Stark differences on taxes, spending and education emerged Friday as gubernatorial rivals Tim Walz and Jeff Johnson squared off at the Minnesota State Fair.
The debate at the fairground's Dan Patch Park, sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio, attracted a boisterous and divided crowd that heartily cheered and booed both candidates. After one batch of jeers, Johnson said, "I love the tolerance of the left."
Following three more genial encounters, the candidates also aimed pointed words at each other with Election Day just over nine weeks away.
Johnson called Walz a "feel-good candidate" with unrealistic goals. Walz in turn criticized Johnson for dwelling on the state's problems. "I don't believe Minnesota is failing," Walz said. "I believe in this state and I'm optimistic."
Johnson, a Republican Hennepin County commissioner, said he supports overall cuts in the state human services and welfare budgets and would audit other programs to find ways to trim spending.
In response to a question about which government initiatives deserve more dollars, he said, "I'm not sure where we should be spending more, because we've seen a 53 percent increase in state spending in the last eight years." Johnson identified his priorities as public safety and education.
His opponent, Johnson said, has made "40 promises to increase spending, many of them by a lot," and delivering those pledges would require "huge increases" in taxes.
"That is not true," said Walz, a DFLer who represents the First Congressional District in the U.S. House. "I have been honest enough with folks to tell them we need to look at the gas tax" to fund transportation infrastructure upgrades.
Minnesotans, Walz said, are "willing to pay their fair share" to invest in education and people's futures. He promised to identify inefficiencies in state programs and make cuts where necessary.
The candidates tangled again when asked how they would close the racial achievement gap in education. Johnson proposed giving parents more choices and control and incorporating successful approaches developed by charter schools.
Walz, a teacher, said that more investments must be made in schools and charged that Johnson's budget cuts "will exacerbate the gap … rather than closing it."
Johnson's reply: "Once again the entire answer is we just have to spend more money."
On health care, the candidates agreed the cost of doctors and drugs should be more transparent, but parted ways on a Walz plan to expand MinnesotaCare and make it available to everyone.
The candidates also traded barbs on guns and climate change. Johnson said school districts should be able to "allow someone with training to actually carry a weapon" inside schools "to protect our kids." Walz called that idea "not the right way to go."
After acknowledging that climate change is real, Johnson said he opposes policy changes that "completely reorder our economy" without evidence "that it's actually going to work." Walz called climate change "an existential threat" and described President Donald Trump's exit from the Paris climate accord as "reckless."
Earlier, Johnson pivoted from a question about Trump to asking Walz about the future of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a DFL candidate for state attorney general who has been accused of domestic abuse.
After saying that he supports the direction Trump is taking the country but doesn't always agree with the president, Johnson said, "If you want to play this game, then you better start asking about where does Tim stand with Keith Ellison, for example."
In response, Walz noted that, unlike Trump, he will attend the funeral for U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Decency must rule," he said.
Walz added that allegations involving Ellison "must be taken seriously" and should be investigated. If there's proof of wrongdoing, he said, Ellison could be asked to "step aside."