WILLMAR — The two major candidates for governor faced off at a debate at a technical college here Tuesday, each trying to prove that he would be a champion of greater Minnesota communities that have long felt ignored by state government.
In U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, greater Minnesota will get one of their own to lead state government for the next four years. Walz, a Democratic congressman from Mankato, has represented the First Congressional District, which cuts across the length of southern Minnesota from Wisconsin to South Dakota.
Johnson, a Republican, is a native of Detroit Lakes, a farming community and resort spot east of Fargo. Johnson says that’s where the similarities end.
“You can’t promise the world to everyone and then claim you’re going to be careful with our money,” said Johnson, attacking Walz as a big spender whose plans would require higher taxes.
Walz offered an ambitious vision for the state: “I am not interested in making Minnesota into a mediocre state. That means we need to work together for a world-class education, access to affordable health care and to build a healthy transportation system.”
Despite Walz’s home base in southern Minnesota, he’ll have to work hard to win over greater Minnesota, where Republicans have been on a steady march, especially since 2014, when they flipped the Minnesota House, mostly by turning rural districts Republican red.
But greater Minnesota communities face a complex set of policy challenges that don’t always fit neatly into an ideological box.
Newly elected Republican lawmakers from greater Minnesota have pushed for lower taxes and less burdensome regulations, such as mandated buffers to protect waterways from farm pollution.
A Johnson administration would allow Republicans to finally make progress on those long-standing goals after current DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who is not running again, largely stymied them.
But outstate communities also want better internet broadband access and more aid from state government to cities and townships to keep property taxes down, which will cost money that Walz has pledged to spend.
“There are some communities where a large portion of their budget is funded by [local government aid],” said Marty Seifert, a former Republican lawmaker who lives in Marshall and is a lobbyist for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
“[Johnson’s] time in the Legislature is when we pulled back on local government aid,” Walz said during the debate, referring to Johnson’s three terms in the House. “The property tax shift still falls upon you.”
Rural regions also face twin challenges whose presence together seems paradoxical: The farm economy is struggling, but other outstate businesses can’t find enough workers.
“Businesses are short employees all over the place,” Seifert said. Greater Minnesota communities are asking lawmakers and the next governor to figure out how to solve housing and child care shortages.
As for ag land, however, “bottom lines are really tight,” said Adam Birr, executive director the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.
Farmers face low prices and the prospect of an ongoing trade war with China that has destroyed profits.
That in turn has farmers concerned about health insurance premiums, Birr said.
Although the debate was about greater Minnesota issues, the most passionate sparring came in a discussion about the issue that has consumed American politics for a decade: health care.
Johnson wants to allow consumers to buy less expensive plans that would cover fewer medical procedures. Walz wants to allow Minnesotans to buy into a public insurance program called MinnesotaCare.
Minnesota Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said voters he talks to while door knocking remain concerned about health care, followed by need for broadband in small townships desperate for better internet access.
Willmar’s dynamic political complexion embodies some of the changes roiling greater Minnesota: Once a swing area that elected moderates from both parties, it has shifted more toward Republicans in recent years, re-electing Baker by a wide margin in 2016.
But growing immigrant populations that have come here for jobs has Minnesota Democrats looking for new opportunities.
“Voters at the doors appear to be very engaged for a midterm, and they wanna talk about national politics. I have to remind them I don’t work in Washington, I work in St. Paul,” said Baker, who is running for a third term against Anita Flowe.
Indeed, at the Oaks at Eagle Creek, the restaurant Baker owns in Willmar, voters said they are not very tuned in to local races.
Dan Martens, a chef, said he’s focused on national politics, ready to elect Democrats who will act as a check on President Donald Trump.
“We absolutely have to take back the [U.S.] House and impeach him,” said Martens.
Ben Hooper, the Oaks bartender who is trying to break into real estate, demurred about his political leanings, not wanting to offend potential clients and customers.
He said the tense political atmosphere can easily be found outside the metro.
“It’s so in people’s faces. You can’t even really talk about it without offending someone,” he said.