to respond to a federal judge who says the state needs to change how it handles sex offenders. If the state does not take action, the judge could order his own changes, that could cost the state more than leaders want to pay, or sex offenders could be released.
Dayton blamed House Republicans for refusing to work with him and other legislators to make needed sex offender law changes. Without them on board, he said, it did not make sense to move forward with legislation.
“You had the opportunity to do it, governor, and you didn’t,” Johnson said.
“It is easy to stand on the sideline and throw rocks,” Dayton responded.
Neither candidate gave a solution to the problem.
Five names appear on Minnesota’s governor ballot Tuesday, but only Johnson and Dayton have achieved any traction. The Independence Party’s Hannah Nicollet appeared in two debates, but she has raised so little money and received such low poll numbers that she is a minor factor in the race.
For much of the campaign, Dayton and Johnson gave voters few specifics, but details began coming to the surface in October.
When he ran four years ago, his second try at the governor’s office, Dayton promised to raise taxes on the rich and increase education spending. He achieved his goals, mostly because two years ago voters put fellow Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate. But he also was part of a 2011 government shutdown when he and Republican legislative leaders could not agree on a budget.
Johnson’s campaign has attacked Dayton over several specific issues, especially the state-run MNsure online health insurance site. Johnson was critical that Dayton said rates would rise 4.5 percent next year, although it appears most Minnesotans will pay much higher increases than that. He also accused Dayton of pressuring PreferredOne insurance company to charge too little for premiums last year.
While one of Dayton’s commissioners did ask PreferredOne to consider lowering its initial rates, Dayton told reporters Wednesday that he intentionally stayed out of the discussion because it would have been inappropriate for him to be involved.
Dayton likes to talk about gains in employment around the state in the past four years, while Johnson says that even though more Minnesotans are employed today, many do not hold jobs as good as they should.
Johnson and Dayton each have raised about $2 million this year, although Dayton has gathered in more for the entire campaign cycle. Groups other than the campaigns spent nearly $5 million on the governor’s race as of Oct. 20, with Dayton getting the most benefit.
The person who wins Tuesday will receive $123,912 in pay next year. The governor serves a four-year term.
The incumbent governor, 67, has spent nearly 40 years in government jobs and public office. However, his first four-year term in as the top state official has proven to be his favorite job, he says. Dayton has been elected state auditor and U.S. senator as well as serving in top posts in the Gov. Rudy Perpich administration.
Johnson, 47, likes to point out that he has lived nearly half his life in greater Minnesota, unlike Dayton. Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and attended college in Moorhead, before leaving for a while. He is a lawyer who served in the state House and serves on the Hennepin County board. He lost the 2006 attorney general race.