Congressman Keith Ellison and GOP challenger Chris Fields squared off for the first time on Wednesday at a State Fair debate.
While a raucous crowd of supporters cheered, booed and heckled, the candidates staked out polar-opposite positions on almost every issue, from jobs to health care to the deficit to which of them is doing more to help the struggling residents of north Minneapolis.
"I'm running because I believe everybody counts and everybody matters," Ellison said, kicking off the debate at the Minnesota Public Radio booth by quoting the slogan printed on the green T-shirts of his supporters in the audience.
"Our country is in the midst of a huge national debate. That debate is what is the proper role of government. Does government have a responsibility to work with the private sector to make sure that all Americans and all Minnesotans have a quality life? I believe that it does."
Fields, a long-shot candidate who has raised $1 in donations to every $10 the incumbent has raised this year, had a large, boisterous group of backers in the audience. They cheered as he poked fun at Ellison's fundraising and questioned whether Ellison has done enough to help his constituents.
"He looks more like the 1 percent than any of us do," Fields said, mocking the incumbent's $1.4 million-plus in fundraising. "[Ellison] has done nothing to wow us, he's done nothing to support us, to support the hard-working families."
The two sparred over their jobs proposals: Ellison wants to invest in infrastructure and energy to increase jobs; Fields called on Congress to do more to encourage small business and to stop taxing tips in the service industry.
Fields' supporters booed Ellison when he announced his support for the Obama administration's health care overhaul. Ellison repeatedly suggested that the audience run Fields' talking points on health care through media fact-checking sites because most, he said, have been debunked.
Fields said he was "in this race because my opponent's lack of focus and the failed policies that he has supported have hurt veterans, seniors, the middle class, our students and our minority communities." He said he would provide "focused attention needed to move us forward."
Ellison said rhetoric such as Fields' is part of the reason for Congress' subterranean approval rating. "We should never let them denigrate the government that way," Ellison said. "Because it's our democratic government."
The debate might not have changed many minds in the audience, but the people who came to hear their candidates talk left satisfied by what they heard.
"I've lived through socialism," said Fatima Franzen of Shakopee, who wore her Chris Fields shirt to the fair. Born in Kenya, not far from the village where the president's father was born, Franzen said she fears the policies Ellison supports. "This is very personal for me because I came to the United States for opportunities and freedom -- and to see our country just going to hell and losing everything? This is just round two of socialism."
Carol Bergh of St. Paul, sporting a "Keep Calm and Vote Obama" button, came to the debate to hear what Ellison had to say.
"I'm not in Keith Ellison's district, but I follow Democratic politics a lot and support that outlook on life and that attitude toward people. I'm very interested and encouraged by what Keith is doing for north Minneapolis and Minnesota," she said. "I hope some of the people supporting Chris will listen to some of the things Keith has been doing ... There are people who are very exuberant on both sides, and there was starting to get a little anger there."
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049