By Don Davis
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s challenger raised the temperature of the campaign Tuesday by saying the governor showed “breathtaking incompetence” in establishing the state-run health insurance marketplace and an abrupt about-face on a controversial sex offender issue.
Republican candidate Jeff Johnson’s comments were by far the harshest of the campaign and signaled the race was getting serious.
Johnson’s statement followed an announcement that the insurance company insuring more than 24,000 Minnesotans who bought health policies through the web-based MNsure marketplace no longer will participate. The challenger said that means they have to go through a problem-filled enrollment process with another insurance company later this year.
Also Tuesday, news came that the Dayton administration suddenly dropped its consideration of releasing a sex offender who has admitted molesting at least 60 women.
“I have joked throughout the campaign that as a Norwegian Lutheran from northern Minnesota, I don’t get all that worked up or all that emotional about things, but the past 24 hours and this governor have practically put me over the edge,” Johnson told reporters during a hastily called late-afternoon news conference. “I believe that the Minnesotans who are being hurt by the breathtaking incompetence of Gov. Dayton ought to be mad as hell right now and they ought not to put up with it anymore.”
Johnson has avoided such tough remarks, even in front of fellow Republicans. He often has said he is different from some in his party in that he will not be harsh. He said his Tuesday comments do not mark a departure from that, but they certainly were different from campaign stops he made as recently as Monday.
Johnson said that on the campaign trail he seldom has discussed his feeling that Dayton is incompetent, but said in answer to a question that it likely will be more prominent in his campaign as the Nov. 4 election nears.
Dayton flew back from a Washington, D.C., campaign fund-raising trip Tuesday afternoon and had little to say about Johnson.
The Democratic governor’s official office released a statement about MNsure attributed to Dayton: “A year ago, PreferredOne chose to offer its coverage at rates well below other plans on MNsure, and gained significant market share from doing so.”
PreferredOne said Tuesday that it was dropping out because of the rates and administrative problems with MNsure.
Johnson alleged that Dayton pressured PreferredOne to offer artificially low rates.
“Of course, administration officials encouraged insurers on MNsure to provide the lowest rates possible to the people of Minnesota,” Dayton campaign spokesman Jeremy Drucker said. “However, the companies were solely responsible for the rates they decided to offer.”
The other issue that Johnson addressed was the abrupt switch in the administration position about Thomas Duvall, 58, who on Tuesday was to begin a four-day hearing that may have led to his release from the state sex offender program. That hearing was canceled late Monday after the Dayton administration decided not to pursue his release, influencing Duvall to withdraw his request to be let out.
Johnson said he agreed with Dayton that Duvall should remain in treatment, but added that Dayton should not have forced Duvall’s victims to wait a year for the decision.
“After putting countless victims of one of the worst sex offenders we have seen in the state through hell for nearly a year by suggesting that he would be willing to let this guy out, the governor last night at the 11th hour…” changed his mind, Johnson said. “This matter was mismanaged.”
The governor’s office referred comment on the Duvall case to Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who released a statement: “I review these cases carefully, taking into consideration criminal history, the evaluation of our clinical staff and the review of numerous independent experts. In the case of Thomas Duvall, I changed my position based on new information and recently issued expert reports.”