NISSWA, MINN. – In their first two debates since winning their parties’ nominations, Minnesota’s candidates for governor disagreed at forums Friday morning and Friday night on health care, school vouchers and other issues, but they did so genially and without insults.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the DFL candidate, and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who won Tuesday’s Republican primary, set the stage for a fall campaign that reflects their parties’ broad policy differences. The two sparred before an audience in Nisswa and later held their first televised debate Friday night on TPT’s “Almanac.”
Their most stark dispute in the Nisswa debate came in response to questions about the effect of the state’s income and property taxes on economic development.
“We simply tax much more than any state around us,” Johnson said, pledging that he’d cut taxes as governor.
“He just closed the door on any potential negotiation,” Walz said, adding that a governor can’t allow himself to be locked into “a box that does not allow you ideologically to have that discussion.”
Earlier, in response to a question about how to fund improvements in transportation infrastructure, Walz said he was open to an increase in the state gas tax. He did not specify an amount.
The candidates also parted ways on single-payer health care. Walz indicated support while Johnson did not.
Walz, a public school teacher, rejected the idea of school vouchers that would allow parents to remove their children from failing schools. Johnson said he’d give parents “complete choice,” including allowing them in some circumstances to remove staff from failing schools or move to open charter schools instead.
And they disagreed on climate change. Walz said cutting carbon use is necessary and the state could grow its economy by encouraging the development of wind and biofuel energy.
Johnson described himself as a conservationist when it comes to clean air and water but disputed the notion that government must impose responses to climate issues.
Asked if the state should financially support the development of renewable energy, Johnson said, “No, the government should not be putting its thumb on the scale. … I hate it when government decides ‘we know what’s best for you.’ ”
There were areas of agreement. Both said they back oil pipelines and mining.
They also found common ground on the need to repair dysfunction in the Legislature. Walz nodded when his rival lamented chaos and closed-door meetings.
The pair applauded each other’s opening statements and vowed to conduct campaigns free of harsh commentary. And Walz laughed heartily when Johnson said the state’s leaders shouldn’t get paid if they can’t produce a budget on time, then joked that his wife wouldn’t agree.
As the 90-minute debate concluded, both candidates were asked to define the biggest differences and agreements between them.
“Jeff is an honorable man,” Walz said. They disagree, he said, on their attitudes about government’s role. Walz said he believes that “things can be done in the common good.”
Johnson complimented Walz and said, “The big picture is that I believe that in pretty much every case individuals are going to make better decisions than government.”
More than 300 people listened attentively but applauded sparingly.
Later Friday, the two met inside a St. Paul TV studio to discuss some of the same issues and answer questions on “Almanac” about immigration, diversity and guns.
Johnson, who has pushed for a pause on refugee resettlement, singled out the city of St. Cloud, saying there is a significant concern about costs of refugee resettlement to cities and counties. Walz disagreed, arguing that refugees add to economic growth.
When asked if he would favor a program like Dayton’s that would encourage hiring more people of color, Johnson said no. “We are so hyper-focused on the color of someone’s skin,” he said.
But Walz said government should reflect the state’s growing diversity, adding that “everything we do should be seen through that equity lens.”
While the candidates agreed that there is a real urban-rural divide and that there are problems with local government aid, they disagreed on most everything else.
“We get along well,” Walz said at one point when TPT’s Cathy Wurzer and Eric Eskola commented on the two rivals having fun.
On Saturday, the DFL state executive committee will decide whether to endorse Keith Ellison for attorney general after an allegation of domestic abuse. When asked what he would do if he were on the committee, Walz said, “I don’t know enough about it. You have to find the truth.”
Johnson said that as a former labor lawyer, “I’m a strong believer in due process.”
Walz, who was previously backed by the National Rifle Association, now supports an assault weapons ban and has donated his past NRA contributions to charity. When asked about that Friday night, he said that as a father and teacher, he was greatly affected by the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.
“The country’s changed, the NRA’s changed,” he said.
Johnson shot back: “This is just politics as usual,” adding that Walz was changing his views to appeal to voters statewide.
Asked if the gubernatorial election will be a referendum on Trump, Johnson said “no.’’ The president tweeted his endorsement of Johnson after his primary win. Johnson said Friday the president also called him to congratulate him.
“It’s divisive,” Walz said of Trump’s politics.
After an hour of rapid-fire questions, the candidates were asked which promise they think their opponent won’t be able to keep if elected. Walz questioned whether Johnson will be able to unite the two parties if he follows Trump’s divisive tactics.
Johnson said he doesn’t think Walz will be able to keep “all of his promises to spend more on everything under the sun.”
The candidates will debate again Saturday.
Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.